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Foodsmiths at forty

Foodsmiths at forty

During its 40 years of business, Foodsmiths has been through a few things.

There was the devastating Tay River flood in the third year of business that wiped out most of the store’s stock, almost dealing the young business a deathblow.

When interest rates climbed above 20 per cent in the early 80s, Foodsmiths founders/owners Claire and Don Smith saw their store perched on the brink of demise.  This happened just after they had purchasing their building.


During its 40 years of business, Foodsmiths has been through a few things.

There was the devastating Tay River flood in the third year of business that wiped out most of the store’s stock, almost dealing the young business a deathblow.

When interest rates climbed above 20 per cent in the early 80s, Foodsmiths founders/owners Claire and Don Smith saw their store perched on the brink of demise.  This happened just after they had purchasing their building.

A major road construction project once reduced customer traffic into the town of Perth, ON to a trickle during the busy warm-weather tourist season.

And yet, Foodsmiths stands today as one of the jewels of the Canadian natural health industry, a 6,500 sq. ft. testament to the determination of its owners and staff.  It’s a model of retailing excellence, and by putting all its efforts into better serving its customer base, it is a store that has served the people of its region well.  Along the way, it has garnered more than its share of local and industry awards and accolades.

Community leadership

One of the things that has helped to define Foodsmiths and attract a loyal customer base has been via taking a leadership role in its community on a number of fronts.  When it started operating in 1976, it was the only business in the region offering natural and organic products.  In the early days, there was a lot of trailblazing required, educating the people of Perth and area on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle or alternative foods. Familiarity and knowledge about these products was virtually non-existent.

Environmental influence

Staying in step with Claire and Don’s personal beliefs, Foodsmiths has been an influential force in the region in spearheading environmental initiatives, be it recycling or reducing one’s carbon footprint.   The store sets a good example with its use of low-energy lighting, solar panels, vitamin bottle recycling program and its BYOB program (bring your own bag), which has diverted thousands of plastic shopping bags from landfill.  In 2010, Foodsmiths earned the Certified Green Business designation, awarded by the Green Business League.

Foodsmiths’ reusable bags and BYOB program caught the fancy of a group of citizens who liked the idea so much that they took it to other large retailers in town and convinced them to start offering a ‘Perth’ reusable bag at their stores.  “It became a runaway success,” says Don.  “We credit a BYOB account 10 cents for every bag saved, then donate that amount monthly to a pre-chosen charity that changes monthly. Organizations apply to be the recipient.”

Don says having solar panels on the store roof (used for its hot water heating) has generated interest and inquiries from customers.  “It has caused people to stop and consider this, and how they might apply renewable energy in their own lives. Because the store is in such a high-profile location, it made sense to put a spotlight on what we were doing.”

Another environmental homerun for Foodsmiths was the introduction of its vitamin bottlerecycling program.  “For every empty vitamin bottle a customer brings back to us, we give them a coupon worth 50 cents, which they can use toward their next vitamin purchase,” explained Don.

The local food bank is also a beneficiary of Foodsmiths, receiving any food that is still edible, but for some reason cannot be sold.

Serving region’s charities

Various charities in Perth and surrounding Lanark County have been helped via Foodsmiths in-store events.  A charity dog wash, an annual Empty Bowls event and the recent Ladies’ Day (featured in the last issue of CNHR) have all resulted in money raised for worthy groups, as well as helping them gain a much higher profile in the community. 

The Empty Bowls program has been supported by Foodsmiths since 2004. Local artisans make unique, handcrafted ceramic bowls, which are sold for $25.  Foodsmiths’ staff members call upon their expertise and knowledge to create delicious and healthy soups to fill the bowls.  All proceeds go to local sustainable food programs, including The Table Community Food Centre, YAK Youth Centre, and Food for Thought Breakfast and Snack programs in Lanark County schools.

Pursuit of excellence

If there is one quality about Claire and Don that has most defined them and their store, it is their never-ending pursuit of excellence.  Don said, “We are constantly looking at how we can be better.”  This applies to all parts of the business, from product selection to staff training to charity events to better ways to cut costs.  It is always getting better because that is how Don, Claire and staff are wired: they are always looking for an edge, the newest trend, an idea that will make them more valuable to their customers.

Multiple awards

As a result of this attitude, Foodsmiths has been noticed and recognized many times over the years with awards, both locally and nationally.  Community awards have included: Environmental Stewardship in Lanark County Award (Art of Being Green Festival), Perth & District Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year Award, and Perth Courier Reader’s Choice Multiple Awards, including for Fresh Fruits & Vegetables, on three levels: diamond, platinum and gold.

At the industry level, Foodsmiths has been recognized multiple times with awards from the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA), including The Brock Elliott Award for Excellence in Retailing, The Environmental Spotlight Award for environmental leadership, the Spirit of Giving Award and twice being presented with the CHFA Sustainability Award. 

