Ontario grocery retailer Farm Boy may be all grown up, but it has maintained its commitment to its youthful ideals: Fresh food and exceptional customer service.
It was 1981 when Jean-Louis Bellemare opened a 300 sq.-ft produce market on Cumberland Street in Cornwall, Ont. Thirty-five years later Farm Boy boasts 23 stores across the province and has a stated objective of becoming a $1 billion company by 2020.
Co-CEO Jeff York attributes Farm Boy’s longevity to its commitment to treating both its products and customers with respect. “Everything you do is to keep that customer happy and the quality of the food top-notch,” he says.
He says that Farm Boy has also succeeded by anticipating and meeting customer needs, maintaining its focus on quality fresh foods while also catering to time-starved shoppers with more prepared items. “It’s a customer-centric business,” he says. “It’s not us saying ‘We want to sell you something.’ We adapt to the changing needs of the customer.”
While the general consensus is that the grocery business is challenged by a variety of factors, including razor-thin margins and the rise of online retail, York says Farm Boy is well positioned to handle the challenges.
“There hasn’t been a better time for us,” he says. “Everyone’s retreating, thinking the internet or Amazon is going to take away their business, or their stores are too big and they need to downsize. My biggest problem right now is finding locations.”
He says that one of his biggest challenges is that landlords have made agreements with other grocery chains not to allow competitors to open in their vicinity. “I get a deal on the plaza across the street, but it’s controlled by the same landlord who says ‘I won’t put a grocery store in.’ Grocers are very territorial and tough negotiators with landlords, so they have these deals where the landlords’ hands are tied.”
Farm Boy is celebrating its milestone 35th anniversary on Saturday, although co-CEO Jeff York says the celebration is limited strictly to its hometown. “We wanted to keep it special and hyper-local,” says York. “To put a 35th anniversary in London… well, we’ve only been there for four years.”
The daylong celebration in Cornwall includes in-store specials, samples, face painting and a visit from the store’s mascot, Lulu the Cow. Farm Boy has also issued a throwback flyer featuring the original Farm Boy logo and a series of front-page specials with prices all ending in 35 cents – including 35-cent bananas, $1.35 for a 10lb bag of PEI potatoes, and $4.35 for a bag of Farm Boy brand easy peel raw shrimp.
The flyer also recognizes five staffers who have spent more than 20 years with Farm Boy. They include Yvon Belair, retail operations manager, Ottawa West, who has been with the company since its inception.
There’s been some learning along the way. Asked about his fondest memory of Farm Boy, Belair recalled the time Bellemare asked him to bring a case of lettuce, and he returned with a case of cabbage.
The flyer also thanks Farm Boy’s long-standing vendor partners, including Alexandria, Ont.-based Lanthier Bakery, which has worked with the company since 1981, and Mississauga, Ont.’s Brandt Meats, a partner for 29 years.