The year 1953 was certainly filled with newsworthy events. The post-Second World War baby boom was in full swing, as Canadian families grew at record rates. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place, and the three-year Korean War ended. In Nepal, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed as having reached the summit of Mount Everest. In Canadian sports, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. And on a cool sunny Saturday in Toronto, the Hamilton Tiger Cats won the Grey Cup over Winnipeg (sorry Blue Bomber fans!)
In business news, Howard Oliver quietly got into the natural health retailing business in Lethbridge, AB when he purchased a floundering health food store and put his name out front. And so, Oliver Health Foods was born.
This year, Oliver Health Foods marks its 60th year as a family-run operation. Howard was eventually joined in the business by his sons, Don and Gordon, and Ryan Oliver followed his dad Don into the business. So, reaching 60 under the Oliver banner is a big event for the family, explained Ryan. "It is a big milestone and we're proud to have made it this far. The store is more successful than ever, and I think my Grandpa would be proud of what we've been able to accomplish.
Originally, Howard Oliver was in the vitamin distribution business, so the health food realm was a known entity to him. "Grandpa was basically forced out of the wholesale side when government regulations in the mid-1950s made importing difficult," explained Ryan. "He had the Canadian distribution rights to a multivitamin formula called Elemin, which was very successful and led him to purchasing the retail store. When he shut down his import business, he put more focus into the retail side of things until 1979. He sold to Don and Gordon in 1984. Gordon sold to Don and me in 2011." Don's wife Dana and Ryan's wife Chawntelle are both a big part of the business, too.
Don recalls the market for a health food store in Lethbridge in 1953 was not a very large one. "It was a small market. We had a fresh juice bar and I remember as a teenager getting up early on a Saturday morning to make carrot juice for the store. We sold Vita Health and HSC vitamins, lecithin and a lot of varieties of herbs for tea making."
Don says Oliver Health Foods is the longest-serving natural health retailer in Lethbridge. "I don't think any competitors opened until the early 1980's." Competition in Lethbridge has varied over the years. " We have seen quite a few other stores come and go over the years. The trend is for more competition because the industry is growing. There are currently seven health food stores in Lethbridge and many other stores that dabble with health food or vitamin sections.
In the early days, it wasn't competition that thwarted the Olivers, says Don: it was a variety of challenges that came in different forms over the years, and even today. "Regulations forcing us out of the wholesale business in the very early years would have put us under if it weren't for the low rent Dad was paying at his first location and the fact that he was also using the office space for some of his other ventures.
"We were in a mall from the 1970s until 2001. Near the end of our lease at the mall, the main tenant had left, and there were only a few stores open in the mall, so that was a very difficult time until we moved to our new location.
"Also, in 1999, the city had the two main roads to our store blocked for construction for several months, which made it extremely difficult to get to the store. If we didn't have really loyal customers, or if we had debt, we probably wouldn't have made it.
"The retirement of my brother Gordon was also a difficult time. Trying to figure out how to pass his share of the business down to the next generation wasn't as easy as originally planned. And of course, NHP regulations are causing some uncertainty right now."
Ryan says there were several major factors that helped the Olivers persevere during some very tough times, but the most important has been the presence of the Oliver family in the store at all times. "Having the owners working hands-on makes all the difference. When the store is open, there is always an owner on site, and not just doing office work."
Don, Dana and Ryan work full time, while Chawntelle – the mother of four - works one day a week. When asked how duties are divided among family members, Ryan says, "When something needs to be done, we do it. In general, Don deals with most of the accounting and paperwork. I do the majority of the ordering, Dana takes care of the health and beauty section, and the three of us and Chawntelle are all very hands-on with helping customers, stocking merchandise and the other day-to-day activities of the store."
The store also has three part-time (non-family) staff members.
Ryan says the store's product mix is heavily geared toward supplements. "We want to be known as the destination in southern Alberta for supplements, so we are probably 70 per cent supplements, 20 per cent food, and 10 per cent HABA.
Supplements are growing and the Oz effect has really helped keep people interested in trying new things. HABA has been steady, and food is growing due to our involvement with the Health First food flyer program, which has nudged us into stocking new items that have done well.
Oliver Health Foods operates out of a storefront in a fairly new retail complex in south Lethbridge. Neighbours in the complex include a large drug store, a gym, a bank and a sports store. The store is listed at a modest 1,500 sq. ft., but don't let the size fool you: the Olivers likely have whatever you are looking for, explains Ryan. "We are very well-stocked. We hate having to tell customers to come back in a week to get something. Chances are they will go somewhere else to get it if we don't have it at the moment. Also, we really try to carry the best products available. If a product doesn't work, a customer obviously won't be back to buy more, so there are certain brands that you won't find in our store because we don't trust them. Because we carry high quality products, including our Health First brand, we can offer a money-back guarantee if a customer isn't satisfied. Our customers have been very good to us and we have worked hard to earn their trust, and we are grateful they have kept us in business this long."
There have been a few recent aesthetic changes in recent times. " We painted the store in October and replaced our carpet floor with vinyl planking in November," offered Don. "We have also lowered the shelving on the sales floor by a few inches so we can see what's going on in the corners of the store – it also brings the top shelves closer to eye level for the customer. At the same time, we rearranged our shelving to give the store better traffic flow."
The main industry in Lethbridge has traditionally been agriculture and food processing, but it's getting more diversified with health, education, retail, and the energy industry, explained Ryan. It is the fourth largest city in Alberta, trailing only Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer and the largest city in southern Alberta, with a population of nearly 90,000. "We also have a lot of customers from the surrounding communities like Magrath, Taber, Raymond, Cardston, and Coaldale," explained Don. "Also, we draw from western BC to the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, and from northern Montana to Claresholm." This makes the Oliver's trading area in the range of 275,000 people.
"Lethbridge is a growing city," said Ryan. "We can't take for granted that people know who we are or where we are – so even though we have been around for a long time, we have to keep focused on our marketing efforts. It seems like our college and university here are also growing, so we are starting a Facebook page and a few other marketing initiatives aimed at the younger population.
"We have a Customer Appreciation Day each month that draws in the occasional consumer. We do full page ads in the Lethbridge Herald once a month, and also advertise on the local radio stations around our sale day."
As for celebrating its 60th year in business, Don and Ryan are making the most of this monumental occasion. Ryan says, "We are trying to make it a year-long celebration to reinforce the message with our customers instead of having a big party for one day and then being done with it. We are having monthly anniversary specials with some items being priced at $19.53 or 2/$60. advertised in print and radio. On the actual date of our anniversary, we have special guests coming to the store including Brad King and Dr. Marita Schauch as well as gluten-free birthday cake and a special anniversary edition Customer Appreciation Day."
It is an event to celebrate. Oliver Health Foods has been a fixture in Lethbridge for longer than most of its residents have been alive. But Ryan says a few still remember the old days.
" I know of one customer who has been shopping here since 1953, and he remembers when my Grandpa bought the store and moved in there. We have a lot of customers who are the second or third generation to shop here, and that is pretty neat to think that my grandpa used to help their grandpa or grandma.
"It is also neat to build relationships with both customers and suppliers. Jack Gahler used to call on my grandfather before he started Natural Factors, and we have kept a strong relationship with the company."
Ryan knows he is involved in something special. And he looks forward to prolonging what was started. "I am the third generation of Oliver to work here, and I hope we can keep the business in the family when the next generation is old enough to take over. The store is not only my Grandpa's legacy, but being self-employed is a great way to stay independent and really control your own destiny – and that is something that my Grandpa and Dad have taught me is important."