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Farm Boy’s Jeff York on mega growth and succeeding in fresh

As Farm Boy grows, CEO Jeff York treats each day like a grand opening

Farm Boy is in serious growth mode, out to deliver the best fresh shopping experience. In an exclusive interview with Canadian Grocer, CEO Jeff York explains that pulling that off is easy to say, but hard to do–and then breaks down how he’s doing it anyway.

Its midday and I cant decide what to eat. Im standing in front of a tempting selection of brightly coloured options neatly lined up in rows and ready to devour. Do I feel like something with a little kick? Hello there, tofu coconut curry. Or how about some comfort food? The mac-and-cheese looks good. Maybe I’ll stick to my ancestral roots and get a homestyle cabbage roll.

But, wait, the quinoa veggie chili may be the most sensible choice. What sounds like a scene from a restaurant buffet is actually taking place in a Farm Boy in Ottawa. Between the hot bar, the salad bar and what’s called the “Farm Boy Kitchen,” this place is a mecca of ready-to-eat dishes. It’s got everything from sesame ginger baby kale salad and chana masala to Atlantic salmon cakes and beef rogan josh. There are oven-roasted chickens, too, but they seem pedestrian in comparison.

Farm Boy’s bountiful HMR selection is part of the company’s overall goal of delivering the best fresh shopping experience every day.

CEO Jeff York (pictured) has crystallized this vision across the Farm Boy chain since joining the company in 2009. In fact, York doesn’t even consider Farm Boy to be a grocery store.

“We’re not a grocery store, and I correct everybody, all the time, on that,” he says during our interview, at Farm Boy’s Train Yards location, in March. “We’re a fresh food experience.”

It’s the same description he uses for Farm Boy’s chef-prepared kitchen offerings; York corrects me when I refer to the food as HMR. “We call it a fresh food experience. We’re dedicated to putting the products out in a way that people should be consuming them and leading a better lifestyle.”

This thinking stems from the company’s farm roots, which focus on quality, great service and–as you may have guessed–freshness. York says getting that combo right is easy to say, but hard to do. He believes running the business involves treating each day as a new battle. “Every day at 8 a.m. it’s a grand opening in every store,” says York. “The customer wants that store to be great when they walk in, and every day we want to earn their business.”

Strolling through Farm Boys produce department, I see his philosophy come to life.

Produce is the core of Farm Boy’s business, says York, and a lot of resources are put into buying daily (no long- term contracts here) and researching the market to find the best quality and price.

Once the produce gets to the stores it is–quite literally–put on a pedestal. The displays come to roughly waist height and the food is meticulously merchandised. Eggplant and zucchini are artfully positioned upright, almost like bouquets of flowers.

“We look at produce as a mixture of art and science,” says York. “We make the product on the shelves perfect for the customer.” It’s a time-consuming task, with staff regularly primping.

“We don’t want someone to go to the avocado display and find a rotten avocado,” adds York.

He outlines a simple, yet revealing, test that apples must pass before they make it onto Farm Boy’s shelves.

“When the apples come in every day, we open the box and we see if they crunch. If they don’t crunch, we don’t accept them.” The company doesn’t want to disappoint customers by selling subpar produce. “Our apples all crunch. So what’s the price of crunch?” asks York.

It’s a hypothetical question, but it shows how York thinks and how high he sets the standards. “We’re the last line of defence for the customer,” he says, “and we’re always thinking about the customer experience. Are they going to be happy with what we’re putting out?”

The ones I spoke with are. During chats I had with Farm Boy customers in Ottawa, the consensus was that the store carries good- quality produce, and also has a fresh and varied meat and seafood selection. (I spotted rabbit, quail and duck breast at one store.)

Some customers weren’t as impressed with the prices. But across the board, they praised Farm Boy’s fresh-prepared dishes, saying they were restaurant-quality buffet items.

A lot of work goes into getting them right. Offering a big selection is important, but York says the stores also try to serve items that people don’t usually take the time to make themselves at home. It’s also important to offer healthier alternatives to the typical QSR, he says.

This helps attract males (or, as York calls them, “the forgotten shopper”).

