The Lee family has been honoured to be a part of the grocery business in the Langley area for more than 35 years. We purchased an existing IGA store in Fort Langley in 1975. Half the store sold hardware and the other half was groceries. There was a hardware store next door, however, and so we slowly weeded out the hardware part and expanded our selection of groceries.
My earliest memory of the store was coming home from school, having a snack and then going there to work. My cousins and I sorted empty bottles and looked after the buggies. In those days there were no scanners, and we used to price-gun everything. We'd race to see who could price the fastest. Over the years our family has had three stores in Langley, and today I own my own IGA, at the Thunderbird Centre, in Walnut Grove.
Except for my dad's passing, the night of the fire at our Fort Langley store was one of the worst moments of my life. My uncle Peter was the one who got the phone call first, from the alarm company, at 5 a.m. They told him the alarm's going off and he said, "I'm on my way." When he got there, the fire department was already on the scene. A township worker salting the street had seen smoke coming out of the building and called them. The firefighters went in, but the smoke was pouring out, so they told Peter, "No, you're not going in there!"
The store was still burning when I arrived, around 7 a.m. The news people from TV and radio were there, and lots of spectators were standing and watching, too. We were devastated. We couldn't even think, as this was where our family had started in this wonderful business. This store had given us so many memories... and within a few hours it had burned to the ground.
When it was all over, the police told us that the fire had been sparked by an attempted break-in gone wrong. Once the shock wore off, we had to make some decisions. The first one: would we rebuild? We weren't sure. My uncles, Peter and Robert, were thinking about stepping back a bit. But then we started talking to our customers. After the fire, many had sent us flowers, and we felt we owed it to them, and to the community of Fort Langley, to rebuild.
I told my uncles about Marco Paoella, a builder who shopped at our stores. He'd actually built the store in Walnut Grove. We all met with him, and Peter and Robert felt really good about him because he was local, knew the area and the clientele. We also discussed the possibility of not just rebuilding, but using this opportunity to start from scratch and add commercial units on the first floor, plus a second storey with offices to complement the IGA.
Our next step was to involve the community. On June 23, we held a four-hour open house at the Fort Langley Community Hall, to show what the new building would look like. We thought people might just trickle in here and there, but right away it was busy. Some 350 people came through. They were excited to see our plans, offered some of their own ideas and encouraged us to rebuild.
The last six months have been new for the Lee family. After the fire, we found ourselves asking, "Well, what do we do now?" Our advice to other supermarket owners, if they ever find themselves in this same situation, is not to rush the process. Get good professional advice from a builder. Also, your sta will worry about their jobs. Try to place them in other stores as you rebuild. In our case, we've moved some employees to our stores in Walnut Grove and Langley City. Other retailers in the IGA system also took on some employees. Most of all, be open with your customers. We've kept them up to speed not only through the open house, but also at our website, FortIGA.ca.
Involving customers has been wonderful, and we're grateful for their support. Fort Langley is a very tight community and we have known most of our customers, our friends, for more than 30 years. We are hoping that the new store will open by next summer. There will also be space in the building for other stores and professional office space. The new store will be a fresh start–one we'll keep in the family.