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Revving up for growth

With the debut of a cool, new Toronto store and more in the works, Matt Lurie has ambitious plans to make Organic Garage one of the country’s largest natural food grocers

Less than 24 hours before the grand opening of Organic Garage’s third store, and just hours before a private shindig for shareholders and vendor partners, founder and CEO Matt Lurie is conducting a guided tour of the premises, pointing out specific design elements and hidden “Easter eggs” intended to surprise and delight customers.

The 15,000-sq.-ft. flagship store is located in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, a former manufacturing hub in what used to be an independent city called West Toronto before being annexed in 1909. Once a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood that housed everything from meat processors to foundries and mills, it has undergone a renaissance over the past decade.

Dubbed the “Junction Road Market,” the newest Organic Garage store sits on land that was once home to businesses ranging from St Marys Cement to the now-defunct Maple Leaf Mills—whose silos were a neighbourhood fixture until they were torn down in 2015.

It is the first of three Organic Garage locations set to open in Toronto over the next year, with stores in the city’s Leaside and Liberty Village neighbourhoods following in 2018. Lurie has set an ambitious goal of two new stores a year for the next three to five years, which would position the 11-year-old natural food store as one of the country’s largest natural food grocers.

Organic Garage CEO Matt Lurie has plans to open two more stores in 2018

Lurie is a fourth-generation grocer whose great-grandparents opened their first store, Goodbaum’s Groceteria, in Toronto, at 374 College St. in 1931. Their store’s slogan, “We sell for less,” was the inspiration for Organic Garage’s current positioning statement, “Healthier Food for Less.”

Not one to sit still, Lurie says he is already working on the chain’s sixth and seventh stores. Each Organic Garage store has a build cost of anywhere from $1.8 to $2.5 million, depending on size and landlord inducements.

He opened the first Organic Garage store in Oakville, Ont. in 2006, after spending the previous summer working at an outdoor organic market. “It was a test to try to get an idea of where organics was: Where was supply, where was consumer demand, where was pricing?” says Lurie. “We felt there was a pricing gap between what traditional grocers were charging and what the products really cost.”

Lurie is a firm believer that consumers shouldn’t have to break the bank to eat organic. While acknowledging that several factors determine pricing, he claims Organic Garage is 18% to 20% cheaper than Whole Foods, 8% to 15% cheaper than large grocery chains and about 15% cheaper than most independent natural stores.

The new Junction store was built to Lurie’s exact specifications, with the CEO having input into everything from the interior and exterior decor to the in-store music—which features alternate live mixes of popular songs.

Once they have made their way from the 380-car parking lot, past the patio with its naked LED bulbs strung overhead, shoppers entering the store are greeted by four weathered-looking signs that espouse Organic Garage’s four core beliefs:

• We believe in only 100% certified organic produce
• We believe in no artificial anything
• We believe in cutting prices, not corners
• We believe in being a store for everyone

Stepping through the sliding doors, shoppers encounter the produce section. It’s a core design element for Organic Garage, reflecting Lurie’s long-time passion for fruits and vegetables. “I’m a produce guy,” he explains. “The first thing that hits you, ‘Bam!’ is produce. We want to smell fruit.”

The front-of-store area is also home to a station dispensing kombucha and cold brew coffee, as well as an automated “teaBOT” that enables shoppers to custom brew loose-leaf tea. The machine features a touchscreen component that allows users to determine everything from the tea blend to water temperature.

The entire store has a distinct urban feel with design elements including chain-link fencing, spray-painted swinging doors and a combination of scuffed metal and wooden signs bearing messages like “Go organic without going broke” and “We only sell good $#!@%.” Scattered throughout the aisles are inspirational “graffti” messages such as “Every 1 is destined 4 greatness.”

“I don’t like those cliché, corporate-style signs,” says Lurie. “Graffiti is an art form, but it usually has a very negative connotation. What we’ve done is put a positive spin on it.”

There are also some not-so-subtle digs at competitors like Whole Foods, such as the sign near the entrance that reads: “Why spend your whole paycheque. Get healthier food for less at Organic Garage.”

A sense of whimsy permeates the entire store, from the hopscotch board stencilled on the floor near the produce section, to the “gender neutral” bathroom signs bearing images of everything from a caped superhero to an alien. “It’s a fun way of being cheeky with a sensitive subject,” says Lurie.

Elsewhere, a message on the floor outside the bathroom area reads: “Stand here to activate your superpowers,” while columns bear inspirational quotes from the likes of Dr. Seuss and play- wright Tom Stoppard. “I’m a fan of finding these fun things when I’m out in different places,” says Lurie.

Other features serve a specific purpose. In order to disguise what Lurie calls the “brutal” design aesthetic of freezer doors, for example, the ceiling in the freezer aisle has been dropped and faux scaffolding installed. There is also a (disconnected) switch on a column, accompanied by a sign that reads: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times. Just remember to turn on the light.”

Organic Garage is also conducting a beta test for in-aisle touchscreens. The new store is home to 20 screens—named either “Rose” (after Lurie’s paternal grandmother) or “Vic”–that enable shoppers to register for its digital “unflyer” and access the stories behind some of its vendor partners.

The company is also developing a product finder that will enable shoppers to search for specific items (eg. Bob’s Red Mill cereals) and then be directed to the aisles where they are located. “We heard from customers that they don’t like bothering staff,” says Lurie. “They just want to find things themselves, and they’ll be able to do it through these touchscreens.”

Lurie is also adamant that specific products, such as gluten-free cookies, sit alongside their everyday counterparts, rather than live in a dedicated section. “There’s nothing worse when you go into a grocery store and have to go to a special section and feel ostracized,” says Lurie. “If you have celiac disease, you’re going to go to the cookie section just like everybody else and find the cookies that suit your dietary preferences.”

Not a typical grocery store, Organic Garage reflects what Lurie says is a blurring line between natural food and traditional grocery shoppers. He says by merely dipping a toe into natural foods and forcing shoppers to look elsewhere for an expanded product offering, traditional grocers are helping create a future generation of Organic Garage customers.

“We’re the alternative” for shoppers, he says, “because they’ll come in here and see all the same products as in a chain store, plus way more, and at better pricing.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's September issue

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