The Country Grocer group of stores, of which there are currently seven, all on Vancouver Island, began in 1984 when Wally Large and Henry Zwynenburg opened a store, then called Food Country in Nanaimo. Two years later, in 1986, Peter Calvin, along with his in-laws took over a location in Esquimalt, which was known as Esquimalt Plaza Foods. An accountant at the time, Calvin immediately took to the grocery business, with partner Mark Wilson.
Friendly co-operation with Large and Zwynenburg of Food Country eventually led to renaming the stores as the Country Grocer, with a key set of values including promising customers the best in meats, seafood and produce, with a wide variety of grocery items at reasonable prices. Secondly, the Country Grocer would provide support to community groups, sports teams and local charities. And staff would be committed to getting to know their customers in order to deliver on their expectations. The stores were immediately successful and, in 1987, a third location was added in Royal Oak.
Shortly thereafter Cavin says the “writing on the wall” told him that buying from a wholesaler was not conducive to making the stores as successful as they could be. So with Large and Zwynenburg, he formed the Island Independent Buying Group and developed a warehouse and delivery system, allowing the stores to increase their buying volumes significantly. Later, they added two more stores and all were named Country Grocer.
Today Cavin says the group is less a chain than it is an interdependent group of individually run stores. Even with quick growth, the company remained committed to its core values, ensuring that selection, service and community support were integrated into the operation and development. Customers appreciated the dedication and continued to reward Country Grocer stores with their business.
The two most recently added stores were opened in Lake Cowichan, in 2006, and in Nanaimo, in 2012. Older stores were renovated or rebuilt. Today there are Country Grocers in Esquimalt, Royal Oak, Lake Cowichan, Salt Spring Island, Cobble Hill, and two in Nanaimo.
Cavin, currently director of the Country Grocer, takes over as chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers during the Grocery Innovations Canada show in Toronto in October. He recently spoke with Canadian Grocer:
WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT CHANGE EXPERIENCED IN YOUR BUSINESS?
It was the decision to stop buying through a wholesaler and forming the Island Independent Buying Group. With our own warehouse and buyers, we can get better service, better distribution and better cost of goods.
WHAT WAS YOUR TOUGHEST DECISION?
It was relocating and expanding our Royal Oak location. We had been in a small 18,000-sq.-ft. store at the front of the mall, and the landlord asked us if we would move to the back in a larger 30,000-sq.-ft. location. It was a tough decision but we took it, and it turned out to be the best decision we made.
HOW DO YOU ATTRACT GREAT STAFF?
More and more people are seeking us out. It seems to be word of mouth. Some are former employees of Thrifty Foods who are now coming back to us. We still have to advertise occasionally, of course.
HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR STAFF FROM LEAVING?
We offer a great benefits package, which includes a staff discount, health and retirement benefits that we pay a portion of. We also recognize team members for work well done and with special recognition at five, 10, 15, and 20 years of service.
HAS THERE BEEN A CATEGORY SUCCESS YOU WERE NOT EXPECTING?
Yes. It’s store-made sushi. We now have sushi bars in several of our locations and they do extremely well. We struck an arrangement with a local restaurant that specializes in sushi. And then there are the health and nutrition aisles in our stores. They are amazingly popular and we have staff in those aisles to assist and advise customers.
HOW DO YOU KEEP IN TOUCH WITH CUSTOMERS?
From people in our stores, and from long-term team members. Our website contains a feedback section and customers are surprised to get a quick response to both a compliment or a complaint.
YOUR WEBSITE SEEMS UNIQUE IN THAT IT LISTS MANY OF YOUR LOCAL SUPPLIERS.
Yes, more and more people want to know where their food comes from, and the closer to home the better. So we profile our local suppliers.
AS YOU TAKE OVER THE CHAIR AT CFIG, WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE MAIN ISSUE FACING INDEPENDENTS?
It still has to be consolidation and how it impacts the independents. How can an independent grocery store buy successfully and remain competitive when the wholesaler controls the process? Then, of course, there is the matter of credit-card fees. We’ve made slight progress but our fees are nowhere near as low as those in Europe or Australia. High fees can cripple an independent. The recent changes in liquor legislation allowing beer and wine to be sold in grocery stores is a big issue for independents and CFIG. Such sales may help to level the playing field with chains.
WHAT DO YOU SEE IN THE FUTURE FOR THE COUNTRY GROCER?
I see the future of Country Grocer being one of planned growth led by a capable group in our next generation of both family and non-family members.
WHAT DOES CFIG MEAN FOR INDEPENDENTS?
It’s huge. The staff at CFIG is always on top of things such as changes to legislation, and other issues that affect independent grocery stores, and they are always proactive in responding to those issues and keeping us informed. I’m humbled to be named chairman.