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Winnipeg grocer brings hope to hard-up neighbourhood

Neechi Commons proves to be a true community grocer

20150919 prod courtyard bakery display

Neechi Commons, a grocer in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Winnipeg’s North End, is more than just a store says its president, Louise Champagne.

“We’re a beacon of hope,” she says. “We open doors for people, we build their confidence.”

Neechi Commons is an aboriginal-run co-op that has grown from a neighbourhood convenience store in the ‘90s to a thriving supermarket and restaurant in a refurbished 35,000-sq.-ft. former warehouse.

Treasurer and financial manger Russ Rothney says of 50 staff, 42 are aboriginal, making it, he believes, the largest commercial employer of indigenous peoples in the country.

In the produce section, front and centre of the store, Granny Smith apples are labeled “Kokum Smith apples” (kokum is the Ojibway word for grandmother). Wild blueberries, wild rice are a mainstay. Bannock can be found in the bakery, as well as the restaurant and caterer the building also houses. Bison salisbury steak and pickerel chowder are menu regulars.

Neechi’s self-imposed mandate is about encouraging healthy living. The store’s fresh produce and bakery sections are placed at the forefront, and a mural of The Three Sisters graces the building’s entrance and courtyard. The Three Sisters symbolize beans, squash and corn in First Nations culture.

Champagne says when other food stores abandoned the neighbourhood years ago, residents were left to buy food at higher priced convenience stores, where fresh produce was difficult to come by.

One of the store’s missions is to give alternatives to KFC, laughs Champagne, but its main priority is to provide an economic hub for the aboriginal community. Neechi, which houses a grocer, restaurant, caterer and art store, contains products made, caught, picked and purchased from indigenous peoples.

Though the store was dependent on about $3-million in government grants and another $3-million in loans from a local credit union, it is now crowd-funding for additional capital to finish the renovations of the old warehouse. About 1,000-sq.-ft. of prime space is waiting for refurbishing. Lack of capital has been a hardship, says Rothney.

Funding is not the only obstacle Neechi has faced. When a No Frills opened nearby in March, Rothney says the store’s sales were dented immediately. To draw in customers, it slashed meat prices by 50%, results in increased sales not only in the meat department, but elsewhere in the store as well.

“In your regular supermarket, meats typically have a 40 to 50% markup,” says Rothney.

He said they negotiated lower prices with suppliers, slashed their markups, and used their own meat-cutting operation, which also wholesales to restaurants. Their high volume and quick turnaround encouraged suppliers to give them advantageous pricing, he says.

“If they give us good prices now they’ll stay with us when the sales grow,” says Rothney. “Everyone is dealing with us because they know we’re growing.”

Rothney says Neechi is “highly customized,” and can do things that the other stores can’t.

“It’s not good enough to match the big store prices,” he says.

Champagne sees the store as an antidote to despair that stalks the impoverished neighbourhood and indigenous people, an inspiration that is a throwback to the self-sufficient economy of hundreds of years ago, before Europeans conquered what is now Canada, she says.

Rothney says as the store prospers, credit is easier to come by and a staff training system will be implemented so employees can later move onto to careers elsewhere if they choose.

Neechi Commons is about much more than food. It’s about community.

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