Two Farm Kids Natural Foods in Brandon, Manitoba is owned and operated by....well, two farm kids. Sylvia and Greg Ubell both grew up on farms, so it was really a no-brainer that in 1988 when they opened their own independent natural food store that the “two farm kids” name would stick.
“When we brainstormed ideas for names for our natural food store, "two farm kids" really spoke to us about who we were, and with a message that we hoped our client base in Brandon would well understand,” says Greg.
With their backgrounds, this husband and wife team couldn’t have picked a better location for their store than the rural and agriculture-based Brandon.
“I grew up on a small farm in the bush,” says Sylvia, “with three quarters of mixed grain farming and livestock north of North Battleford, Saskatchewan. We were big into gardening, selling potatoes to the town folk, berry picking, canning, and raising all our own meat and dairy products. I remember that grocery shopping meant buying only hundred pound sacks of flour and oatmeal, salt, and spices and very little else, as we had our own meat, vegetables, grain and fruit.”
Greg had a similar experience, being raised on a small mixed farm that grew wheat, barley and oats and raised cattle, pigs, chickens and turkey. He describes them as pure and happy times and says the many days of hard physical labour that went along with them served as true character builders. “The work and responsibilities that I shouldered as the oldest of eight children served me well. Not too many jobs were daunting after growing up on the farm, and in many early jobs off the farm, the instant I said I was a ‘farm kid’ I was hired.”
Sylvia learned hard work and self-sufficiency as a farm kid, and even when she left for university, she never strayed far from her roots. “My lifestyle has always been the simpler the better, and if something needs done, doing it myself has been on the top of my list. I guess other people might see that as hard work, but it's been that way my whole life. So, starting a natural food store was never a worrisome proposition but rather an extension of what we already did at home.”
But before Sylvia and Greg went into business together, their careers went in completely different directions before meeting in the middle. Sylvia was a high school teacher in Saskatchewan with majors in English, resource and conservation geography and social studies. During her last two years of teaching, Sylvia was assigned to teach home economics based on her background and upbringing. “I think I started to realize then that I really had something to teach others about a healthy lifestyle as I was being complimented often by students, parents and staff.”
Greg’s career took a more indirect path. He went from driving farm tractors to driving heavy equipment, building roads and then headed to an Edmonton college for journalism. He later returned to road construction and then worked seismic exploration. “Driving a three-quarter ton truck packed full of explosives over rough terrain, I delivered each drilling rig their dynamite every morning. Maybe that's where I learned customer service. Handling a potentially explosive customer is not such a scary thing. Seriously, we have well-mannered customers but I'm ready to handle any situation.”
But their very different career paths didn’t leave a lot of room for each other. When Sylvia was off in the summers, Greg was working 12 hour days on road construction. This was one of the main reasons they decided to pursue the idea of opening a business together. At first, they contemplated starting their own bookstore. With Greg’s background in journalism and desire to write a book someday – coupled with Sylvia’s expertise in teaching – it seemed like a natural fit. But ultimately, there was a stronger pull back to their roots. “There was this desire to provide healthy food and a healthy lifestyle for our children, now that we had elected to stray from the family farm setting,” says Sylva. “We had actually turned down an offer to take over Greg's family farm as he was offered the chance as the eldest son when his parents were looking at retiring. So it was our way of staying in touch with our roots, and a way of paying homage to our parents at the same time.”
So, in August of 1988, Sylvia and Greg decided to go ahead and open a natural food store. After extensive research, they chose Brandon, which was in the middle of 80 per cent of all the arable farmland in southern Manitoba.
“Although the area was new to us, we thought this was the ideal place where we would be surrounded by farm folks. Some stumbling blocks were in our way, like the moratorium on strip malls being built in an attempt to revitalize business in the downtown core,” says Sylvia.
But that didn’t deter these two determined farm kids. After some looking, the pair stumbled upon an empty piece of land on the growing west end of Brandon. Greg took up the negotiations to purchase it and build their own place from the ground up. And it was a scary time for both landowners and new business owners, with interest rates climbing to 18 per cent over the next five years.
“We dug in and survived those first very lean years of ‘low harvests’ and ‘high input’ costs, just like any "sane" farmer would do,” says Greg. “In the long run, owning our own property has turned out to be the very best break we could have got.”
Being the hard working and self-sufficient couple they are, most of the finishing work was completed by them. Greg painted walls, stained wood cabinets and built all the warehouse shelving with his father. Meanwhile, Sylvia, pregnant with their third child, painted colourful stripes and logos around the perimeter of the retail space right up until the day before their daughter was born on August 1. A couple of weeks later, on August 19, 1988, they were officially opened for business with their new 5,100 square foot store.
In the last five years, two additions to the original building added square footage: first, 2,200 sq. ft. in 2006, then another 1,100 sq. ft. onto the back in 2008, to create a new warehouse and offices, and turning the old warehouse into more retail floor space. Much of the de-construction and re-construction was done by Sylvia and Greg, with help from their “jack-of-all-trades” son Connor. A total makeover for the entire sales floor was completed in the summer of 2009.
“All the old shelving was replaced, and we added new checkouts and supplements service counter to match,” explained Sylvia. “And we elected to create all shelving units with a low profile, so at only 5’ 2”, I can see over every uncluttered cabinet and view the entire store. We recycled many materials including our old warehouse shelving, and redesigned other existing display units to match the new black shelving. I am especially pleased with the new cork flooring and the paintings on the walls done by a Brandon artist.”
It has most definitely been a team effort at two farm kids since opening in 1988. And during that time, the team has grown, as, all three of Sylvia and Greg’s children grew up in the store and worked in various capacities.
While their two oldest – sons Kelcey and Connor – have moved away from working at the store on a regular basis, daughter Keegan has been doing her part since she was just 18 days old when she began entertaining the sales reps from her playpen in the office. Today, she has become their “go-to girl.” She manages all the office operations, including accounts receivable and payable, payroll, month end and sales data. Greg says she is extremely adept at working on the inventory database, and analyzing sales data, doing purchase orders and receiving. In the next few months, she will be working on revamping their website.
“Keegan can cover any other area as needed, so she often catches us up on packaging, fills shelves, checks off orders and works the tills and customer service over lunch breaks, or when someone calls in sick. Sylvia used to joke when the kids were little that she needed to clone herself, and now she jokes that her clone is better, faster and much more efficient.”
With such capable help, Sylvia and Greg are gearing toward a five-year retirement plan. They would love to keep Two Farm Kids Natural Foods in the family, especially if Keegan would want to tackle it as a career. “But there is absolutely no pressure on her should she decide, like I did, not to take over the family farm,” says Greg. “Kelcey and Connor do have careers planned out but there could be consideration on their part to be silent partners for their sister should they all choose. Definitely she is so very capable of doing a fantastic job but at only 23 years old, we feel she still must explore any options that she chooses.”
Sylvia adds, “Selling the business outside of the family would be difficult, as it has been like another child to be nurtured, but should that happen, we would be proud to pass on a great business in a comfortably stable community in which to live, work and raise a family.”
In the meantime, Greg and Sylvia continue to serve the customers of Brandon as they have done for the past 23 years with a lot of hard work and dedication. And today, says Greg, when these two farm kids look back, they can see they have come a long way. “It's satisfying to look back at all we have accomplished, much of it with good honest hard work, and it's still satisfying to hear customer comments like, "I don't know what I would do if your store wasn't here.” •
Story: Delia Carnide, Photos: Bruce W. Cole