“At lunch time, [our stores are] full of men that don’t want to go through a Wendy’s drive-thru,” he says. Instead, they can get greens, grains and proteins for about eight bucks at Farm Boy, where the salad bar sells by weight ($1.99 per 100 grams). It’s a smart way for the company to leverage its strengths in fresh food.

“We feel it’s a lot easier to get a sales increase taking sales away from restaurants than Walmart,” says York. He sees Farm Boy’s kitchen offerings as a way to tap into what people want: there’s no tipping or waiting for their meal to be prepared, and they’re not slaves to the portions a restaurant would dole out to them.

Snatching share away from restaurants with great food is something else York says is easy to talk about, but hard to do.

“Home meal replacement, everybody says it’s the next big thing, but you can lose. When you first put it in you’re going to lose money on it, and then you have to have perseverance,” he says.

York notices a lot of traditional grocery stores are adding a fresh department, but says they’re lacking a culture of service to go along with it.

“[Those fresh departments] look good for three months and then the fourth month they look at their labour [costs] and they start cutting back and not putting the product out.” He believes making a pledge to fresh is a two- to five-year commitment.

“It’s hard because the numbers aren’t there, the labour’s more expensive and training’s higher,” says York. “It’s a restaurant mentality now; it’s not a low, no-frills mentality of ‘put it out for the day and let it sell.’ ”

In Farm Boy’s case, York says the company has dedicated the labour and people to this area and has a long- term perspective about it.

“I say we know 10% of what we need to know. We’re just learning how to set up a store, where to put the seating area, how to provide the service, how to get the product, make it better, fresher, healthier every day,” he says. “We’re just babies.”

If Farm Boy is a baby, its going through a big-time growth spurt.

Over the last year or so, the company has opened three locations in London, Ont.; they’re its first stores in Southwestern Ontario. The most recent London store opening took place in Beaverbrook in May. It brought Farm Boy’s total store count to 17. That number will soon jump to 18, with Farm Boy opening a new store, in Whitby, Ont., later this summer.

“This is our big growth year,” says York. “We have never opened the amount of stores [as] this year.” The company has also selected sites for additional stores. In fact, York says it has enough locations chosen “to be busy the next three years” with openings.

Farm Boy has come a long way from its start in Cornwall, Ont. in 1981, when husband and wife Jean-Louis and Colette Bellemare started it as a 300-sq.-ft. produce store. That was followed by a second location, which Jean-Louis’ brother, Normand Bellemare, opened in 1983 in Cornwall. In addition to its Cornwall, Ottawa and new London locations, it also has a store in Kingston.

With the upcoming opening of the Whitby store, it would appear Farm Boy is closing in on the Greater Toronto Area. I ask York what his timeline is to open a store in Toronto itself. He says he’s not sure if Farm Boy will go into Toronto. “I can’t see paying the landlord $1 million of rent before we get paid, so that’s the issue,” he admits. Farm Boy is, however, actively testing concepts, including “a really unique urban infill” that will happen next spring in the company’s home market. He keeps mum on details, but says the concept could be taken to a bigger city if it works. “If this test proves right, this will kick ass in Toronto,” he says. So maybe opening in Hogtown isn’t such a long shot after all.

Does York want to eventually have Farm Boy in every province? Not necessarily. It’s challenging to get fresh goods into some parts of the country on a daily basis. “We can’t go everywhere based on our fresh model,” he says. “Our goal is to go where there’s need, where the customer’s going to embrace the Farm Boy brand and where we’re going to be the go-to brand in their community, or why go?”

Wherever Farm Boy does open new stores, it’s safe to bet they’ll be close to conventional retailers and grocery stores. That’s the way York likes it. That way, he explains, customers can pick up their fresh food at a Farm Boy, then go buy things it doesn’t sell, such as dog food, health and beauty aids, cleaning supplies and frozen food, at a neighbouring Walmart or a grocery store. “It works perfectly,” he says.

