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Tara Natural Foods

Standing out by fitting in

Rudi Mogl's renovations at Tara Natural Foods have given the store a turn-of-the-century feel, making it a perfect compliment to the historic downtown district in Kingston, ON

Rudi Mogl's renovations at Tara Natural Foods have given the store a turn-of-the-century feel, making it a perfect compliment to the historic downtown district in Kingston, ON

Rudi Mogl is not a person who seeks attention. Nor is he comfortable in the spotlight. Rudi – who has owned Tara Natural Foods in Kingston, ON for over 25 years – is happiest just going about his job and trying to be a good member of the thriving downtown community with as little fanfare as possible.

And yet, it is his passion for simply "fitting in" that has made Tara stand out on so many levels.

A visitor to Tara cannot help but be impressed and charmed by Rudi's efforts over the years. Located in the centre of this historic city, surrounded by heritage buildings just a few blocks from Lake Ontario, Rudi has gone to great lengths to create an almost Victorian ambiance within Tara so that the store fits in with similar buildings in the neighbourhood. The results are outstanding.

It starts with the store front, using excellent colour combinations and signage. Rudi made one subtle change to the storefront during renovations. He created a gentle indentation, setting the front door back from the sidewalk to create some extra space. "Local community groups use the space out front to reach out to the public," said Rudi. "It gives them a good opportunity to meet the public and it is used often."

Natural look

Inside, wood, stone and natural light abound. Maple planks make up the store's flooring. A couple of massive skylights provide natural lighting in the centre section of the store, augmented by the large, uncluttered street front windows. At certain points of the day, the store's lighting system is not required as the natural light does enough.

The original limestone walls are visible in spots, while running down the middle of the store is a brick wall, constructed by Rudi entirely from recycled brick. Strategically placed archways allow access through the wall. Overhead, the store's original tin ceiling has been carefully removed, painstakingly restored and returned to its place. The store's original pine shelving – recovered during the reno – is used strategically throughout the store as much as possible to build on the natural feeling.

Rudi says developing the store's look comes from wanting to be more than an efficient food store. "It's no more expensive to get a little more creative and use your surroundings. Food is natural so its surroundings have to be natural. Certain colours don't work with food (including neon). You need natural light."

Creating the perfect look, says Rudi, is easier if you start with a good building. So, he started almost from scratch. "We stripped it down to the brick and limestone wall. It was totally gutted: the only thing standing was the outside walls. We even took out the original ceiling."

Tara is not alone: a number of downtown businesses had the same idea as Rudi. "Oh yes...a lot of businesses have done this. Some people say Tara was the first. The local bakery did the same thing to a heritage building. Developers have bought old buildings, and spent millions to restore them to their original look."

When asked what makes Kingston's downtown "work" while many downtown shopping areas fail, Rudi doesn't hesitate. "People want to live downtown, because it is a fantastic downtown. There are lots of good restaurants, right on the waterfront, and there is a great farmer's market operating three times a week. That adds to the attractiveness of being downtown. People like shopping in the neighbourhood."

Rudi explained there are more affluent people living downtown than ever before. "Lots of people are selling their homes and moving here. They are not too far from big cities (Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal), plus Kingston offers things like great hospitals and a lively music scene. Also, Queens University, the Royal Military College and St. Lawrence College bring a youthful vibrancy to the community.

"People love being on the lake, they keep their boats in Kingston. It is beautiful. There is lots of government, so it is a stable economy. The largest employers in Kingston are the military, Queens University, the hospitals and the prisons in that order. These are all government pay cheques, so the economy doesn't fluctuate too much."

And – quiet frankly – it is easy to like Kingston. "It was voted one of the most attractive cities to live in in Canada, behind Halifax and Victoria," explained Rudi. "The Canadian shield is just north of the city, with hundreds of lakes. The region is very popular...and north of the city is very affordable. You can buy a lakefront cottage for $180,000."

One of the downsides of operating Tara out of a heritage building is there is no back door: everything has to come through the front doors. Rudi solved the problem by installing a 12 foot high double front door, and reinforcing the floor to accommodate skids that weigh in excess of 3,000 lbs.

However, a major issue arose recently when the city wanted to make a change to the sidewalk outside of Tara that would have created massive headaches for Tara staff. Rudi explains.

A delivery "nightmare"

"Outside our store is an extra-wide sidewalk, with parking recessed into the sidewalk. The extra room around the parking spaces are called bulges. Our delivery trucks use the bulges to unload right in front of the store. The city wanted to eliminate the bulges and replace them with more parking. This would mean trucks delivering to the store would have to park down the street, unload and wheel everything up crowded sidewalks to the front door. It would be a logistical nightmare."

He approached the city, explaining his situation and asked them to alter the plan. When he was turned down, Rudi asked his customers for their support to convince the city to change its plan. He put a public notice on the front door of Tara, describing and showing what the city planned.

Rudi's plan worked. "People were so supportive. They called the mayor and city councilors, and showed up at city meetings. One city clerk said to me they have never seen such a large turnout at a public meeting in regards to an issue."

Rudi got over 1,000 signatures to ask the city to re-consider. People made a dedicated trip to the store just to sign the petition. Even Tara's neighbouring stores – who weren't affected by the proposed change – still signed and supported Rudi.

In the end, the good guys won and the city – very reluctantly – accommodated Tara. "The city was not happy we rallied our customers, but I would do it again. It was not an easy thing to do. I decided to fight. It's scary to go and ask people for their support. But a lot of people know me and Tara and they felt 'he is a good guy who knows what he is talking about and we should support him.' They didn't want to see a successful downtown store face another hurdle."

Over the years, Rudi has built a cohesive team of managers and staff at Tara. Many have been with the company for over 15 years. And when he loses a staff member, it is usually for good reason. Last year, four staffers departed – two went back to school, one retired, and one moved. They had 36 years experience combined.

Rudi has one key when looking to add team members: "I look for attitude. If you get the right people, they'll step up to the plate, they'll learn the job. Attitude is crucial. Also, I look at how people fit into the group. It can be destructive if you have the wrong person. It is really important to find people who fit in."

One source Rudi has gone to multiple times over the years to find staff is the Kingston Youth Employment Centre (KEYS). "We have hired a lot of people through government programs. As many as 20 people have joined Tara through KEYS. Some have been on staff as long as 15 years. There are often challenges: some people have language or cultural differences. Sometimes, they just need extra training. The program virtually always offers some subsidy to support the person during the training period."

Over the years, Tara has won numerous community awards, including best downtown business. Yet, the award presented to him recently by KEYS for being "The Best Community Minded Boss," may be the most meaningful to Rudi. "It made me think 'I must being doing something right."

In realty, Rudi is doing a lot right. He has created a store that fits into the image of surrounding buildings, while preserving as much of the store's heritage as possible. He has made numerous adjustments to make the store as environmentally friendly and energy conservative as possible. He has made Tara a great place to work and shop. And the best part of all is he sees no end in sight. "I still like coming to work most of the time. It is still fun, and I have no plans to retire.

 

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