10 turning points in Foodsmiths’ history

Sitting down with Claire and Don recently, it is apparent that their passion for natural health retailing has not waned: in fact, it has grown stronger through the years.  “There is still passion there,” says Claire.  “We still like what we do.”  

One of the interesting aspects of a 40 year-old business is looking back and determining what its “make-or-break” moments were.   When you consider all of the things Claire and Don have gone through ­– first to get the business up and running, then to make sure it was nursed through the rough early years, and then to make it strong and able to grow – they agreed to try and sift through all of their efforts, ideas, plans, occurrences, ups and downs to come up with a “Top 10 Turning Points,” a list of events, decisions and strategies that have affected the progress of their business since the beginning.  Here is what they came up with.

1: Live and learn the lifestyle

In the mid-1970s, Claire and Don lived in Vancouver, and through friends, were introduced to alternative foods and the corresponding lifestyle.  They became involved in setting up the East End Food Co-op, which incorporated natural and organic foods.  Returning to Ontario, they wanted to create something similar to what they had just experienced on the west coast.  At first, they considered setting up a business in Ottawa, but ultimately settled in the Perth area, drawn by the appeal of country living.  They started their business in 1976, born out of a group of people buying bulk food and supplies together twice a year.      

“It was natural for us to be living and learning the lifestyle that got us into this business,” offered Claire.  “It is a way of life that questions how we do things, what we’re feeding ourselves, and how we treat and deal with sickness. From there, we wanted to offer an alternative to the products available, and the way business is done. You’re not going to go wrong with transparency and honesty.  It’s great to see that it’s becoming more common, thanks to the ability of the Internet to connect people.”

2. Recognizing and investigating opportunities

“This may mean moving the business to a better or larger location once you understand the market you’re selling to,” said Don.  “It also may mean not being afraid to take risk, albeit calculated, thereby leading the market in what you do and the way you do it.”

Claire and Don have always watched for these opportunities.  As mentioned earlier, their business was born from a demand by friends that were buying as a group, who were interested in having an alternative food choice to what was available at the time in conventional food stores.  They ran the business from the back porch of their log cabin. 

As demand increased and the business grew, it necessitated a move from the back porch to a storefront location in Perth, allowing customers more convenient access to goods, plus giving the fledgling business a much-higher profile in the community.  In total, Foodsmiths has moved five times, acquiring more floor space and/or improved parking with each relocation.

Don relates another example of watching for opportunities and capitilizing.  “We increased our produce offering when the local grocery store burned down.  It’s important to be adaptive…seeing something and being flexible, and see if you can use it in your business. And no, we didn’t start the fire.”

3. Learning from scary times

“Four years after opening the business, we moved into and purchased our first building,” recalls Claire.  “and then, the recession of the early 80’s hit and variable interest rates went up to 22 per cent and spending slowed down to a crawl. During that period was the closest we came to bankruptcy, but we learned valuable lessons that would make us smarter and wiser for the future, such as; don’t get too far into debt without a good strategic plan and good outside expert advice. We learned, of course, how to be as efficient as possible, and how to get innovative with marketing.”

Looking back, Claire says there was another side benefit to the rough periods.  “When you go through the challenging times, it makes you appreciate your staff and customers.” 

4. Taking great ideas and improving on them

“The Beatles were a great example of this,” said Don. “Whenever I travel, I look at the way other retailers do things and ‘borrow’ great ideas and apply them in an appropriate way to our market.”

Claire gives an example of this, telling the story of one of Foodsmiths’ promotions, the annual charity dog wash.  Customers brought their pets to the store’s parking lot, and were treated to a bath.  All funds raised went to animal-related causes and the event helped raised awareness for the organizations.  “This is an idea that came from Lori King, who was the owner of Alternatives in Oakville.  This is something she had tried with success, so we put it into practice and it worked for us for many years.”  

5. Have a great HR person

“The people in your business make or break it,” says Claire, “and don’t expect them to do business any different than you do. Set a positive attitude and respect people and it will make staff happy and self-confident, and you’ll have a lot of people passionate about their job and focused. If someone is not working out or not fitting into the business culture, if they’re worth it, try them in another area of the business.  They may have been hired into the wrong job description. If it still isn’t working, change it up…let them go. Don’t be scared of making hard decisions.

“Hire people and let them be themselves and shine.  Find out what they are best at.  People who are a cultural fit to your business are the best candidates.”

Foodsmiths currently employs 30 staff, and Claire and Don are quick to share the credit for the store’s success with them. “They have been the real foundation of the business, and continue to be,” said Claire. “We’ve been fortunate over the years to work with a lot of interesting people.”

