How Quebec produce store Ferme Régis became a local favourite
Housed in an old poultry barn turned produce market and food store, Ferme Régis is locally famous for the quality and selection of its fruits and vegetables
Mario Vanier, his wife Natalie Gagné and their son Félix. Photography courtesy Ferme Régis
Quebec grocer Mario Vanier opens up his seasonal produce store in Notre-Dame-des-Prairies – a rural town an hour’s drive northeast of Montreal – each year at the end of March.
In past years, he says it would take around six weeks for business to pick up speed. But these days, more and more shoppers are filling up their carts at the farm as early as April.
“People are waiting for us to open,” said Vanier, founder, owner and operator of Ferme Régis since 1989. “There is instant traffic.”
Housed in an old poultry barn that Vanier converted into a massive open-air produce market and food store, Ferme Régis is locally famous for the quality and selection of its competitively-priced fruits and vegetables in an authentic, farm-fresh setting.
That offering shifts from mostly imported produce in the spring to more than 80% locally grown during harvest season.
The football field-sized store is also known for its wide array of Quebec cheeses, craft beers and deli meats.
Ferme Régis has also become a roadside attraction for tourists and cottagers in Quebec’s Lanaudière region.
Photography via Ferme Régis/Facebook
Located just north of Notre-Dame on a busy north-south provincial highway, it has a small petting zoo, a corn field maze, a picnic area and several old trucks and tractors – even an old steam engine – displayed in the parking lot.
The store has 80 employees and is open daily until mid-October from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (9 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays).
“My model is based on volume, whether it’s produce, parking or cashiers,” said Vanier, who runs the store with his wife, Nathalie Gagné, and their son Félix, 20, who is now in his first year of university.
“I carry more than $1 million in inventory,” said Vanier. “I don’t know of another seasonal food business in Quebec that does that.”
To keep shelves stocked, Vanier has a full-time buyer and a 53-foot semi trailer that does daily runs to pick up produce from importers, local farms and farmer’s markets like Montreal’s Marché Central.
“Some farmers bring their goods to us,” Vanier told Canadian Grocer in early Sept. “A small berry producer can make three deliveries here on a busy day.”
He said his store’s reputation for quality and price is so established he doesn’t publish flyers or have a loyalty program.
“People know they’re getting the best deal here every day,” said Vanier. “Our biggest challenge is trying to reduce inventory to zero when we close for the season in mid October.”
He said any remaining produce is donated to local soup kitchens and other charities.
“I’ve never seen anything like Ferme Régis,” said Suzanne Desjardins, a resident of nearby Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon who shops at Vanier’s store weekly during the summer months. “The selection, quality and prices are better than at any other store.”
Vanier credits his long and successful career as a food merchant for his store’s success.
Born and raised in Montreal, he grew up working in the supermarket his parents owned for more than 40 years.
He opened his own produce store nearby – La Fruiterie Vanier – in 1978. He sold the business six years later and bought a bigger store – Au Toit bleu fruits et legumes – in the suburb of Laval.
He came up with the idea for Ferme Régis on visits to his parents’ cottage in the Lanaudière region.
“I realized more people were leaving the city to live or visit here,” said Vanier. “I followed them.”
His original store was 25,000 square feet. He doubled it in 2007 at a cost of nearly $7 million.
A decade ago Vanier also bought two bankrupt Quebec produce chains – Groupe Épicia and Jardins Val-Mont – with more than a dozen stores and 400 employees under four banners. But he closed or sold them all before the pandemic.
“I didn’t feel right operating small stores,” said Vanier. “My model is based on size. I have the ability to employ strategies that small stores can’t. And they don’t have access to the same products and prices that I do."