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The Interview Issue – Bill Chen

Bill Chen arrived in Toronto, in 1999, from Fuqing, China, and immediately began working in a supermarket. Today, at 35, he owns two: Sunny Supermarket, a higher-end Asian store; and Sunny Foodmart, a beautifully merchandised discount store. Chen would like to open at least three more stores over the next five years, not just in Toronto but also in Quebec. “I want Sunny to be a well-known brand in the grocery business,” he says.

Q: What motivated you to start Sunny?

I wanted to contribute to society by providing more job opportunities to the community. To date, we’ve filled some 70 positions from within the areas we serve. I also wanted to provide an entertaining grocery retail experience to immigrant communities, which I feel is lacking in the market right now, especially in discount.

Q: Can you explain the concept behind Sunny?

Our goal is to meet customers’ needs by providing the best products and services to a multicultural community. Ultimately, I want to provide a fresh, “sunny” shopping experience. I brought these seven large coconut trees in from China that are now in the produce area. They provide that tropical feel in a climate that is dominated by long winters. The vibrant green colour of the store also provides a lighter, fresher atmosphere.

Q: How important is your staff to your business?

I try to create a positive environment so that together we can provide the best service to customers. We offer home-cooked type meals in the staff area upstairs. We have also set up a prayer room and washing basin to meet our Muslim employees’ requests. If staff ask for something, we try to provide it. Respect is a very important value in our company.

Q: What do you want to show in your stores that is missing in others?

We want to combine the best customer service with a variety of multicultural products that are best suited to the neighbourhood demographics. We take the time to listen to our customers. There are suggestion books in the store where customers can write down their comments and requests, and we will try to help them resolve the problem as early as we can. And we offer a variety of multicultural products in our stores, carrying South Asian, East Asian, West Asian and Middle Eastern products.

Our staff reflects our multicultural philosophy. There are some 10 languages spoken here, from Urdu to Parsi. Our halal meat section is the biggest one among GTA supermarkets. We have separate storage, handling and preparation areas for the halal meat, which reflects some 20 per cent of our business. Signage in aisles and at the registers is in English and Urdu, one of the most commonly spoken languages in the area.

Our fresh fish section, contained in a separate area, features live seafood in aquariums. We also offer a specialized food court that provides ready-made food including dim sum, barbecued meats and bubble tea, a popular Taiwanese milk tea that has tapioca “bubbles.”

Q: Your discount store is in a really low income area. Why did you choose to build there when most other grocers didn’t?

Everybody has the right to get equal services. We provide good quality and well-priced products to make those who live here have a better life. Our customers tell me they are very happy we are here, making their daily lives easier and offering convenience in their food needs. I know we’re serving a need here; on average we get more than 20,000 customers a week, which proves to me that we’re doing the right thing.

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