We are what we eat
The challenges of stocking shelves in a resort town
By G.D. Maxwell
You are what you eat. Like many clichés we’ve grown familiar with — and perhaps a bit weary of — this one is both inane and profound. Eating, along with crying, is probably the most primal impulse programmed into every human, one we act out from virtually the moment we’re born until the day we die. Converting plants and animals into, well, into who and what we are is a mind-boggling concept when you begin to think about it for too long though. Especially if you happen to think about it while you have a Wagon Wheel in one hand and a Yoo-Hoo chocolate soda in the other. Ugh.
But if we are what we eat does that mean quite a few of us were turkeys on Thanksgiving? And leftover turkeys for several days thereafter? Which, of course, brings to mind one of my favourite riddles: How do you keep a turkey in suspense? I’ll explain at the end.
In order to be whatever we are, we have to bring home the groceries. Not too long ago bringing home the groceries in Whistler generally meant a trip down valley to the sprawling aisles of the Overwaitea in Squamish or the free-range choice of supermarkets in Vancouver. What we gained in variety and saved in price was generally offset by the need to clean melted ice cream out of the Chevy’s rear seat cushions and eat whole bags of unfrozen vegies at one sitting.
Fast forward to now and there are pastures aplenty. Why bother leaving town? Grocery shopping in Whistler has grown up along with so many other wild and exciting activities, it seems pointless to make the trip south unless you’re looking for a flat of Snickers at Costco or some organically grown fava beans at Bin City. Besides, shopping locally is both better for the economy and, in the long run, lots cheaper.
Don’t believe it’s cheaper? Here’s a true story. A couple of years ago, about this time of year, my Perfect Partner — also known as the Queen of Coupons — spotted Thanksgiving turkeys on sale in Squamish for a buck a pound less than she could find them locally. Since that worked out to about twenty bucks more in our pockets, we schlepped down the mountain to buy the bird. If I live to be 100, I’m sure I’ll never fully understand how we came home with a new car from that trip. The last thing I remember saying as we entered Greg Gardiner’s was, "Remember, we’re just looking." Twenty bucks ahead on a turkey; sixteen thou behind on a car. Where’s the savings in that?
Unless you range down to Nesters big box store in Function Junction, you can be pretty sure you’ll never mistake a new car for a turkey in this town. But no matter where you live, you’ll find what you need relatively close at hand. To get a fix on the state of the onion in Whistler, I decided to do a little comparison shopping and find out more about the places we can pick and choose what we’re about to become.
Selecting Food Plus in Creekside, The Grocery Store in the village, IGA, and Nesters, I priced a basket of what I think to be regular groceries at each and then subjected the totals to rigorous mathematical analysis. While I might purchase Wagon Wheels at Nesters in Function, the Upper Village Market, Alpine Market, Husky and Petrocan, they didn’t make the cut as grocery stores because this is a highly subjective article and it would have been more work than I wanted to do to include them all. That and the fact they just don’t carry a lot of what was in the basket, being convenience stores. Not that I have anything against convenience stores. Some of my best friends shop there.
But speaking of convenience stores, Jerry Marsh, owner of Food Plus and as nice a guy as ever stocked a shelf, wants to make one thing perfectly clear. "We offer our customers convenience, but we’re not a convenience store. We’re a lot bigger and we offer pretty much a full line of groceries for people at this end of town." Jerry’s end of town is Creekside — the land time forgot — and his 3,000 square foot grocery store is bursting at the seams with more variety than you’d believe anyone could stuff into a store that size.
Having been in the grocery business in Quesnel and Vancouver since he was 16, Jerry and his wife started running the Food Plus in 1988. A chain at the time, they bought the store when Head Office went belly up about six years ago and have run it their way ever since.
While it’s clearly not a convenience store, Food Plus is long on convenience. Open 24 hours a day, it offers not only a full line of groceries but a money machine, lots of cool treats on a hot day, fast and ready lunch or munch-on-the-go options, and a bakery/deli section that’s made me veer into their tiny parking lot more than once. "We have someone come in around five or six in the morning to start baking," Jerry said. "We have fresh pastry and bread every day." Don’t miss the sticky cinnamon rolls. Then go to the gym.
