You could say La Boite à Grains came full circle in 2010. The Gatineau, QC. health food store celebrated its 30th anniversary in November (see CNHR Jan-Feb 2011) and the Gatineau Chamber of Commerce also named it Business of the Year.
Pierre Menard, the owner and co-founder of La Boite à Grains, chuckles when asked if it took him 30 years to become ‘an overnight success,’ gaining the attention and accolades of his community, bestowing upon him and his stores such an honour.
“It was quite a complicated process to go through, to be nominated for the business of the year,” he relates. “There were many nominees. There was a panel, and they asked lots of questions about your business. You had to really be on your game to go through it. And the gala they held on awards night... all the local radio and television stations were there, and there were over 1,000 people in attendance, all members of the chamber, all local businesses. It was really something.”
Yes, the red carpet, the paparazzi and the spotlights illuminating the Gatineau night sky are certainly a far cry from the very humble beginnings of La Boite à Grains. It really has been an amazing journey for Pierre. He has witnessed incredible change to his city and to the people who live and work there. When asked what he thought his store meant to his neighbourhood and the city of Gatineau, he can now see very clearly the role it played.
“I think we provided a turning point in the natural health and alternative movement in this area. And it all revolved around our store’s bulletin board. People would come into the store seeking things like contacts for practitioners and any type of information on natural health. You have to remember; there were no underground papers or magazines and no Internet. Our bulletin board helped to connect the local natural and alternative community… people were looking for massage or reiki or other natural practitioners. We were the first store of this kind in the area. All the hippies and long-haired freaky people came from 75 miles around on this side of the Ottawa River. People were looking for information, and La Boite à Grains was the place to find it. Our bulletin board was the main communication vehicle for these people.”
Pierre’s story is similar to many of those retail pioneers who came before him, and followed him in later years; it was a person following his heart, chasing a dream. “I always enjoyed this way of life, and after opening the store, I loved the interaction and the relationships with customers. I know I could have made more money doing something else. But I really wanted to help people. Our store really helped bring the community together. So, I’m not saying we created anything except maybe a sense of community or togetherness.”
For those who have been in the natural industry as long as Pierre, you can identify with some of his early challenges in getting his business up and running…and stocked. There were Quebec-based natural companies, but not many. This forced Pierre to travel. “I had to cross the bridge into Ottawa in my old Dodge Dart twice a week to get product. Many companies wouldn’t sell into Quebec, because we were the only store in this area, west of Montreal, plus companies needed a license to sell into Quebec, and back then, many couldn’t be bothered. I was bringing back things like bread and yogurt…the car was so full, it felt like I was hanging half out of the car. It was so full. I did that for a few years. Believe me…in the old days, it was hard to get product. And it was rare to see reps, too.”
Pierre shakes his head when he thinks of how inexperienced he was about some aspects of the retailing business. “I had to learn marketing and merchandising on the fly…I simply didn’t know how to do it. We had to watch and learn to prepare for the ‘big boys’ who were moving in to compete with us. I always took the time (and still do) to visit other stores to see what they were doing – even if I was in another town or province or country, sometimes at the expense of a family vacation. Even a small 500 sq. ft. store in a small town…you never know what you’re going to learn…a supermarket or a drug store…even a hardware store might have some type of merchandising or presentation you can learn from.”
When Pierre opened La Boite à Grains, he had two partners. But after 20 years, the three had grown in different directions. So, in late 2001, Pierre bought out the other two, and brought in another partner. This proved to be a monumental point in the store’s history. “Real Deslauriers came in after spending over 30 years in a big grocery chain. He had tremendous ideas and we shared the same vision for the store, which direction we wanted to take it. I guess I realized we as a store had peaked. We needed someone from the outside, someone more experienced, a professional from the grocery side to help. I wanted to do many things but didn’t know how to do them. Real allowed us to do these things.”
This period represented something of a re-birth for Pierre, giving him newfound energy to try new things, take on different projects and explore possibilities. Leaning on Real’s experience, he was able to make the changes to the store he had long wanted to implement. In 2005, they took a major step when they opened a second La Boite à Grains in town.
These days, Pierre is in a position to stop and look back at the path he has taken over the past three decades, and the affect La Boite à Grains has had in his community. He sees more young people and young families shopping at his stores. He notices customers are more savvy and educated and knowledgeable about taking control of their own health, and what they need to make this happen.
He is also humble and realistic when asked how much he and the store have played in creating this new breed of customer. “It’s not just us, but we’re part of it. The way society has evolved, we’ve always been there. The 35+ age group now realizes good health requires a total holistic approach…it’s all-encompassing. Health issues are more talked about than they were 20 to 30 years ago. It requires good food, exercise and spiritual balance. I’m proud that we have played a part in this, and had a hand in creating this way of thinking.”
There are little things that mean a lot to him. “We’re seeing third generation customers. Currently, we’re employing the kids of my original customers.” These are the things that keep him going – inspired, focused, always ready for more. “It’s still fun. I’m still always learning. I have some plans...expansion plans. I want to continue to try and create prosperity. It’s not just about making money… its about re-investing the money, creating new jobs and new opportunities.”
In a day not too far away, Pierre knows his good friend and partner Real will step away from the daily grind of the store and retire. He’s earned it. At that point, Pierre will continue his journey, but not alone. He will be seeking out a new partner or partners. He’ll be looking for young people with good ideas and their heart in the right place. He’ll be trying to find a new partner with energy and vision and drive…the same qualities Pierre showed in 1980 at the beginning, and the things that keep him going now. •
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