The Birth of the Natural Foods Movement

Forty years ago this week, the Guru Maharaj Ji gave healthy eating an inadvertent kick-start.

November 5, 2013

In 1973, the Astrodome played host to a bizarre gathering called Millennium '73. It helped fuel the natural foods movement.

This article was adapted from material from Joe Dobrow's forthcoming history of the natural foods industry, Natural Prophets, , (Rodale Books, 2014).

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Over the years, the Houston Astrodome has hosted some of the stranger events on the planet: Evel Knievel motorcycle jumps, WrestleMania spectaculars, Elvis concerts, and the infamous 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis exhibition between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, for which she was conveyed to the court in a chair carried by four shirtless men, and he, in a rickshaw pulled by fashion models. Most of these spectacles have been condemned to history's dustbin, with few reminders other than a Wikipedia entry and an occasional cable TV retrospective.

But 40 years ago this week, the Astrodome played host to a bizarre gathering called Millennium '73, which, although largely forgotten itself, set in motion a series of events that helped lead to the creation of the modern natural foods industry. It's well worth a look back.

To understand what happened at the Astrodome between November 8th and 10th, 1973, and what didn't, it's helpful to go back even further, to the '60s, that decade of black-and-white TV and Day-Glo tie-dye, space shots and acid trips, love and Haight, the two-finger peace sign and the one-finger salute. During that confusing, belligerent, and provocative era, the search for meaning often turned eastward. Many Americans became fascinated with yoga, vegetarianism, transcendental meditation, mysticism, and other eastern exports. Ravi Shankar's sitar music became popular, and the Hare Krishna movement began in New York. Life magazine even declared 1967 "the year of the guru" after Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to the United Kingdom and led a weekend of "spiritual regeneration." (You may recall his students included the Beatles.)

And in the midst of it all came a pudgy teenager from India, the Guru Maharaj Ji, whose meditative teachings and banal messages of peace found resonance with millions of people around the world. Throughout the late '60s and early '70s, the young guru rode an incredible wave of popularity, building up to a three-day gathering he promised would be "the most holy and significant event in human history"—Millennium '73, in the Astrodome.

Prem Pal Singh Rawat was born in India in 1958, son of a revered spiritual leader. When his father died in 1966, the young boy immediately assumed the title of Satguru, "the true revealer of light and spiritual master of the divine light mission," and became known as the Guru Maharaj Ji. He told the mourners, "Dear children of God, why are you weeping? The perfect master is among you. Recognize him. Obey him and adore him."

Following his father's teachings, he encouraged people to renounce their worldly possessions and receive "the knowledge," which was described as "a direct and concrete experience of inner peace and joy" that "eradicates hatred, greed, and fear" and "contains a solution to every problem at present facing humanity." He soon articulated a rather simplistic vision of world peace and love that, in a world wracked by the war in Vietnam, was well received. On November 8, 1970, at the age of 12, Guru Maharaj Ji addressed a crowd of more than 1 million followers at Delhi's India Gate and said, "I declare I will establish peace in this world." Before long, he claimed 6 million followers worldwide, including 40,000 in America, who organized themselves in 54 ashrams, or communities, throughout the country. He established the U.S. headquarters of the Divine Light Mission (DLM) in a seven-story office building in Denver.

The DLM was serious business. Before long, it included 10 retail thrift stores, a restaurant in New York, a movie production company, a monthly magazine, three airplanes, WATS and Telex lines to connect its 154 branch offices, an IBM computer system to keep track of the skills and background of its followers, the Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness janitorial service, and, in order to feed all those people in the ashrams, a network of sophisticated natural foods co-ops called Rainbow Grocery.

One of the people drawn to the Guru Maharaj Ji was Mark Retzloff, a brilliant and incisive young graduate of the University of Michigan. While in Ann Arbor, Retzloff had cofounded one of the first serious natural foods companies in the country, Eden Foods, and through his work there had become a passionate advocate for clean farming techniques. "We didn't really know what organic was," said Retzloff, "but we knew it was without pesticides and chemicals." Part retail store, part distributor and manufacturer, Eden began to develop into a real business. But, searching for more meaning in his life, Retzloff learned about the Guru and the DLM, gave up his worldly possessions—including his ownership stake in Eden—and moved into the ashram in Denver, where he soon put his food sourcing and operational skills to work in building up the Rainbow Groceries.

It wasn't easy. Though the Guru himself showed no particular inclination toward natural and organic foods, expressing instead a preference for Hawaiian Punch and Baskin-Robbins ice cream, his acolytes, known as "Premies," did. But back in those days, long before the founding of Mrs. Gooch's, Bread & Circus, and Whole Foods, when the cheery consumerism of ads for Hamburger Helper and Fruity Pebbles obscured the artificiality of their ingredients, and still years before the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act, natural products were hard to find. Retzloff and his team stocked the Rainbow Groceries with brown rice and beans purchased from the Seventh Day Adventists. They drove to New Mexico to buy barrels of honey, and traveled to the Western Slope of the Rockies where a few old hippie farmers were growing organic apples. A little bit here, a little bit there.

