Smaller Island grocery stores find their niche

Lorne Campbell acknowledges it’s not a bad time to be in the grocery game — even when you’re a little fish in a market dominated by national chains.

During the pandemic, all grocery stores have been busy.

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But smaller stores — often a choice of convenience — have also been bustling as customers stick closer to their neighbourhoods to avoid long lineups at big-box retailers.

“Business has been very good. There is great support from locals,” said Campbell, son of Thrifty Foods co-founders Alex and Jo Campbell and the chain’s former vice-president of grocery and later vice-president of business development.

He opened the Old Farm Market on Cadboro Bay Road in Oak Bay in December, just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Modelled after the market of the same name in Duncan, which Campbell acquired in 2017, the Oak Bay store specializes in produce and deli, and carries many other grocery items.

“The grocery [sector] is pretty crowded to start with,” Campbell said.

“Being a smaller, independent operator gives you room to differentiate yourself from larger corporate stores. We are able to adapt to local customer demand pretty quickly and supply a high level of customer service and care.”

Russ Benwell, owner of Red Barn Markets, which operates seven fresh food and grocery stores around the region, said smaller grocers are seeing increases in business overall — as well as changes in the way people are shopping.

“I think we’ve seen less people shopping, but they’re buying more product when they are in,” said Benwell. “We’ve moved away a little from that European style of people shopping daily for a meal or for what they need. Now they are shopping for what they might need for five or six days or a week.”

The thrust for both Campbell and Benwell is supporting local producers, and passing their goods on to local consumers.

“Our DNA has always been supporting local, providing clean and friendly stores with quality goods that people need,” Benwell said.

“The [corporate] grocers supply from their warehouses. We can source local produce and meat, soups or even soap from Metchosin.”

Campbell said the advantage to being a small grocer is securing crops from local farmers, where less transportation in the supply chain ensures a better quality product.

It’s also win-win for the farmer and customer.

“Big grocers can’t go to boutique growers because those growers would never be able to satisfy the demand,” Campbell said. “There’s a scale involved.”

Before Thrifty Foods was sold to the Sobeys chain in 2007, the Campbell family went to great lengths to secure as much local product as they could. But as the chain expanded to 20 stores and reached into the Lower Mainland, its suppliers had to grow larger to meet demand.

Now that Campbell is back in the grocery business on a smaller scale, he can engage with more local producers.

“We obviously can’t be all local when it comes to produce … we do live in the Northern Hemisphere,” Campbell said. “But we’re getting more and more local as the growing season allows, and buying as much as we can.”

The Old Farm Market stores are known for their quality and good prices, according to online customer feedback, and that’s something Campbell attributes to previous owners and dedicated farmers, and strives to maintain.

The original Old Farm Market, one kilometre south of Duncan along the Trans-Canada Highway, had been operating for nearly 30 years when Campbell bought the 5,000-square-foot store and property.

It continues to sell locally grown and imported produce, groceries and deli items.

Campbell, who also owns Budget Blinds in Victoria and is involved in real estate development, kept all of the 50 staff members at Old Farm Market.

Late last year, he bought the 6,000-square-foot Food Forum from Bill and Sharon Tam, who ran it for 37 years.

It was transformed from a traditional grocery to the Old Farm Market style, festooned in barn wood and focusing on produce, cheeses, deli items and ready-to-serve foods.

Campbell hired an entirely new staff of 45 people and former Thrifty Foods employee Chris Steel to manage the store.

“The grocery calling is strong,” Campbell said. “My dad had 49th Parallel Grocery [in Ladysmith] in 1972, so I’ve been bouncing around grocery stores since I was seven years old.”

Alex Campbell Sr. and Ernie Skinner (founder of the Market on Yates and Millstream groceries) started their first Thrifty Foods in Fairfield Plaza in 1977.

“It’s that old saying: Stick to what you know,” Campbell said. “I enjoy the industry, the people, the fast pace.”

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