To prepare Farm Boy for its continued growth, York has worked hard to build its team. One of his major responsibilities when he came on board–he’d previously been president and COO of Giant Tiger–was to get people in the right positions and help them develop. “Growth is not something you just do,” he says. “You have to build the muscle, internally, for growth.” Part of that means training management to take on additional responsibilities, and putting in enough time and effort to get people to the level you need them to be at. “You’ve got to have people that want to move ahead in the business. You don’t tell your people to grow, and a lot of retailers don’t get that. Growth happens when your people are ready to grow.”

York says that requires giving them confidence, mentoring and training so they know they’re ready to take on more, then moving them along. “It’s something Farm Boy has learnt to do really well in the last two to three years,” says York.

BACK IN THE FARM BOY STORES I VISIT (WHERE NO one knows I’m a journalist), the employees are pleasant and helpful. They’re fantastic examples of the hiring and training practices on which Farm Boy prides itself. In one store’s cheese department, for example, I remark on the abundance of local offerings to the employee behind the counter. She lists at least six of them (without cheating by reading the tags that give custom- ers their backstory) and tells me about awards they’ve won. She sounds enthusiastic, not rehearsed. I point out a cheese I’ve never seen before: Pine River Irish cream chocolate fudge cheese. She tells me it was popular for kids’ Valentine’s Day parties. Showing she knows her selection, she expertly points out another sweet treat–“apple pie cheese”–made with cinnamon and raisins.

Before visiting Ottawa, I spot a Farm Boy job posting online for a “general hostess.” It includes terms like “interactive brand experience,” “product education” and “engaging with customers.” This gets me thinking about how I usually feel after leaving a grocery store. Do I feel like I’ve had an “interactive brand experience?” Nah. It’s more often a “bought my stuff and bolted home” kind of vibe.

So how does Farm Boy manage to attract employees that genuinely seem friendly?

Is it something that can be trained? No one comes in with 100% of the skills Farm Boy wants, says York.

What the company is looking for in new hires is the right attitude; someone who’ll come into work with a smile and look people in the eye.

York has a ground rule: “We only hire nice people.”

He’s impressed by a person’s overall demeanour, not necessarily their passion for food. Are they the type of person that will gladly walk a customer over to a product instead of simply gesturing in its general direction?

Each person applying for a job at Farm Boy gets at least three interviews with three different people. And Farm Boy’s own staff, not a third party, interviews them.

“Our people know whether someone is genuine and will fit in,” says York.

I want to ask him about what may be a more sensitive topic than hiring practices. I cut to the chase: what’s the major differentiator between Farm Boy and Whole Foods?

York isn’t phased. “Well, first of all, price. It’s not a ‘whole pay cheque’ to shop here, so we’re in the game on pricing.” He goes back to his point about Farm Boy not being a grocery store. “Whole Foods has turned into, in Canada anyway, a grocery store with some fresh product in it. In Farm Boy, we’re a fresh store with a few unique private label items in it.”

There’s also a big difference in how consumers view the two brands. “When Whole Foods opened here, people were doing selfies in front of the store,” recalls York. “I don’t think there have ever been selfies at a Farm Boy opening.”

Farm Boy’s customers aren’t enamoured with its brand; York says it’s the shopping experience itself that keeps them coming back.

Part of that experience–however insignificant it may seem at first glance–is Farm Boy’s in-store entertainment.

At the back of one store I watch automated mascots sing a song about eating fresh fruit and vegetables. “Why was the banana blushing?” Barn Door Buddy asks. “Because the peach told him he was ap-peal-ing.”

This show happens every 15 minutes. As I continue through the store, I notice a preschooler pull his mom’s sleeve. “Did Farm Boy already sing?” asks the tyke. They missed the last show, so his mom tells him they’ll see the next one before they leave. Checkmate, Farm Boy. You keep kids occupied, and parents coming back.

Beyond making customers happy today, York is on a mission to set Farm Boy up for the future. “That’s the biggest thing in business now: are you going to be relevant in five years?” he says. “That’s the question we ask ourselves every day.”

He downplays the ingenuity of his approach to improving Farm Boy. “There’s no secret sauce, and nothing I’ve said to you is revolutionary,” he says. “It’s the basics.” But, in the grocery world, it’s all about getting the basics right.

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