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Two classic stores in two classic towns

Two classic stores in two classic towns

Brendan Davidson grew up in a health food store.  That fact may have something to do with him currently owning two of his own.

Brendan Davidson grew up in a health food store.  That fact may have something to do with him currently owning two of his own.

Brendan is the owner of stores in two of Ontario’s most quaint and picturesque towns: The Gentle Rain Natural Health in Stratford, and Green Valley Health and Herbs in nearby Elmira.  Both stores are well-established in their respective communities: Green Valley has been operating for 43 years, while Gentle Rain opened for business in 1979. 

Being a first-time proprietor didn’t phase Brendan: he was 25 years old when he took ownership of Green Valley in 2005, but he had been preparing for that moment most of his life.  He spent a good portion of his childhood growing up in one of Ontario’s most established, iconic health food stores – The Stone Store in Guelph, ON.  Brendan’s mother Brenda Aherne is the Stone Store co-owner with Candice Pergolas.  It was established in 1971, and Brenda and Candice have owned it for over 40 years.

Brendan recalls being about 12 years old when he first started working at the Stone Store.  “I started by taking the garbage and recycling out.  After that, I moved on to pricing orders and doing cash. Later on, I started taking on orders and I think I was running the bulk department in high school.”

After high school, Brenda encouraged Brendan to go out and ‘find his own path.’  Uncertain about a future career, he took a factory job.  “It was horrible.  It was an eye-opening experience just to be a number.  Breathing in smog all day and getting rashes from the machine coolant was not for me. I couldn’t stand staring at a machine for 12 hours straight.  After a year or two of that and seeing how unhappy all the people who had been there for years were, I knew it was time for a change.  I wanted to do something that was more stimulating, so I studied for my mutual fund and insurance licenses and went to work in financial services, which meant living on straight commission for two years and basically being unemployed every morning.” 

Brendan decided to return to the Stone Store.  “I always loved the store’s environment, products and customers, but I was frustrated that I didn’t have a say in things and couldn’t do things the way I wanted.”

After being back for about two years, an account rep mentioned that Green Valley Health and Herbs in Elmira was for sale. Brendan and his wife Jen Wilburn decided to take the chance and buy the store, entirely encouraged by Brenda.

 When asked what prompted him to buy his own store, Brendan replied, “I think I just wanted my own show.  I needed to do something and it was either start from scratch or buy Green Valley.  I thought about opening another store in Guelph but the chance to buy the real estate is pretty rare and my mortgage in Elmira was less than rent in Guelph.  I have to credit my mom for seeing the potential in Green Valley. 

 “When we went to look at it, it had been neglected for years. Pretty much everything in the store needed to be replaced, was covered in dust and it had a very small product mix.  They didn’t even accept credit or debit cards.  The plus side of all that was it ended up being a great investment because the building came with it and all the improvements increased sales very quickly.

“It’s also a great little town that is now growing.  It’s so normal now to see all the horse and buggies and Mennonites in town, but it was a big change when I first started.  They were very welcoming and many told me how much they appreciated the store staying open.  It’s weird to see people pulling over and almost getting into accidents to get a picture of a buggy. I never knew Green Valley existed until I found out it was for sale, but it is an important part of Elmira and I was grateful to become a part of that community.”

The store measures 1,100 sq. ft., with about 1,000 of that actual sales floor, plus a full basement.  “We also own and rent the other half of the building so we have room to grow in the future.”

After making the purchase, Brendan recalls there was a lot of work to get the store up to standard. “There wasn’t much we didn’t touch.  The old owner was a bit of a pack rat and we spent weeks going through 30 years of outdoor life magazines and calendars going back to the 70’s.  Over the first couple of years, we repainted every surface and replaced lighting, coolers, freezers, bulk bins and the AC system which was an industrial sized window shaker in the back wall that would have snow come out of it in the winter if the wind blew just right.  They pretty much only carried Swiss and Flora so we greatly expanded the product line. As the store got busier, I could no longer do store work on the counter in between customers so I built an office in the basement.”

Staff needs had to be addressed, too.  “The previous owner of Green Valley had only one employee, Delores Reger.  She was in her 70s when I started and she had worked there since 1972, from when the store opened.  She stayed on with me for what I expected to be a few months and turned into over 10 years.  She just decided to retire this spring at 86 years old although she could still run circles around most people 20 years younger.  She was great advertising for a healthy lifestyle.”

Brendan took as many steps towards sustainability as he could with a small store.  “We’ve done all the normal stuff like lighting retrofits and trying to get the most efficient AC system, coolers and freezers.  We tried to do solar but couldn’t due to Ontario Power Authority (OPA) microFITS restrictions. The biggest thing our building has going for it is that both sides share a common interior wall, so we have very little heat lost or gain due to that.  At some point, I would like to copy what Rudy Mogl has done at Tara Natural Foods in Kingston: he has a compressor room which can be vented or re-circulated.  We will also be replacing the entire storefront this summer and using much better glass and doors that reduce the buildings energy use.” 

