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In Alberta, a store that combines the best of urban and rural

The new Freson Bros' supermarket comes with clever flourishes and an impressive HMR department

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To some, a town of 14,000 people may not sound particularly urban. But for Alberta’s Freson Bros., the town of Stony Plain, 20 minutes west of Edmonton, isn’t just urban, it’s one of the biggest places this independent grocer has ever done business in.

Just the right setting for Freson’s new 24-hour, 43,000-square-foot flagship urban store.

If you are unfamiliar with Freson Bros., know that the independent chain has specialized in the small-town Alberta market for more than half a century. Except perhaps for two locations in Grand Prairie, Freson’s stores are mostly situated in far-flung locales across the province, in towns whose populations don’t run more than four digits.

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Frank Lovsin and two business partners opened the first Freson store in 1955 in the town of Hinton, nearly 300 kilometres west of Edmonton.

Today, Lovsin’s three sons have taken over running the business and are in the process of updating the 15 Freson stores.

Stony Plain was the first store to be updated and carries a new banner: Freson Bros. Fresh Market. It opened on the first day of March this year, and after hearing good reviews about the place, I had to check it out.

Pulling into the parking lot, the first thing I noticed was the store’s facade. It’s retro-modern: lots of glass, steel-silver and a barn-red sign and red trim. Up top, the facade’s distinctive gable roofed cupola was no accident. It was modelled after an Alberta grain elevator.

Walking through the front doors I quickly understood why the Lovsins called their store Fresh Market. The emphasis was squarely on foods and dishes prepared in the store.

An eatery called Kitchens of the World stood out, with bold signs that touted “Home Cooking” and “Finger Licking Meals.” An 83-ingredient Fresh Kitchen salad bar and a 70-seat buffet-style restaurant with a gas fireplace were handy nearby.

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“We have everything you’d expect to get at a farmers’ market,” Mandi Fawcett, director of advertising services, told me. “We’ve got the butchers who cut the meat and service customers at the counter. The bakers are at the counter. It’s that fresh-market feeling. We just happen to sell groceries as well.”

The meat department in particular is a point of pride for the Lovsins. This is cattle country, after all, and all the beef, pork, chicken, and turkey sold here comes from Alberta farms.

“We’re taking a stand,” Mike Lovsin, president of Freson Market, and founder Frank’s son, explained. “We’re not going to bring in anything from out of country or out of province.”

All of the store’s butchering and meat preparation is done on-site. Shoppers can even watch sausages get ground and cased through a window near a door marked “Banj’s Red Hot Smoke House.”

Not a lot of commercial fishing takes place in Alberta, but the Lovsins still wanted to ensure they sell fresh fish. So the store makes fish available just three days a week: Friday, when it’s brought in, and Saturday and Sunday.

Venturing deeper into the store, I found clever little flourishes. In produce, for instance, sat an artificial root cellar room. Lovsin told me it’s a nod to Freson’s rural beginnings. “Where we grew up, we didn’t really have refrigeration. Every farm had a root cellar where they kept potatoes and onions.” To recreate that effect, the root cellar is temperature controlled with dim lighting.

So how have Stony Plain’s residents responded to the new store? Overwhelmingly positive, Lovsin said. One reason might be Freson’s long-standing reputation as friends of small towns and independent farmers–many of who are Freson Bros. customers themselves.

“We want our customers to be part of the family. So if we can source products from our customers, who are part of our family, that comes in line with our thinking,” said Ken Lovsin, vice-president of information technology, and Mike’s brother.

Thanks to its 24-hour availability and freshly prepared meals, the store seems able to cater to a wide range of customers. “The young mom, she’s happy. So is the busy guy who likes to come in and out quickly,” Mike Lovsin said. “We shared breakfast with an elderly couple this morning who sat in the restaurant and had a coffee.”

Mike admitted surprise about how quickly shoppers have taken to specialized items, too. Finishing up my tour, he and I walked through the four-aisle Healthy Choices section. Lovsin marvelled at a completely empty display of seaweed snacks. He was sure there had been a shipping error; but no: the product had sold out, and not for the first time.

The same thing happened with organic milk and eggs from nearby Lacombe, which are more expensive than regular milk and eggs. “It’s the damndest thing,” said Lovsin, walking away and shaking his head with wonder. “The damndest thing.”

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