6. Get involved in your industry

“Network with colleagues,” suggests Don.  “Get to know them…you can learn a lot.”  Don has been at the forefront of this initiative:  he was a founding member of the Health First Network in 1999, and served a term as the organization’s chair  and was even temporary CEO.  He is currently a board member of the Canadian Health Food Association. 

While Don has been an active participant in industry activities, Claire focused more on building bridges and relationships with community groups.  She was the chair of the Food For Thought group and for years was a director on the board of the local Chamber of Commerce and other community organizations.

7. Separate yourself from the business

Claire says, “Take time off; go for a holiday. You won’t regret it and you will work better once you’re back. Of course, this means giving other people authority in your business and – surprise, surprise – they might even do things better than you do.”

Concentrate on doing what you do best, adds Don.   “It can be demoralizing to have your staff keep watching you doing the same things poorly over and over. It wasn’t very long after we started our business that I realized I would never last if I had to be tied to the cash register or other tasks that someone else could do (and do better than me) while I became frustrated not doing the things I knew I was best at for the business.”

8. Parking = convenience

“Out of the five locations our business has occupied,” relates Don, “the two where we increased parking is what catapulted our business into being very successful. Of course, there are many aspects to a better location, but the parking was huge for us, due to serving a rural population.”

9. People and Marketing

“There are two things that you will always need to focus on, or be involved in as an owner; your staff and marketing…always ‘selling’ yourself and your business,” says Don.  “Foodsmiths keeps its community aware of what it is doing (or has done) via advertising, our website, press releases, Facebook and Twitter, amongst other social media avenues.”

10. Plan ahead

“Use reminders, be one step ahead of your customers and if possible, your competition,” says Don.  “Get the ‘less pleasant’ tasks out of the way, get a system in place so that it will run as smoothly as possible. Do your research…the bigger the purchase, the more research that’s warranted. Get comparison pricing wherever possible. When contracts come up, don’t re-sign by rote. Pay special attention to the large recurring costs on your balance sheet. A few hours can pay thousands of dollars worth of savings over a year…and that translates to a pretty good hourly rate for you. We’ve been able to drive our cost of doing business (excluding staffing) down for the past number of years despite growing the business.”

Staff contributes thoughts on Foodsmiths’ turning points

After Claire and Don had completed their list, they asked their managers for their thoughts on what events have helped shape Foodsmiths.  Here are some of the things they consider are Foodsmiths turning points:

1. When our business was three years old, we were located by the river that runs through Perth. The spring of ’79 saw the highest snowmelt and consequent water levels in recent memory, flooding our storage area in the basement. It was sickening to have to take cases of pecans, almonds, 100 lb. bags of beans and flours to the dump. The insurance company called it an uninsurable Act of God, just about putting us out of business.

2.  We’ve done a number of customer surveys over the years. One of the first ones we did – about 20-25 years ago (pre-Internet) – gave us some great insight as to what our customers thought. We started opening Sundays as a result of that survey.

3.  In 1995, when we got our first POS system, the ability to use shelf tag price signage and to stop using individual price stickers was almost as liberating as tearing down the Berlin Wall.

4.  Around the same time as getting our first POS system, we were the first grocery store in Perth to begin accepting credit cards as a payment option. Since it was a few years before the other major grocery stores followed suit, it was nice to have an edge on them due to the exclusivity of the service.

5.  We sold a lot of local cheddar cheese in the early days and saw an expanding potential on a greater variety of cheeses, imported and Canadian. When we moved to our current location in 2003, we decided to go into cheese in a big way, becoming a major cheese destination in eastern Ontario with a large island cooler dedicated exclusively to cheese.

6.  After the start of Canada’s most recent recession and the Harper government brought in their “Job Action Plan,” Perth applied for and received a grant to undertake the largest construction project in its history, to completely re-construct the main artery road connecting Hwy 7 to downtown. Since we’re located on that road, it had a major impact on our business, and for that matter, all of Perth. It shut the road down from four lanes to a single one-way lane from March to November, during our busy summer tourist season. Some businesses in town went down by 50 per cent, the average was 30 to 40 per cent.  We dropped by only 10 per cent during that period. We learned a lot…directing customers how to get around the construction to get to our store, lots of marketing initiatives, and we gave customers lots of reasons to make the effort. Plus, it didn’t hurt being beside the only beer store in town.

Serving the community

Claire and Don are among just a handful of Canadian natural health retailers who started the business and 40 years later, are still at the helm.  It’s been an amazing journey, and its one they continue to embrace. 

For Don, one of the important roles Foodsmiths has filled in Perth – both in words and in actions – is getting people to think about the way they do things, their health, their community…their world.  “I think we have encouraged…challenged people, to think outside the box… with the end result being that they improved their life, or someone else’s.”

“What we do is all about serving the community,” concludes Claire.  “Managing a small business in a small town gives you a unique perspective.  It involves a hands-on approach with your business and your community.  If you care about people, you can build something truly special.”  •


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