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Back to the future

As Canadian Grocer celebrates its 125th anniversary, we salute the leaders and future leaders in grocery

This issue marks our 125th anniversary, making Canadian Grocer one of the oldest magazines in Canada. There are virtually no magazines around today from the 1800s. So this anniversary is quite an accomplishment.

When we sat down to plan our anniversary issue we knew one thing: We didn’t want to make it all about the past. We wanted to look ahead. So this month’s cover story is a series of interviews with 12 of this country’s top grocers, from large chains to innovative independents, talking about the challenges our business faces and the opportunities as well. We’re pleased that two of them, both who’ve made grocery their life’s work, are on this month’s twin covers: Bill McEwan and Anthony Longo.

Seeing as we’re chatting with today’s leaders, it seems  tting that we also tip our hat to the people who might be interviewed when our 150th anniversary rolls around. The finalists for the first annual Generation Next Awards are on page 40. These are the up-and-comers of the grocery industry. They’re all in their 20s or 30s and showing enormous leadership in their fields.

We didn’t skip the past entirely. In “Family A air”, on page 32, consulting editor George Condon examines where Canada’s grocery business really began: with the family grocery store. It’s a fascinating look at how two century-old family grocers came to be, and how they’ve survived all these years.

If you’re a sucker for lists, like me, you might also enjoy “Great Moments in Grocery” (page 74) in which we review some of the more remarkable and defining events of the industry dating back to the year Canadian Grocer was founded in 1886. We scoured our vaults to find these stories. Of course we weren’t able to fit in everything and several wonderful nuggets had to be left on the cutting room floor.

One story I especially liked came from 1931, the dirtiest year of the Dirty ’30s when nearly one in four of the country’s citizens was unemployed and the whole world seemed to be spinning unsparingly out of control. In our July 17, 1931 issue, an article appeared about a 30-year-old grocer from Nova Scotia. He’d sent his balance sheet (above) for Canadian Grocer’s editors to examine, wondering if he were doing OK compared to others.

Turns out he was. In fact, our editors were astounded. His small store had an eight per cent profit margin. At the time, Loblaws, a decade in business with some 60 stores, was considered the most efficient retailer in North America. And it was doing just seven per cent.

So what was the young Nova Scotian’s secret? Long hours and low overhead, it seemed. As was typical then, he had just one employee, an 18-year-old who worked part-time. A good portion of his business was over the telephone and he was not without competition. In a town of 1,000, eight other food stores operated. “I have not taken a day off since starting this business eight years ago,” the grocer, who was not identified in the article, wrote. He worked hard to satisfy his customers, often making deliveries himself. And he only paid himself $15 a week. In today’s dollars, that works out to a measly $224 paycheque.

The grocery business has changed a lot in 125 years. But the path to success–through dedication and great customer service–clearly hasn’t.

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