Jerry expanded his offering of produce a year ago. While not voluminous, it’s easy to find everything necessary to toss a salad, accompany a good dinner and keep your mama from nagging you about not eating your greens, all without leaving the friendly-funky Creek.
If you’re a carnivore, you’ll still have to crack open the freezer case to get your beast but Jerry hopes to change that sometime in the near future. "I’d like to try and get a fresh meat program," he said. "Integrate a fresh counter back with the bakery and deli to give people a better choice."
The price of our standard basket at Food Plus was a few bucks more than anyone else. The constraints of running a real grocery out of a mini space probably account for most of the difference. "All the space I have is retail," Jerry says, "I don’t have any storage to speak of so I can’t buy bulk, which would save some money. Anything I buy I have to make sure there’s space for."
But if you call the Creek home, saving the trip to the village and being able to pop in day or night to get what you need more than offset the difference in price. Like Jerry says, "We’re here for the locals."
If you aren’t even sure where the Creek is and you don’t call Whistler home, you probably shop at The Grocery Store. When the main smell wafting around what is now Whistler Village was garbage, one of the primary goals the planners had in mind was building a happy mountain town where locals and tourists would mingle and swap accents. Vital to this strategy was making sure you could find more than a teeshirt and rental skis in the heart of the village. The Grocery Store, the liquor store and the pharmacy were then, and have been, the keys to bringing locals into the square and keeping tourists fed and happy in their condos.
Rob Sage manages Bob and Sue Adams’ tiny perfect grocery store and has been since last May. Friendly and serious in the same package, Rob brings a background in teaching skiing to managing the store. Starting as a stocker not too many years ago, "because I needed the extra money," Rob worked his way through the dairy section and, in one of those typically Whistler life quests, seems to have found a place in food. "I still teach some on weekends, but The Grocery Store has slowly become my major focus. It’s an exciting biz," he explained.
Especially exciting when you manage a 3,500 square foot store stocked with a veritable United Nations of foods and have to deal with volume swings that embrace the doldrums of a Wednesday in mid-October and holiday weekends with 40,000+ hungry tourists during the ski season. "It’s a challenge to keep the same interesting products on the shelf, especially perishables," Rob laughs.
With upwards of 70 per cent of their clientele being tourists, you expect and find a more diverse product mix on the shelves at The Grocery Store than you do in most other stores. Purely Canadiana items like maple sugar treats in gift packages mingle with elaborately boxed BC smoked salmon, sushi lunchboxes, a wide assortment of Japanese "staples" and a growing selection of Euro-ethnic foods for the mushy peas set. This vibrancy goes a long way toward explaining why the store was named 1994 Retailer of the Year in the under 5,000 square foot size range and is in the running again this year.
"We send our managers down to stores in the Lower Mainland, the Northwest and on the Island to see what some of the more popular stores are doing," Rob said when queried on where some of their best ideas come from. "And we put a lot of emphasis on our suppliers to come up with new and interesting products that may be from overseas or they may have in ethnic stores down in the city."
One of the challenges faced when the bulk of your clientele turns over every three or four days is keeping a focus on that other 30 per cent: the locals. "We have some loyal locals we see all the time in here," Rob said, "and we’re getting a lot of the in-village lunch business. We try to stock a good mix of budget priced food traditionally favoured by younger mountain employees and we’re trying to keep up with locals’ demand for natural, healthy choices."
Surprisingly — or maybe it just came as a surprise to me given my association of the village with highrolling tourists — the price of Pique’s basket at The Grocery Store was within pennies of IGA and a fiver of Nesters. "We’re not just for tourists," Rob said, as if to underscore the point. "We’re a friendly place for anyone who finds themselves in the village to shop."
Not too far away from the village, in Marketplace, the IGA dominates the landscape. Whistler’s only supermarket, IGA seems to have it all — if only you can find it. With Pizza Hut, Baskin-Robbins, a monster bakery and deli, and aisles that seem to scatter off in all directions, a trip to the IGA almost demands a compass until you get used to the store’s layout.
