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Pomme Salade places its bets on fruit and vegetables

Brothers turn shuttered Jardin Mobile into farmers' market-inspired store

Brothers Guy and Alain Lessard spent their entire careers working for a Quebec grocery chain that shuttered most of its stores earlier this year.

But the promising start of a new store in which they have invested their life savings has them feeling bullish about the future.

"Customer response has terrific, much more than we expected," Guy Lessard told Canadian Grocer this week from the new store, which opened July 16 in the centrally-located neighbourhood of Vanier.

"We couldn't be any happier.  In fact, we're already thinking about opening a second location."

Called Pomme salade, an expression used by older generations of Quebeckers to describe iceberg lettuce, the new market-style store specializes mostly in fresh regular, organic and prepared fruits and vegetables.

It's open every day from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays), and has roughly 50 employees.

Several of the latter include the Lessard brothers' wives and children. Even their  84-year-old mother, Madeleine, comes in to help out a few days a week.

"This is a truly family business with a family atmosphere," said Guy Lessard. "It's the kind of store we grew up in, and that we know people appreciate."

According to Lessard, he and brother started working as teenagers in the original Jardin Mobile store in nearby Neufchatel.

They each spent more than 37 years working for the Jobin family-owned business, which blossomed into of Quebec's biggest and best-known banners of fresh and organic produce stores.

"We helped the Jobin's open 20 stores," recalled Guy Lessard, who held many top operational and administrative positions.

READ: Quebec chain Groupe Épicia shutters 14 locations

His brother Alain was the company's longtime fruit and vegetable buyer.

Things changed, he added, following the chain's acquisition several years ago by Magog-based Groupe Épicia.

The failure of $5-million restructuration in 2014 led to the closure 14 of its 24 stores in January.

Eleven of those stores were under Le Jardin Mobile banner, including ten in Quebec's provincial capital region.

By then, Alain Lessard had already quit, and his brother stayed on just long enough to ensure the orderly closure of the Quebec City operations.

READ: Groupe Épicia looks to restructure

"I did it out of respect for the employees," said Guy Lessard, who blamed excessive administration and a drifting from the stores' traditional products and services.

After developing a business plan, the two out-of-work brothers decided to rent the closed Vanier store and invest $800,000 in a business of their own.

"Our goal was to restore the nobility of fruits and vegetables," Guy Lessard said.  "People can buy everything they need in a big grocery store.  But they can't get the exceptional selection and service they can in our store, where fruits and vegetables are the stars."

In addition to a farmers' market-style decor that includes a big garage door for an entrance, cement floors, and produce stands made from recycled wood, Lessard said he and brother are always on the floor to help customers.

READ: A supermarket operator with some serious savoir faire

"Since the opening I'd say that six out of every ten people ask us questions like, 'When is this ripe?' or 'What regions are the best for this?'" said Lessard.

He added that newspapers ads, a weekly flyer on Facebook, and word of mouth are helping to bring in more people every week.

"We're looking at opening a second store on the south shore next year," said Lessard.  "But we're keep it two, maybe three stores.  We don't want to over extend."

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