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The biggest little supermarket in Canada

Robert Paquette is an indie grocer with a super sized store that draws customers from miles around

Pasquier, in the city of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., is not so much one of the country’s largest independent grocery stores, says co-owner Robert Paquette. Rather, it’s a destination.

Each week, tens of thousands of customers visit the enormous, 150,000-sq.-ft. store, one that includes everything from a massive bakery and meat section– stocked with selections from the grocer’s own meat-packing plant–to its 30-foot pizza counter dishing out made-to-order pies, to an in-store restaurant, microbrew emporium and gift shop.

Running a typical, 40,000-sq.-ft. store is challenging enough for most grocers. Somehow, Pasquier, at triple the size, pulls it off.

Best known for its enormous meat section and bakery, where more than 300 cakes a week are made-to-order, Pasquier also features several more large, ready- to-eat counters serving up everything from fresh pasta to sandwiches and soup. There’s even an in-store chocolatier, and a boutique selling kitchen accessories and other gift items.

Then there are the cooking classes, where customers can learn about everything from barbecue tricks to Indian cuisine; and a dining room where shoppers can take a break and sample some of the goods they picked up on the vast shopping area one floor below.

And then there’s the service.

“A large- surface store with real service didn’t exist [before Pasquier>,” says Paquette. So, what’s their secret? For starters, the store has five express cashouts, plus another dozen full-cart cashiers.

Located some 30 minutes outside of Montreal, Pasquier opened, in 2010, to the tune of roughly $20 million.

It is quite likely the largest independent grocery store in Canada. Of its sprawling 150,000 sq. ft., around 96,000 sq. ft. is floor space. Another 15,000 sq. ft. on the second floor is for the cooking courses and dining area.

Marcel Paré, former chief executive of Groupe Épicia, an independent chain of fine-food stores in the province, says it’s no secret that Provigo le Marché took a few pages from the Pasquier playbook when it began revamping and rebranding its Quebec Loblaw stores, including its love of local.

At Pasquier, most of its more than 400 cheeses are from Quebec. Likewise, Paquette likes to give preference to local, or small, suppliers.

Multinationals, he says, pay premiums for shelf space, but not local independents. Paquette no longer deals with suppliers personally, but he makes a point of meeting them all.

So, how did Pasquier start in the first place?

Paquette says he didn’t have to reinvent anything; he just borrowed insights gained from visits to Wegmans Food Markets, a family-owned, 83-store supermarket chain headquartered near Rochester, N.Y.

“I adapted it for the Quebec market,” he says.

His approach includes a fancy olive bar with multicoloured olives, a bulk candy counter and a large variety of beers from microbreweries, some of which he had to persuade to sell him less than a palette at a time.

The store’s vast size aside, the emphasis here has always been the meats.

And because Pasquier is its own wholesaler, the prices are cut rate. For example, customers can purchase a Cornish hen for as little as $3, about one-quarter of the price typically found at other grocers.

On the frozen side, Pasquier sells its meat in unique, store-designed packages. The meats can be defrosted quickly in water and, Paquette insists, the quality is as good as fresh.

The grocer’s factory also sells its meat to Costco, as well as prepared burgers and ribs to several restaurant chains.

In total, meat makes up 28% of all sales, grocery dairy and frozen are 46% and produce is 16%, says Robert’s daughter Annie Paquette, head of marketing.

The store earned its reputation mainly because of the meat, says Jordan LeBel, a marketing professor at Concordia University’s business school.

People come to stock up on low-cost meats and are then drawn into the Pasquier experience of wide aisles and a vast selection that, as Paquette puts it, “brings the world into your home.”

But, says LeBel, Pasquier is more than meat. It’s a member of the community and works hard to instill a community feel, taking part in neighbourhood activities and donating to local causes.

“It occupies a privileged position in the community,” says LeBel. “It tries to own that neighbourhood.”

Pasquier is able to straddle the pricing of the large chains and the discounters, mindful that some shoppers cannot afford indulgences such as aged meat and organic peanut butter. It makes sure it has something for everybody.
Of course, size matters–to some shoppers, at least. Some customers find Pasquier’s sprawling size daunting–its ready-to-eat section so large it suffers waste and spoilage.

But Annie Paquette counters that the store has tight controls on inventory and waste, adding that its pricing, variety and design give it a leg up on the competition.

The road to running this massive independent grocer was circuitous.

The Paquette clan began in the grocery business with Robert’s father, Viateur, a farmer-turned- butcher who began selling meat to friends.

Viateur opened a small grocery store in Henryville, Que., about 20 minutes from Saint Jean. The store later became a Metro affiliate. The only problem was, Viateur didn’t like the grocery business.

“Fruit and vegetables didn’t interest him,” says Paquette. So he made a deal with his son. Viateur took out
a $10,000 loan for Robert to go to business school and get into the grocery business, offering to pay the interest on the loan upon graduation.

Today, Robert and his two brothers, Mario, 50, who is in charge of operations; and Guy, 63, who runs the factory where the meat and food is processed, cooked and packaged, have expanded the Henryville store.

“We work like a team,” says Robert, who oversees the company, which includes the Henryville store, Pasquier supermarket and the factory. Total employment is roughly 500 people.

So, what makes it all work? “The pleasure of Pasquier is my approach,” says Paquette. “It’s my reputation.”

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