New Life Health Center has seen the rise of other large health food chains like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, and Natural Grocers. But after nearly 50 years in business, the Tucson store is still going strong.

The storefront — on Speedway near Swan Road — is owned by Linda Burns, the wife of founder Eugene Arthur Burns.

In addition to vitamins and fresh produce, shoppers can find organic meat, dairy products, pastries, herbs, tea, snacks and health books at New Life.

New Life was founded in Tucson in 1970 by Eugene Burns, a handball athlete. After six years of competing, his health began to decline.

“My husband had back pain; he was nutritionally deficient,” said Linda Burns. “They called him the Lone Ranger, because he had black circles under his eyes because he was really anemic.”

She recalls that in 1970, Tucson had a health store called Bopp’s. “They only had pills,” she said.

Eugene Burns had befriended an employee of that store, Belle Drake, who encouraged him to open his own health food store, pledging to help him do so, and even worked for New Life for 20 years.

Eugene Burns pursued the venture, opening the Speedway storefront on Aug. 14, 1970, on a lease that was agreed on with a handshake. He went on to open 13 stores in Tucson.

When Linda Burns took over four years ago, the company was down to four stores. Now, the original storefront is its sole location. Through the rise of chain health food stores, however, New Life has persevered.

“We want to keep it going,” Linda Burns said. “It’s a Tucson icon.”

New Life is one of the few independently-owned health food stores still running in Tucson. Another is Aqua Vita Natural Food Market, on Country Club Road near Glenn Street.

The benefit of shopping local as opposed to shopping at a health food chain comes down to how well the staff knows the customers, Linda Burns says.

“When a new customer comes in, it’s overwhelming, because there’s so much to learn,” she said. “There’s new things coming out all the time. My people have that kind of knowledge.”

She added that even though the explosion of the health food industry has brought about change, it has also brought good things to her business and allows her to connect better with her customers.

“This is mostly a customer-based business,” she said, which means going to greater lengths to help them. “We do special orders, we mail out, we deliver; we do as much as we can.”

Shoppers who frequent New Life seem to agree.

Susan Cooper has been shopping there since 1988 and says what keeps her coming back is how knowledgeable the staff are.

“I recommend it to lots of people,” Cooper said, adding that chain stores like Natural Grocers and Whole Foods don’t offer the same level of helpfulness.

Amy Swift has been a New Life shopper since she moved to Tucson four years ago.

“They’re a marvelous business,” she said. “I consider them family.”

Shinai Lilly, a Tucson acupuncturist, began shopping at New Life 22 years ago. She took her commitment to the store a step further four years ago when she became an employee.

Lynn Bell, a manager at New Life for the past 18 years, has shopped there since it opened in 1970. She says she sees all kinds of people come to the store, both young and old.

“We’ve had a loyal following of people since the 70s,” she said. “We get new people all the time.”

Paul Barlyn is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact him at starapprentice@tucson.com