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Josephine Antoci: Erewhon’s viral tastemaker to the stars

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 Josephine Antoci
Josephine Antoci, photographed at Erewhon in Santa Monica on Aug. 11.

What Josephine Antoci likes, Erewhon sells. And if Erewhon sells it — sea moss gels, kale chips, bone broth tonics, paleo bagels, celebrity smoothies — it’s almost guaranteed to become a viral sensation among the hot and health-obsessed.

Antoci is co-owner and chief tastemaker of the hyper-trendy luxury organic grocer: first in line to vet and sample every prospective product, and the final authority on which ones make the cut.

“I respect the level of influence that I have, but I don’t view myself as a trendsetter,” she said. “I’m never trying to chase the next big thing.”

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Erewhon has been the biggest thing in the grocery business since Antoci and her husband, Tony, bought the Los Angeles company in 2011 and gave its one remaining store an aesthetic glow-up and merchandise overhaul.

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The revitalized Erewhon shot to cult status, fueled by frequent A-list sightings and an army of lifestyle influencers who obsessively documented their grocery pilgrimages on social media. What was once a mundane chore had turned into a super-premium, brag-worthy experience.

One store became 10. The Kardashians, the Biebers and the Beckhams are regulars. Erewhon-branded merch, including $185 hoodies and $150 sweatpants, is an actual thing. For a certain demographic, visiting an Erewhon for a combo plate with vegan buffalo cauliflower is a tourist bucket-list item and passes as a reasonable first-date activity.

All of the chain’s locations are in affluent areas — Beverly Hills, Calabasas, Culver City and Venice among them — and their meticulously curated, endlessly photographed shelves are a reflection of Antoci’s discerning palate, rigorous quality standards and impeccable eye for identifying the next wellness craze.

On a Friday morning last summer, Antoci, 57, arrived at the Santa Monica Erewhon fresh from a workout and asked the store director for a $15 Post Workout Smoothie, a gluten-free blend of organic blueberries, organic chia seeds, organic coconut water, lucuma, maca and vanilla collagen. It’s one of the lesser-known drinks at the tonic bar, the top seller still being Hailey Bieber’s Strawberry Glaze Skin Smoothie, which Antoci said is purchased between 45,000 and 50,000 times a month companywide.

Antoci has lived in L.A. ever since leaving Taipei, Taiwan, where she was born and raised, to move in with a cousin in Cheviot Hills at 18. She got her GED and attended Santa Monica College for a couple of years before transferring to UCLA, where she majored in economics.

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Within weeks of immigrating, she met Tony Antoci at a Chinese takeout restaurant in Beverly Hills that was owned by her extended family. They had their first date at Magic Mountain, married eight years later and have three children, all now in their 20s and employed by Erewhon.

The Antocis previously owned a food distribution business called Superior Anhausner Foods that sold groceries and supplies to restaurants around Southern California. She worked in sales; after the couple sold the company in 2009 to wholesale juggernaut Sysco, running a grocery store seemed like a logical pivot.

At Erewhon, Josephine is president and Tony is chief executive. He manages the behind-the-scenes business operations, she said, while “I handle everything that you can see.”

Antoci settled into a corner table on the store’s elevated, planter-box-filled patio with her smoothie, the deep purple concoction a striking contrast against her sleek all-black outfit: thin black sweater, loose satiny black pants, chunky black sunglasses and braided black platform sandals.

‘Those cool new weird things are what make us special, and her testing every single week, for hours on end, is what makes this place Erewhon. Her thing is like, “If I wouldn’t bring it into my house, I’m not going to bring it into the store.”’

— Alec Antoci, vice president of brand and marketing at Erewhon, on his mother’s buying philosophy

She took a sip of her Post Workout Smoothie. “Very clean,” she said, not overly sweet, packed with protein and electrolytes, and free of bananas (she doesn’t care for them right after exercising). Despite rumors, Antoci said the many stars who have had a featured smoothie at Erewhon — the list includes Gisele Bündchen, Olivia Rodrigo and Kendall Jenner — don’t pay for the honor; instead, Erewhon donates $2 per smoothie sold to a charity of the celebrity’s choice.

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Antoci is high-energy yet down-to-earth, warm and engaging but direct about what she wants — especially when it comes to the stores. She drops in unannounced several times a week, inspecting the displays, rearranging items herself and flagging down the head chef if she notices a dish in the cafe looks wilted or undersauced.

Thousands of brands large and small try to make it into Erewhon every year, hoping to tap into the elite grocery chain’s coveted customer base: generally young, eager to spend on whatever is in at the moment and likely to hype it on TikTok and Instagram. Antoci is the gatekeeper, so everyone wants to know what she likes.

Josephine Antoci

In Erewhon’s produce department and in its tonic bars and cafes, her top priority is using organic ingredients.

With packaged products, Antoci scrutinizes every ingredient profile. She oversees a methodical review process that begins with an online submission form, which encourages vendors to “source local, organic, non-GMO, sustainable, biodynamic and/or regenerative-farmed ingredients that cater to multiple dietary preferences.”

Products must be free of processed sugar, bleached flour, canola oil and yeast extracts. Another red flag is anything heavily processed, she said.

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Brands that clear the prescreening hurdle are invited to submit samples. Once a week, Antoci drives across town to Erewhon’s downtown headquarters, where she and two small teams — one for grocery, the other for health and beauty — gather in a conference room and tear open packages of protein powders and superfood balls, dip into jars of bone broth and slather hyaluronic sea serums onto their faces. Sometimes she’ll take products back to her Brentwood home for further testing and to seek input from her family.

“She says no 99% of the time,” said Alec Antoci, 25, the eldest of her three children and Erewhon’s vice president of brand and marketing.

