'We're helping to build our community:' Winnipeg pot store flips for food

Meet the team behind Ashdown Market
ashdown market
Marleen Mecas and Josh Giesbrecht. Photography courtesy Ashdown Market

With pot stores popping up all over downtown Winnipeg, entrepreneur Josh Giesbrecht says he saw a bleak future for his own budding cannabis shop.

So in May he and his two partners added some new plant-based products to their retail operation – namely lettuce, tomatoes and other fresh produce and food items.

Now the business is growing like a weed.

“We knew there was a need for fresh food in the neigbourhood,” said Giesbrecht.  “We just didn’t expect that we’d be successful so fast.”

Located on the ground floor of the Ashdown Warehouse, a massive brick heritage building and condo complex in an historic area of downtown Winnipeg known as the Exchange District, the aptly-named Ashdown Market initially carried only a dozen or so food items.

But its offering has expanded exponentially following a recent agreement with The Grocery People, a unit of Federated Co-operatives that delivers groceries and provides support services to more than 100 independent grocery stores across Western Canada.

Photography courtesy Ashdown Market
Photography courtesy Ashdown Market

In addition to a growing selection of fresh produce, meat, dairy and pantry items like cereal and dinner kits, the store also now carries household sundry items like toilet paper, cleaning supplies and batteries.

The store is also now making and selling fresh soups and sandwiches.

It also still sells cannabis – though those products are hidden from view, much like with tobacco products.

That means people under the age of 19 can’t enter the 1,800-square-foot store – a quirky situation that Giesbrecht said he is trying to resolve with provincial food and retail regulators.

“We’re the only food store I know of that doesn’t allow minors,” he said.  “It’s like a speakeasy for groceries.”

That novelty, together with Giesbrecht’s Indigenous roots and his uplifting personal story, has earned the store widespread media coverage in and around Manitoba’s provincial capital.

ashdown market
Photography courtesy Ashdown Market

The retail venture began a year ago when Giesbrecht, a 30-year-old Ojibway from Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation (though he was raised in a foster home in Steinbach, an hour’s drive south of Winnipeg) became one of the first Indigenous people to get a retail cannabis license in Manitoba.

He and partners Marleen Mecas and Noel Bernier, who owns a restaurant next door, opened their cannabis shop a year ago.  

Giesbrecht and Mecas work most hours at the store, which is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. through midnight – the same hours that retail pot sales are legal in Manitoba.

The partners quickly realized however there was too much competition from other cannabis stores for their new business to be profitable.

READ: Unlocking a swift solution to reduce food insecurity in Canada

“We wouldn’t have lasted until the summer,” said Giesbrecht.  “So we looked at other community needs that we could fill that would give us enough revenue to keep the business stable.”

He said they quickly hit on the need for a food store in the Exchange District, a trendy residential area for young adults and professionals in the heart of the Manitoban capital.  

“It was like a food desert here,” said Giesbrecht.  “If you wanted to buy groceries – even just a banana or a pint of milk – you had to drive or take the bus.”

ashdown market
Photography courtesy Ashdown Market

In April, they signed a deal with Sysco, Bernier’s restaurant supplier, and ordered small amounts of produce, meats, dairy and snack food items.

“It wasn’t a traditional supply route for food retail,” said Giesbrecht.  “But it allowed us to go ahead with our project without injecting capital.”

He said the store’s initial fresh food offering, which was stored in a single fridge, generated traffic and sales from the get go on May 10.

In the weeks and months that followed, the store added more fridges and items from Sysco and vendors of popular local food and drink brands like Prism KombuchaBothwell CheeseSheepdog Cold Brew and The Meat Company.

READ: How grocers can satisfy the growing appetite for meal solutions

 “Demand really took off,” said Giesbrecht.  “We were in the black by the end of summer.”

He said business has only continued to increase since October, when Ashdown Market signed a supply deal with TGP.

“They approached us, which was a nice and welcome surprise,” said Giesbrecht.  “Having access to their really limitless supply of food and other items fills a huge void.”

“We’re very excited at the opportunity to build our relationship with Ashdown Market,” said Timothy James, a business advisor with Federated Co-operatives. 

He said signing supply deals with TGP gives small retailers more access to competitively-priced goods.

“It gives the opportunity for an independently owned and operated grocery store to be highly competitive in the market while still maintaining profitability,” said James.

Giesbrecht said he and his partners plan to continue adding new products like beer, wine and more grab-n-go food items.

“We’re happy and proud of how things are going because we live in this area and we really love it,” he said.  “We’re not just selling food, we’re helping to build our community.”

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