Ave Maria Gifts and Specialties recently marked its 25th year in business. Proudly announcing itself as “the largest natural health food store in northern British Columbia” on its website, co-founder and co-owner Dave Fuller calls it, “a meeting place for people trying to clean up the air, feed the world, broker peace or get rid of fluoride in Prince George.”
Opened in 1988 by Dave and his business partner Louis Matte, which was followed by a second store – Mother Maria’s in 1998 – Ave Maria Specialties is a full service health food store, offering a huge selection of herbs, vitamins, HABA, minerals and organic groceries. It also carries a high-end gift selection and – to assist people with their spiritual needs – a selection of Catholic bibles, books and gifts such as rosaries, baptism gifts, and statues.
On a recent visit to Prince George, Dave shared some of his thoughts about his store, his community and his experiences during a quarter century of natural retailing.
CNHR: Congratulations on reaching 25 years. What does hitting this huge milestone mean to you personally?
DAVE: The funny thing is when I started 25 years ago, I had no concept that I would be still doing it 25 years later. I was 23 when I started Ave Maria with my partner Louis Matte – who was a land developer – and it was just a fun thing to be doing.. running your own business and trying to get customers and growing the business to what it is today. Louis never spent much time in the business but financed it and I made lots of mistakes with his money until I got the feel for how things should work. I guess the milestone is really a time of reflection... life is really short and I don’t want to waste my time... I have looked at my options and decided that I really do love retailing and especially working with my customers and my staff and the people in the industry and am really grateful for the opportunities I have been given.
CNHR: Looking at the past 25 years, what do you think your stores have added to the fabric of the community? What do you think Ave and Mother mean to your customers?
DAVE: I think that Ave Maria has really become a community store in the full sense of the word. It is a hub for people meeting people, leaving messages and packages for people, for people to come for information regarding alternatives to their health and ideas about things that they have heard in the media and want to bounce off someone. We have been involved in health issues in our community including cleaning up the air, trying to get rid of fluoride, pesticides, GMOs and the like. It’s still fun to be involved in those issues and talk to people in the aisles who are passionate about making Prince George a great place to live.
CNHR: Prince George is a working town: industrial, lumber, etc. How has the attitude to natural health changed with the people over the years? And what do you think your role and the role of your stores have played in guiding and supporting people to adopt natural health changes in their lives?
DAVE: I think like a lot of places in Northern Canada, Prince George is resource-based and when we first started, much of the community was “red neck” in the sense that loggers, miners and sawmill workers would never be seen in a health food store and would never take anything that wasn’t doctor prescribed. I think now, like many places in Canada, that too has changed and people are more open to alternative medicines and practices. When we started, there were no naturopaths in Prince George. Now there are six or seven. I think over the years Ave Maria – with the help of our suppliers – has contributed to the awareness, through the educational seminars, health shows and in the aisles talking to customers every day.
CNHR: What are the biggest challenges of retailing natural health products in such a northern – and in many ways remote – community?
DAVE: Distance is a big issue in a country the size of Canada. If our store was in Toronto, we could get special orders for customers in a day or so from most suppliers. Many times, it takes a week or so. Shipping costs also come to play when sourcing and getting our customers products. We tend to pay more in shipping.
CNHR: For a few years, you were a member of the CHFA board. Did you find that helped connect you with the national health community? What were some of the positives to come out of your CHFA involvement?
DAVE: I was actually encouraged to become a CHFA member by one of my competitors who sold me on the value of the CHFA and I have been a believer ever since. I got involved on the board in the 1990’s at the urging of Donna Herringer who was board chair at the time because I was causing trouble in the industry trying to get a random testing program going. We have always wanted to sell products that worked for our customers and when suppliers were bringing me tests showing that what was on the label was not in the bottle (according to the lab tests) I grew concerned. We started testing products ourselves and I went on to talk to labs in other parts of the country where we found similar issues. To make a long story short, the CHFA started to work on the idea of a random testing program at the time and eventually passed this on to government. There are now programs available that test products (consumerlab.com) for retailers who are interested.
