In Memoriam: Sherwyn Cotovsky, Sherwyn’s Health Food Shoppe

Former employee Neil Edward Levin, CCN, DANLA, remembers the industry pioneer.

Sherwyn Cotovsky, the longtime owner of Sherwyn’s Health Food Shoppe in Chicago, Illinois, passed away on February 18th, 2024, at the age of 86. He is survived by his widow, Gail, his daughter and her family, and his brother Brandt and his wife. 

Sherwyn was a prominent natural products retailer from 1972 until 2007. He was respected in the industry for his knowledge of nutrition and for his very successful business, which won widespread acclaim. 

In his earlier life, Sherwyn worked for Chicago Bridge and Iron Company, and even received a patent for a method of welding dissimilar metals together. 

Later, Sherwyn worked for as a commodities trader before cashing out his seat to purchase a small health food store on Chicago’s north side, in the Lakeview area just north of Lincoln Park. Renaming it Sherwyn’s Health Food Shoppe, the store continued growing for decades. 

Sherwyn’s became the most prominent health food store in the Chicagoland area. Until the large national or regional chains started opening in Chicago around 1993, his store was the busiest and most famous natural products retailer in the area. After the natural supermarkets did start opening stores in the area, an estimated dozen natural products retailers on the city’s north side went out of business, while Sherwyn’s not only survived but started growing again.

One of the reasons for this success was the talent Sherwyn had for hiring knowledgeable people to work in the store. At one time in the mid-1990s there were five certified clinical nutritionists working in the location, including a Ph.D. Sherwyn also employed other health professionals, including acupuncturists and herbalists. 

Some of his former employees (Mark J. Kaylor, Stuart Tomc, and myself) still work in the industry and are national educators for well-known companies; evidencing the deep pool of talent that he cultivated. In the 1990s, local television news stations would frequently come to Sherwyn’s to get both images and interviews about products in the news, such as melatonin and DHEA; a reflection of both the expertise and the great selection of products available at the store. Sherwyn and his employees were also frequently interviewed for industry trade magazines. Sherwyn employed state-licensed nutritionists to offer nutritional counseling at low cost to his customers; he himself was a certified clinical nutritionist. And natural products brokers would often bring their new products to Sherwyn’s first, to get the take of his knowledgeable staff as to what reception they could expect in the marketplace.

Sherwyn’s became well-known for having a remarkably wide range of product selection, starting with the supplement department. Set up by categories rather than by brands, his knowledgeable staff was able to quickly find products that consumers needed and suggest options where needed. It is no accident that traveling actors and musicians would come to the store or send staff to get hard-to-find items while on tour. Artists and actors including Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, the Grateful Dead, Donny Osmond, John Cusack, Bill Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, Laurence Fishburne, Daniel J. Travanti, and Nick Nolte enjoyed food, supplements, and other purchases from Sherwyn’s while in Chicago. 

Sherwyn also had large personal care and food sections. One example of his quest to have comprehensive product sections was an eight foot-wide array of honey from around the world. His large personal care section employed both a cosmetologist and an esthetician, both licensed to apply make-up and do demos. 

Sherwyn was famous for having standards that shunned refined ingredients such as cane sugar and white flour. He said “no” to artificial flavors, sweeteners, and colors; he also rejected synthetic vitamin E and hydrogenated oils. His produce section featured 100% organic offerings, which were also used in his juice bar. 

Sherwyn’s was also a place that accepted LGTBQ people as employees and managers, as well as customers. Its nutritional staff even produced a protocol for people with HIV in the 1980s, and after 10 years reported that none of their clients had died of AIDS. The store also supported first responders, including police and firefighters, with a store discount. Always a discounter, Sherwyn offered not only an everyday discount on products at the shelf level to his customers, but also offered Sherwyn Dollars redeemable for products at the store in amounts that increased with the amount of purchase.

Sherwyn also supported the industry and collaborated with competitors. One example of this is the creation of the cooperative retail group The Natural Way, Inc. Founded by Fruitful Yield president Al Powers, this Chicagoland collective of some 30 independent retailers became a franchiser that allowed these local retailers to develop advertising and everyday low prices by working with local distributors HFI (Health Foods Incorporated; later Tree of Life and KeHE) and Palko, national supplement companies, and food brokers. Sherwyn and I would attend weekly meetings near O’Hare airport to discuss and negotiate deals with supply side representatives who came in for appointments. Today we have the INFRA group doing much the same thing on a national scale.

Sherwyn’s also contributed to the passage of DSHEA in 1994, which established a legal framework for  dietary supplement regulation in the United States. The store not only participated in the nationwide blackout, hanging black cloth across the vitamin section so the staff could discuss why we needed to pass that law and collect hundreds of customer signatures on petitions, but also allowed consumers to phone congressional offices from the store. As then-manager, I also spoke at a rally at the Federal Building in downtown Chicago to raise support for the bill.

Today, there are literally hundreds of former employees who remember their time at Sherwyn’s Health Food Shoppe fondly because of the spirit, camaraderie, and learning environment. And there are many thousands of consumers who relied on that store and its staff to help them meet their health needs for about 1/3 of a century.