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Family affair

Small, tough and independent, more than a century ago family grocers set the stage for today’s retail food industry. And they’re still here

When John Schnurr immigrated to Canada from Germany, in 1854, he wanted to practice his trade as a capable boot and shoemaker. For reasons known only to him and long lost to history, he decided to set up shop in the wilderness northwest of what is now Waterloo, Ont. The log structure he built as his home and as a place to make shoes was only the second business and third building at the muddy crossroads that would eventually become the Village of Linwood.

Schnurr’s first full year of business was 1858. Nearby farmers took their boots and shoes to Schnurr, usually for mending. Few had money to buy new footwear, after all. But still, Schnurr’s little shop began to prosper and 10 years later he had saved enough money to move his family out of the store and into a brick house he built next door. A few years after that he moved the shoe shop from the log cabin into a spacious new wood-frame building.

1941 Schnurr's Grocery
YESTERDAY AND TODAY: Schnurr’s Grocery in 1941 (above). Life is faster today, but Schnurr’s remains a fixture in town

Schnurr worked his craft hard, sold for cash or credit and often traded with local farmers for leather hides. Times were changing however. By the early 1870s the availability of factory-made shoes likely encouraged him to diversify. He began to sell crockery, glassware and other family provisions. Gradually, Schnurr’s became a general store that stocked all sorts of sundries including, of course, groceries. Typical of that day, farmers came in and traded butter, lard, eggs and produce for groceries, flour and salt. That way of doing business continued into the early 1900s when Schnurr’s two sons took over the store.

Today, now four generations and three store expansions later, Schnurr’s Grocery is still in the family and still serving shoppers in Linwood. Don and Julie Schnurr, the owners, are proud to mark their history as a continuous family business since 1858. Their store is, perhaps, the oldest continuing family grocery business in Canada.

Metro
CELEBRATING 102 YEARS in business, Metro L. Dufresne et fils is now a thriving full-service supermarket

But it is not the only store that has stood the test of time. Dotted across the country are family-owned grocers, now in their third or even fourth generations. They’ve survived great depressions and great recessions, wartime rationing, and fires and floods. They’ve adapted to big, new competitors, new store formats and changing consumer tastes and technologies, from refrigeration in the 1920s to bar codes in the 1970s. And they’ve continued to serve customers with the same devotion as the family founders. As Canadian Grocer celebrates its 125th anniversary, these family stores, and their stories, are worth another look. After all, they built this industry from scratch.

Take, for instance, Metro L. Dufresne et fils Ltd., about an hour’s drive north of Montreal in Val-David, Que. It can trace its history directly back to Leonidas Dufresne, who opened a general store, in 1909, in what was then called Belisle’s Mill Station. Leonidas’s father, Jean-Baptiste, was a founder of Belisle’s Mill in 1849. When Leonidas opened his store he established what was to become a profoundly anchored tradition–all the Dufresnes then and since were to be intricately involved in both the business and in the larger community.

Belisle's Mill
In the 1940s when the Dufresne family sold groceries in the store and gasoline out front

Leonidas first operated his business from a rented house, but with the arrival of train tracks, he quickly bought land behind the station and opened his second store. By then there were 70 or so families in the area and Leonidas knew that in order to prosper he had to fill all their regular needs. He sold all the essential equipment for horses, including horseshoes and curry combs; he sold clothing, molasses from the barrel, oil for lamps, carpentry tools, tobacco, shoes, hats, slates for school children, violin strings, even entire buggies. And groceries. The Dufresne store became part of the Victoria chain of food stores and good years followed. As the store progressed, the eight Dufresne children all learned the essentials of commerce at an early age.

In 1928, the general store was destroyed by fire and Leonidas decided to build a new one closer to the church, this time with the groceries separate from the hardware and general store. It was on these new premises that eventually, in 1963, the future Metro Dufresne would be established when the Dufresnes joined the Metro group. This store operated successfully until 1993 when a modern, new Metro was constructed.

A crisis, eventually

It seems that every business that’s been around for a long time faces some kind of fight for its life. For the Schnurrs in Linwood, it was the arrival in the 1960s and ’70s of supermarkets in nearby Waterloo. These stores began to draw shoppers from the area’s smaller towns. The proprietor at the time, Grant Schnurr (Don’s father) saw business decline dramatically and wondered how long he could keep the doors open. He feared the fate of many small-town grocers at the time. But, as it turned out, fate was on his side.

Increasingly, farms in the Linwood area were being bought by people of the Mennonite faith. Their simple means of transportation by horse and buggy made it difficult for them to travel to Waterloo for groceries. Their large families with healthy appetites for simple foods gave the old store a brand new lease on life. Today, with a new warehouse and a corner store a block away, Schnurr’s still thrives. And Mennonites are still among its best patrons.

For the Dufresnes the crisis came in 1980 when the business fell into debt. Interest rates soared and the bank called the loans. The proprietors at the time, Alfred and Fernand Dufresne, faced having to sell some of their assets to prevent catastrophe. But getting on in years they did not feel they were up to the challenge. So Jacques, Fernand’s eldest child, who had been in Europe for several years, returned to find the crisis waiting. He didn’t waste any time. Immersing himself in the business, he could see that selling the general store, with its stock of hardware, would provide the necessary liquidity to continue the grocery operations. Metro Dufresne has flourished ever since.

