Going green, with low mileage to back it up

The owners of Local Foods Mart in Barrie, Ont.

Last year, Julian Daniels, a computer sales rep, and his wife, Chan Ju Park, a spa manager (pictured), opened Local Foods Mart in Barrie, Ont. Their goal: to source most of their products from within 100 miles of the 1,000-sq.-ft. store. Writer Grainne Burns recently spoke with Daniels about the strategy behind the store.

Q: Why did you decide to open a store dedicated to locally sourced products?

We travelled around Ontario visiting stores and farmers’ markets and found wonderful, fresh products, many of which came from producers near Barrie. But in Barrie stores, all we found were imported products. We believed that by providing a central place in Barrie with a wide selection of local products, others would come to realize, as we did, that we’re ideally situated to have amazing food made here.

Q: The concept is great on paper, but is it difficult to manage?

We carry, on average, about 1,500 products from around 150 producers. The challenge is that suppliers and products change seasonally. We still struggle with tracking inventory and expiring product, but we are starting to get a handle on it. We have limited storage space, so most stock is on display. Some suppliers would prefer we order a larger amount, and we could get better pricing, too, but we’ve been able to negotiate smaller purchases at reasonable prices.

Q: How would you rate the store’s performance to date?

It’s a huge investment. We have both kept our day jobs and work in the store each night. There have been many times when we’ve questioned our sanity for starting this, but the time was right to do it. When the new Sobeys opens in one to two years, we may re-evaluate our business, but we’re confident that we’ll have a loyal customer base and will always have a unique market.

Q: Is it difficult to attract new suppliers? And what are some of your bestselling lines?

Some contacted us, but most of the time we’ve tracked them through customer referrals and other suppliers. Our bestsellers change regularly, but Meredith’s Ginger Syrup, Sheldon Creek Dairy, Nature’s Own Bakery and Nate’s Bagels have all been consistent. When we opened, we did not anticipate how big gluten-free would be. Also, some new milk and cheese producers have helped our dairy sales.

Q: Are you achieving your goal of sourcing food within 100 miles of the store?

It varies by month and season. Currently, we’re at around 45 per cent 100-mile, 43 per cent from Ontario (beyond 100 miles), and 12 per cent from Canada. We made it through the winter selling only produce grown in Ontario, with the exception of tomatoes from Quebec, in January and February. I’m sure we’ve frustrated some of our customers by sticking to our principles, but most support our efforts.

Q: What is the premium price a customer will spend on locally sourced products?

Most sales are relatively small, with average customer spend at $15 for three items. We’re the only grocery store in downtown Barrie, so we try to keep our prices fair. Sometimes we’re more expensive, sometimes the same price and often cheaper.

Q: Would you introduce so-called “mainstream” grocery lines to increase average spend?

We have toilet paper and laundry detergent, for example, which are sourced from local or Canadian companies. However, these sell infrequently. It’s sometimes frustrating when customers ask for something we’ll never be able to get locally. But we have “local” in our name and we would muddy our brand and confuse our customers if we strayed.

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