The numbers in our grocery basket are going to have to pretty much speak for themselves because Jim Chan, owner and manager of the IGA, declined Pique’s request for an interview for this story. Maybe he knew I was going to ask him about the philosophy behind those angled aisles that always seem to end at a cheese counter. Maybe not. We’ll never know.
But friends I’ve talked to who shop regularly at IGA generally seem to mention the same reasons for their preference. They find parking easier at Marketplace and they like the wide, child-friendly aisles at IGA better than Nesters. "I don’t get to the cashier and find my kid’s scooped 14 boxes of cookies into the basket when I wasn’t looking," one of them said.
"Narrow aisles?" Bruce Stewart exclaimed. Bruce is the affable general manager at Nesters, our last stop on the Food Is Us tour. In the name of journalistic integrity — whatever that is — I should probably mention I do 95 per cent of my food shopping at Nesters. It’s on my way home, has what I need, and what the hell, it’s Where the Locals Shop. Besides, I like narrow aisles.
Bruce has been managing Nesters — owned by Brian & Elaine Kerr, Ken Beatty and Martha Heintzman — since July, 1997. Prior to that, he owned a Buy Low franchise in Port Alberni for six years, spent some time with that company and Super-Valu in Vancouver, then migrated up valley to take on the challenge of managing "a different kind of store," as he puts it. Like most of us, a love of the outdoors and passion for skiing fit somewhere into his decision making process.
"Trying to keep prices in line so people don’t feel like they have to go to Squamish or Vancouver to save a dime here and there," is his biggest objective these days. In a 5,800 square foot store with over 11,000 items on its crowded shelves and not much in the way of storage, it is, in his words, "a tough, tough challenge."
Especially when you can’t say no to your customers. "We always bring in what someone asks for, if we can, " Bruce told me. "We’ll bring it in, try it and hope it sells. We had one customer ask for chestnut puree. You use it in stuffing apparently. We brought in a case of 24 for Christmas and sold about three cans. I think we just moved the last of it."
Given the bursting-at-the-seams reality and a desire to please, the obvious question I had was why Wild Willies’ new store wasn’t Nesters new addition. "We had an option to take the space but couldn’t figure a way to make it work, with the four foot elevation difference. We would have had to make it a separate entity or lose about one-third of the space to some kind of ramp. If it’d been on the same level, we’d have been there for sure. But don’t count out some kind of future expansion," he said cryptically, declining to elaborate.
With improvements not too long ago to its fresh fish case, deli area, and adding a pharmacy, it seems there isn’t much more that can be done with the space. "Don’t be so sure," Bruce admonishes. "We’ve started baking some specialty breads in the deli, we’ve expanded our organic section and tried to introduce an organic product into each category in the store, and I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve."
"Our market’s the locals. We want to have a warm, fuzzy store. Come in, see your friends, buy food. Whatever we can do to make that happen, we’ll try," Bruce promised. All that and the lowest overall basket price, too.
There are concerns and issues that cut across all the stores in the food biz in Whistler. This is a volunteering, fund-raising kind of town. All the stores deal with requests for contributions on a daily basis, "like five times a day" as one of the managers said. They all try to do their bit for the cause and be part of the community’s efforts, supporting those things each find important. They all struggle with high occupancy costs, less space than they’d like to work with and let’s not even talk about parking woes. Whether it’s trying to park on a throughway at Nesters or dodging the overly-diligent Chalkman Walking at Marketplace, parking’s an intractable problem that’s only likely to get worse as Whistler grows.
And notwithstanding the familiar faces we see over and over again — whether it’s Donna behind the deli counter at Food Plus, Caroline tenderly adjusting the produce at The Grocery Store, or Sheila ringing us up at Nesters — finding and keeping good staff will always be a monumental challenge in a town where people come to play more than they come to work.
So take your choice. Go for convenience, go for size, go for variety, or go where you feel like Goldilocks, once the choosy little burglar found everything "just right." But go local. There isn’t much you can’t get in town and there are perils aplenty around every corner if you leave home to buy food. Get to know your grocer, for he shall keep you fed.
Oh yeah, and how do you keep a turkey in suspense? If you haven’t figured it out by now, don’t ask.