Jacques Dufresne
IN THE 1980s Jacques Dufresne brought his family’s store back from the brink after it fell on hard times

Jacques, who operates Metro L. Dufresne et fils to this day, has since modernized the store and positioned it to fill the needs of both the local clientele, who watch prices closely, and the wealthier tourist clientele, who are more demanding about quality and selection. Metro Dufresne has merited the several prizes it has received for a store in its class and Jacques willingly gives back to the community in cash and other donations.

Everything in bulk

Just like all grocers operating a century ago, the Schnurrs and Dufresnes were independent. Chains had not yet arrived in the country. And to remain independent for all those years is a testament to tenacity, goodwill and great retailing. Of course, for early grocers and shoppers alike, daily life was hard.

In the period around 1880 to 1910, there were hundreds of independent grocers in Canada, each one serving either a neighbourhood population in a town or city, or serving the entire community in a rural village or town. Grocers got their butter, milk, produce and bacon from local farmers and purchased canned, boxed and bulk groceries from wholesalers in the city who, in turn, got their supplies from warehouses on the docks of Montreal or Halifax or by horse and cart (later delivery trucks) from even bigger cities and from the U.S.

Peaches

Those early independents were pretty much all the same. Upon entering the store, the customer was faced with large wooden counters on each side, with a clerk standing behind. Behind the clerk were walls of shelves carrying tinned and packaged goods from the large, commercial food manufacturers. There was often a wheel of cheese on the counter and at the back of the store were large ice boxes to keep perishables.

Hidden behind the counters were dozens of bins containing things like flour, sugar, biscuits, crackers, chocolate, tea, coffee, nuts, candies and other bulk items. The customer would ask the clerk for, say, a pound of sugar, or perhaps 50 saltine crackers, and the clerk would carefully measure it out and wrap it in brown paper, neatly tying the package with string cut from a big ball of twine hanging over the counter.

In the early days there was no electricity, only oil lamps. So grocers usually carried lamp oil. The doors to the store, particularly screen doors, were often attached to a string slung through a pulley on the ceiling with a weight attached that pulled the door shut after each customer entered. In summer months it was common to find fly paper strips hanging from the ceiling particularly near the store windows.

For the Schnurrs in Linwood, stock was delivered by horse and cart from the nearby town of St. Jacobs and sometimes Waterloo. With the arrival of delivery vans store stock could come from much further away.

At L. Dufresne, having been founded some years later, it was easier to get stock from Montreal, either by delivery truck or even by the train, which stopped practically next to the store. In the late 1800s, Montreal was seen as a key city for grocery and sundry supplies. Schnurr’s and several other Canadian grocers at the time called themselves a “Montreal House,” which suggested they carried “the largest, cheapest and best-selected stock” in the area.

The coming of electricity made it possible for independents to install freezers and refrigerated coolers, making it much easier to store perishables rather than depending on the ice man delivering large blocks of ice.

Don and Julie
DON AND JULIE Schnurr’s grocery store outside of Waterloo, Ont. dates back to the 1850s

Going back to local

Early Canadian Grocer magazines pro-filed many family-owned independent grocers from across the country, even after the  first chains appeared. That was in 1919 when Milton Cork and T. P. Loblaw founded Loblaws in Toronto. That was quickly followed by A&P, which founded its Canadian chain in 1927. Chains themselves did not have any major effect on independents, except those located extremely close by. The chains, by buying in quantity, usually had cheaper prices, but chains did not expand quickly to smaller towns, which remained a bastion for independents.

It was the arrival of the self-serve supermarket, in the late 1920s, that impacted independents the most. It became hard to compete with a nearby supermarket when the customer could push a buggy around the larger store and select what she wanted from the shelves and bins as opposed to waiting for a clerk to fill her order. Supermarkets were also much larger and stocked many more items than could the independents. Those independents that could not expand into supermarkets faced closure.

Thus many independents disappeared. It was only when franchise voluntary groups (primarily IGA, and later Metro) came to Canada in the 1950s that independents could combine their buying power from a single wholesaler to make them price-competitive with the growing power of the corporate chains. And for more than 30 years the voluntary group model built independents into a strong force.

The Dufresnes joined Metro in 1963. Schnurr’s remained decidedly independent, which was rare well into the late 1990s, although it’s becoming more common today now that franchise groups have turned more into pseudo-corporate entities. Throughout the years the Schnurrs bought their stock from any number of places, including National Grocers, Sterling Bros, Snider Flour Milling, Millbank Cheese & Butter, Balfours Ltd. and Maple Leaf Milling Co.

In recent days Schnurrs’ wholesaler has been Lumsden Brothers, but Don and Julie Schnurr also support local growers of tomatoes, fruit, eggs, honey, maple syrup and meat. That fits directly into today’s interest in buying local. It may seem curious, but it was 150 years ago that John Schnurr accepted hides and produce from local farmers in trade or consignment for groceries. It seems to prove the adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And for the Dufresnes and Schnurrs it’s business as usual. With 100 years or more of history behind each of them, it seems natural that it will be business as usual for years to come.

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