Yet that was small change compared to what was to come. In 1973, the DLM decided to stage a massive event at the one place in America that was big enough and important enough to accommodate it: the Houston Astrodome. Millennium '73 would be a three-day gathering of Premies and supplicants, featuring Guru Maharaj Ji's proclamation of 1,000 years of peace. The Guru would "present to the world a plan for putting peace into effect," read their press release. "He will announce the founding of an international agency to feed and shelter the world's hungry. He will initiate the building of a Divine City that shall demonstrate to the world a way for people of all sorts to live together in harmony." Massive crowds were expected, and that meant that Mark Retzloff would have to find a way to feed them. Premies from around the country came to help. Among them was Shahid M. "Hass" Hassan, an eloquent 24-year-old of Pakistani/British heritage, who had been working in a DLM ashram in Boston.

Millennium '73 was a lavishly prepared and highly anticipated event. It was over-the-top and under-the-dome. The lead-up was accompanied by the "Soul Rush" publicity campaign that implied that something unprecedented would happen in Houston—perhaps even the appearance of aliens! Thirty-three jets were chartered to bring in faithful followers from around the world. A band called Blue Aquarius, led by Guru Maharaj Ji's 20-year-old brother, Bhole Ji, performed "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones, wearing powder-blue leisure suits. Guru Maharaj Ji himself sat on a throne in white robes or a Nehru jacket, with ornate headwear, and when he wasn't engaged in Darshan—a practice in which supplicants kissed his feet—he was giving news conferences and bantering with the press in perfect idiomatic American English ("What's up, what do you want?"…"You just don't like guys fooling around").

Rennie Davis, a prominent 32-year-old activist who had been one of the "Chicago Seven" prosecuted for their roles in disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention, opened the event by declaring, "It is not possible to understand the Middle East, or Watergate, or UFOs, or the supercomet in the sky, unless you understand the central event on this planet around which all other events now spin." He also said that the political and cultural revolution of the '60s, for which he had fought so hard, "was really all a warm-up…for the greatest transformation in the history of human civilization." An op-ed in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner wondered whether Davis had been lobotomized, and suggested that if not, he might consider it.

In the end, though, Millennium '73 was a total bust.

Only about 20,000 people attended, leaving the Astrodome feeling empty throughout the event; seven weeks earlier, the hokey "Battle of the Sexes" tennis exhibition had drawn 30,472. The press coverage of Millennium '73 and the Guru Maharaj Ji was devastating. Rolling Stone magazine, for example, ran a story entitled, "When the Lord of All the Universe Played Houston: Many Are Called but Few Show Up." Soon it came to light that the Guru Maharaj Ji had accumulated an incredible amount of wealth as applicants signed over their insurance policies, mortgages, inheritances, and trust funds to the DLM: News reports indicated that he had Rolls-Royces and Jaguars in London, a chauffeured Mercedes limousine in Denver, and mansions in Long Island, Denver, and Malibu.

Worse, the DLM was left with a debt from Millennium '73 in excess of a half-million dollars. It had to cut staff and tighten up its operations. In relatively short order, many of its subsidiary businesses were dissolved or sold off. This ultimately led to a comprehensive implosion of the entire movement that, until Houston, had seemed invincible.

Mark Retzloff remained with the DLM for a little while longer, building Rainbow Grocery into a network of seven or eight stores. Then, as tax laws forced the movement to divest itself of what were perhaps its only profitable assets, he and Hassan purchased the store at York & Colfax in Denver. But they eventually took their passion for natural foods, and the expertise in sourcing and retailing they had gained at Rainbow, to new heights. They would go on to create Pearl Street Market in Boulder, and then Alfalfa's, which became one of the leading natural foods chains of the 1980s and 1990s, bringing in $120 million annually. Retzloff would later start Horizon Organic, Aurora Organic Dairy, and a second iteration of Alfalfa's; Hassan would create a London-based retailer called Fresh & Wild, and become a longtime board member of Whole Foods. Both are revered as pioneers of the natural foods industry.

The DLM hung around, in one form or another, until 1983, when the ashrams were finally closed and the movement was renamed "Elan Vital." And the Guru Maharaj Ji? He continued to spread his message of peace through speeches, broadcasts, and events—piloting himself around the world in a leased private jet—and does to this day.

Joe Dobrow is a marketer, management scholar, historian, and journalist with two decades of experience as a top executive with some of the most prominent natural foods retailers in the U.S., including Whole Foods and Sprouts Farmers Market. A graduate of Brown and the Yale School of Management, Dobrow is the recipient of numerous awards, including Advertising Age’s Eco-Marketer of the Year (2007) and the Hub Prize for Retail Excellence (2011, 2012). He lives near Phoenix, Arizona, and in the Washington, DC, area.

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