Alec spent his teens and early 20s helping out around Erewhon, a fast-tracked corporate education that included partaking in the human guinea pig sample sessions led by his mother. Antoci has a sly sense of humor, and Alec laughed as he told stories of how, affecting an innocent expression, she would urge employees to taste bizarre products, and the time they tried too many CBD edibles.

“If she’s never seen it before, she’s like, ‘Let’s try it, let’s bring it in, it’s got benefits, it’s good for you, it’s clean,’” he said. “It’s just trying to see trends like that and really try to forward-think, like, what would people want in health and wellness?”

Sometimes Erewhon will already be oversaturated in a particular category, resulting in a no. Other times, Antoci will love something so much that she’ll ask the founder to manufacture it under Erewhon’s private-label umbrella. Unlike supermarket brands where private-label is often the cheaper alternative, at Erewhon it’s positioned as a prestige line that includes olive oil, chocolate, honey, coffee, candles and dietary supplements.

Many products fall just short of getting Antoci’s stamp of approval. Say, for instance, a coconut bacon maker wants to sell at Erewhon, but the vegan snack is dusted with sugar that isn’t organic — an automatic rejection.

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“A lot of small founders will say, ‘OK, we’ll change the ingredients just for you guys,’” Antoci said. Once the item is reformulated and the packaging updated, “Then we would bring it in. If you’re a founder, getting your foot into Erewhon will get you basically anywhere, really.”

Two years ago, Antoci selected Agent Nateur, a Los Angeles skincare and supplements brand, to join the vendor lineup at Erewhon. Soon after, the brand’s $99 marine collagen and pearl powder began showing up in viral TikTok videos about “what hot girls are buying from Erewhon,” founder Jena Covello said.

The product “really catapulted after we launched it at Erewhon,” she said.

Antoci possesses a keen sense of what’s up and coming, correctly predicting several categories that went on to become big sellers at Erewhon.

“Kombucha’s something she pushed early,” Alec said. “Functional lemonades, soda alternatives and also water alternatives as well, like chlorophyll water, charcoal water, hydrogen water, oxygenated water. Those cool new weird things are what make us special, and her testing every single week, for hours on end, is what makes this place Erewhon. Her thing is like, ‘If I wouldn’t bring it into my house, I’m not going to bring it into the store.’”

Antoci possesses a keen sense of what’s up and coming, correctly predicting several categories that went on to become big sellers at Erewhon.

That’s not to say everything has to taste amazing. Alec recalled sampling a particularly foul, sticky tar-like substance called shilajit, which he described as “the worst. Like, disgusting.” But the supplement was rich in antioxidants, commonly used in ayurvedic medicine and hard to find. Antoci gave the seller the green light. Now a tiny jar is sold at Erewhon for $70.

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Antoci’s first encounter with Erewhon was in the 1990s, when one of her previous company’s restaurant clients, the chef of the legendary Rex il Ristorante in downtown L.A., placed an order for spelt. Antoci had never heard of the ancient grain but said yes, figuring she’d be able to locate it somewhere. She did, at the Erewhon store on Beverly Boulevard.

Erewhon was founded in 1966 by Japanese immigrants Michio and Aveline Kushi — pioneers of the natural-foods macrobiotic movement — who began selling imported organic goods such as brown rice and soy sauce out of their Boston home with help from their young children.

Erewhon grew to three stores and a distribution facility on the East Coast, and in 1969, the company opened a location in L.A. on Beverly Boulevard.

The Kushis sold the company in the 1970s. By the time the Antocis acquired the brand, it had dwindled to a single shabby location next to the Grove lined with bulk bins of unique grains and nuts.

Antoci preserved Erewhon’s macrobiotic, natural-foods core but gave the store the high-end modern L.A. treatment: bright, design-forward and stocked with aspirational, good-for-you products sold at steep prices.

“I want it to feel like it’s a happy place,” Antoci said. “I don’t want it to be: ‘I need to go grocery shopping and, ugh, it’s such a drag.’”

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Just as it was in its earliest days, Erewhon is again a close-knit family business. Twenty-three-year-old Austin helps his dad with Erewhon’s growing real estate portfolio — the company has been actively looking for retail space in Orange County — and Maddy, 22, is a marketing coordinator, assisting on the brand’s video and photo shoots for social media.

Their mother, Alec said, is a talented home cook who finds inspiration at the restaurants they frequent. She recently helped develop a miso black cod for Erewhon’s cafe that is similar to the iconic version at Nobu, as well as a line of wontons, dumplings and pot stickers that the grocer released in October (Din Tai Fung is one of her go-to restaurants).

“I’ve been working on this for a long time,” Antoci said. “I’ve always loved dumplings, but I can’t find organic dumplings.”

Suddenly the customer at the next table over, overhearing the conversation, leaned over.

“Are you the owner of Erewhon?” he said, then added almost breathlessly: “I’m Tanner, hi, it’s nice to meet you, I’m a big fan, I love the store.”

Tanner said he lived around the corner and had been coming to Erewhon every day to work on the patio and grab lunch (“I can eat whatever I want and I know it’s going to be healthy,” he said). Antoci glanced over at the tabletop in front of him, empty save for a can of Diet Coke.

“I bring my own because they don’t sell Diet Coke,” he said sheepishly. “People make fun of me; they’re like, ‘Where did you get that?’”

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“You know, Olipop has a low-calorie,” Antoci said, recommending a small-batch prebiotic soda that is sold at Erewhon. “Tastes like Coke.”

Tanner hesitated, looking pained at the thought of replacing his Diet Coke with a “digestive health beverage” made of plant fibers.

Antoci quickly course-corrected.

“You know — everything in moderation,” she said brightly. “Just once in a while is fine. It’s all good.”

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