The benefits of being involved in the board of the CHFA or even committee work for that matter are many. Not only do you get to meet retailers and suppliers from all over the country, but you get to hear what is going on and add your two bits. The board work is fascinating and I would strongly encourage retailers who have a few extra hours a month to put in their time on the board. You will see a whole other side to the industry and get the opportunity to work with some incredible retailers and suppliers.
As a retailer, I believe that it is important to be involved and give back to the community and have always been involved in different organizations over the years using my skills as needed. I have just gone back to university to do an MBA, so have cut back a little lately, but still believe in the benefit.
CNHR: You are a member of the Health First Network. Why?
DAVE: The Health First Network (HFN) is the best thing to come to our industry for retailers since wheat germ revolutionized it in the 1970’s. HFN is a group of retailers working together to help face the threats of today, mass market stores, increased competition, and lack of time. The group allows us to share ideas, and get new ideas on how we can keep our store profitable and easier to run and it supplies us with services that I wouldn’t have time to do myself. Other store owners are now my friends – not potential threats!
CNHR: How did you get involved involved with Vitamin Angels, the charity that sends supplements to needy children in Third World countries?
DAVE: I first heard about Vitamin Angels on a trip to Chicago to visit the NOW factory. NOW is a big supporter of the Vitamin Angels and had the founder Howard Schiffer speak at the dinner. I was so moved by his talk that I stayed later and talked to him. As a result, we did a campaign in our store with Flora and sent a pallet of Vitamin A to Vitamin Angels in the States. It was after CNHR Magazine did a story on what we did that the Health First Network (HFN) took up the cause and I believe to date has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Vitamin Angels and as a result has prevented blindness in tens of thousands of children in developing countries around the world.
Once HFN took over with Vitamin Angels and we participated in the program through them, we raised money for wells in Africa for an organization call NUDF (Northern Uganda Development Foundation) which was started by my friend Dr. Chris Opio. When I went over to Africa in 2008 with NUDF, I took over a bunch of supplements that were donated generously by suppliers. While most were given to a poor hospital in the region, I saved some and gave them out to people in the villages.
It was an amazing experience and I encourage other members of the health food industry to get involved in helping raise the level of health in areas where the need is greatest.
CNHR: Who are the key senior support people on your team and who are some of the people who have been with Ave Maria and Mother Maria for a long time?
DAVE: I can honestly say that one of the best things about working and being in the store for the past 25 years is the people I have met and worked with including my partners. We have really been blessed with amazing staff over the years. Kathy Hart, our store manager and partner in Mother Maria’s, has been working with us for 20 years. Rachael Ryder our bookkeeper and Marie O’Callaghan were working as teenagers setting up the store in 1988 and still work for us. Many of our key staff, including Maureen Hogan, Josephine Scott, Emy Pinera and Maggie Vardy have all been with us for over 15 years. Other key staff like Mel and Theresa, who are herbalists and work in the aisles daily with our customers, are pushing 15 years. We were joking with our marketing manager Deanna the other day (who has been with us only two years) that the time goes fast.... and it sure does. I never thought anybody would ever retire from Ave Maria ... I thought maybe they would go work somewhere else. But indeed, people have retired after working much of their lives here and as retailers, we have to give credit to the work our staff does day in and day out serving customers, listening to their stories and helping them get well!
CNHR: Do you have good luck finding staff when needed?
DAVE: You don’t need luck to find good staff...try to treat people well, pay fair, provide a fun place to work and good staff will find you!
CNHR: Any final words of advice or inspiration for other retailers?
DAVE: If you are reading CNHR because you are in this industry, you might think that you could make a lot more money doing something else and it could be true. However, there is no other industry where people are as wholesome, creative, and willing to help others (including their competitors). The health food industry is a wonderful place to spend your life and its the people in the industry from the farmers that grow the herbs, authors and speakers and magazine writers that sow the seeds, people filling caps at the factories, sales reps that fill the orders, retail staff, to the hippy CEOs that make the health food world go ‘round and make it vibrant. You are part of this wonderful industry and it truly is a great place to be right now.
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