There was lots of help from family, too.  “In the beginning, my Grandma would come with me on days when I was by myself to help clean, package bulk and make me lunch.  My sister also worked for me for a couple of years before she left to go back to the Stone Store.  When my sister was leaving, I hired Damaris and she has been here for almost six years.  A couple years later, we hired Melissa, who has been here over four years now.  They have been amazing and when I’m not at the store I know it’s in good hands.  When Delores left, we hired two more staff, Judy and Susan and they are learning the ropes quickly.  My wife Jen has also taken over most of the bookkeeping duties for both stores, which has helped a lot.”

 Having a parent who was a proven natural retailer helped matters greatly.  Brendan leaned on his mom Brenda’s knowledge and implemented similar successful systems she had used.   “She is still the first person I call with a problem or concern. I had worked in every part of The Stone Store and learned a successful system. I knew all I had to do was implement it in this new location and that it would give me a great starting point.  I was surprised at the difference in customer demand, though.  Things that we couldn’t keep in stock in Guelph we couldn’t give away for free 30 minutes away in Elmira.  Also, being a Health First member at The Stone Store got my foot in the door and I joined right away and started taking advantage of the flyer program, which is something I could not have done on my own.”

Gentle Rain purchased in 2014

 In 2014, Brendan bought The Gentle Rain.  Similar to the Stone Store, the Gentle Rain has long had an iconic stature within the industry for many reasons.   Long-time owners Eric and Marsha Eberhardt were leaders both in their community and within the industry on organic, environmental and sustainability issues.   For many years, the Gentle Rain has sported a very distinctive look, with its roof covered almost entirely in solar panels.  “I always looked up to Eric and he was one of the first people that I would look for at any of the HF AGM’s or meetings,” recalled Brendan.  “We always talked about his solar panels, canoe trips and how to make things more efficient.  He helped me try and get a solar array installed at Green Valley, which didn’t end up happening.  I had always told Eric to keep me in mind if he ever decided to retire.”

After Eric passed away in 2010, Brendan kept in touch with Marsha.   A few years later, she was ready to sell the store, and so the process began.  “I think most people know how dedicated Eric and Marsha were to the environment and making the store sustainable but I don’t think everyone knew how smart Eric was in business.  He had a lot left to teach and he left us too soon.”

Prior to purchasing the store, Brendan had numerous factors to ponder.  “I guess the first one was if it was even financially possible.  Next was how much time would running two stores take? Would it take too much time away from my family?  I knew my staff in Elmira was up to taking on more responsibility and I had pretty much trained myself out of a job there anyways. 

Changes to be made at the store were fairly minimal.  “Most has been maintenance related… we painted the outside to freshen it up and replaced some windows.  Inside, we have re-done our walk-in produce cooler.  This year, we are planning to paint the inside, and the biggest thing is to get a POS system up and running.  I didn’t want to change the feel of the store; it already has so many loyal customers.

One of Brendan’s biggest concerns going in was if he had the ability to manage such a large staff (GR has 23 people on its team).  “It was something I had not done before.”  But he soon realized it would be all right.  “I got to know Eric’s general manager Michelle and his supplement manager Sara and a few other senior staff over the years at Health First meetings.  I knew how competent they were at running the store.  Everyone has been very welcoming and accepting.  I think they were happy it was someone they knew and that knew Eric and would continue to run the store like he would have.  Michelle (19 years) has been my right hand this last year.  Sara (18) takes care of our supplement department with help from Adrienne (8), Alicia (3), Val (1) and Dori (new).  Liz (9), Debi (3), Nancy (4), Barb (2), Lou-Lou (new) and Laila (five) look after most of the food.  Anita (8) is our bread lady.  Noel (9) looks after produce.  Heather (4) and Becky (new) look after bulk.  Jan (8) looks after spices and some office work.  Becky (22), Franny (3) and Kaitlyn (2) are our packagers.  And Megan, Dani and Haley are our students.”

The drive between the stores is a pleasant 45 minutes, entirely through prime Ontario farmland.  Brendan divides his time fairly equally between them, either spending a full day at one, or he may visit both in the same day.    The biggest difference between the stores is size: the Gentle Rain is twice the size, with a 2,250 sq. ft. sales floor.  “Also, Green Valley doesn’t have a produce department, but that’s something we would look at in an expansion.”

HFN membership has helped

Brendan credits membership in the Health First Network (HFN) with being a great help to his stores.  “I can’t say enough good things about HFN.  I got my foot in the door through Stone Store that had joined at Eric’s suggestion.  It gave me access to a great flyer program that I would not have been able to pull off by myself.  Both stores rely heavily on it now for pretty much 100 per cent of our print advertising.  The networking part has also been great and gave me access to people that I wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for HFN.”

Brendan is a rarity in this industry.  He is deeply connected to three of the oldest, most established health food stores in the province.  However, it’s not something he has ever dwelled upon.  “I guess there are quite a few second-generation owners now, but it’s rare to be second generation in the industry and not be a part of your family’s store.  Years ago, I never knew if I would be able to buy in at the Stone Store.  I remember being at a Health First meeting on succession planning and people wanting to know how to exit their businesses and thinking, ‘I have the opposite problem, I want in.” 

Brendan certainly got his wish: he is definitely in with both feet firmly planted in two of our industry’s oldest stores,   •


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