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Wilderness Retailing

wilderness retailing

This is a story about my good friend Rhonda Taylor.  Last year, she bought The Hazeltons Health Food Store (formerly Country Herbs) – along with her sister Brenda Parkes – in the very remote northern half of B.C.  (directly east of the Alaska panhandle!)

Rhonda and her partner Dave Marek, a retired wildland forest fire fighter who is now a certified ocean fishing guide, came upon the store while looking for a home in the Hazelton region.  Although it wasn’t for sale, owner and founder Lorna McLeod found in Rhonda a kindred spirit, the kind of person she thought would take care of her “baby,” the store she had founded and nurtured for more than three decades.

I first met Rhonda in early 1999 at her store, Vital Health in Creston, B.C.  Within a year or two of that, she sold the store.  To get a phone call from her last year saying she was coming back as a store owner made me happy, because to me, Rhonda is the epitome of a natural retailer: passionate, knowledgeable and great with people.  Plus, she has that retailer spirit and soul.   It’s been a year since she bought the store, so I thought you might enjoy a little tale about a woman who has settled in a wilderness paradise with her true love and her family.  Here’s a Q & A with my friend about her latest adventure.                     

CNHR: What is the population of Hazelton and surrounding area?

Rhonda: We have about 1,200 folks.  First Nations accounts for roughly 80 per cent of the population in this area.  However, we do draw a small amount of customers from Terrace (11,000) and Smithers (5,000), for those that enjoy a beautiful hour to 90 minute drive.

CNHR: What were the main reasons you decided to do this?

Rhonda: I moved to the area, because of a new relationship. We were looking for a home to buy and I was looking for something I loved to do.  I am also crazy.

CNHR: How long has this store been in existence? 

Rhonda: The Hazeltons Health Food Store has been around for 34 Years.  The person I bought the store from – Lorna McLeod – is an extraordinary woman. October of 2018 would mark her 33rd year of business. Back in 1985, Lorna and her husband Don set up business in their mobile home, with her cash register on her kitchen counter.  Eventually, they purchased an addition for the side of their trailer, but soon they outgrew that, too. Then the inspiration of building an independent building on their property turned into a reality. Today, decades later, the store is a gem to the Hazeltons.

CNHR: You mentioned the happiest you’ve ever been was in Creston.  What were the things that made you happiest?

Rhonda: It was the first time I realized what a control freak I am.  Being self-employed means being autonomous.  It means I get to take the blame or credit for whatever is happening.   

hazeltons health foodI absolutely LOVE/LOVED the customers.  There is something profound and beyond rewarding to have the privilege of helping someone help themselves.  To share their tears and triumphs. There is a special trust that you earn.  Seriously, how often do you get to just outright ask someone if their bowels are moving properly? You live through people's pregnancies, losses, divorces, engagements, graduations… all of life's experiences that make us human. If I was having a “feel sorry for me day,” there is always that customer that walks in with more courage and strength than I could ever muster in a life time – just to get out of bed.  Some folks are battling just to stay alive.

CNHR: You’ve said before that you love “all the moving parts” being a store owner brings. Maybe that’s part of what makes you happy?  

Rhonda: You are stretched to the limits on a daily basis, but it makes for great character building.   It is the daily Rubik's cube.  You simply cannot be linear.  Boredom is hard to come by.  I would agree, if something can hold my interest, it definitely makes me happy!

CNHR: Who else is involved in the store with you and what is everyone’s job/responsibilities?  

Rhonda: My partner Dave Marek has been a major support.  I have hired part-time help and Lorna comes in on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons.  

My mom Lynn Fleury moved here in late November, 2018. Over Christmas 2018, I convinced my sister Brenda Parkes to invest in the store.  She moved out in the spring. We haven't lived in the same province for over 20 years, so it is awesome working together.  We both bring different strengths to the table.  We all serve the customers, price and stock items.  Brenda’s son Sean Parkes has been invaluable for store appearance.  He makes sure the store is spotless.  He fills the bulk bins, packages bulk foods, lifts everything over 100 pounds. He keeps the grounds clean and tidy....cutting grass, sweeping, etc.  

The biggest job that we all do is engage the customers.  We have amazing visits and conversations.  This area is extremely colourful.  It supports a full spectrum of professions and passions.  The area is magic.  People help and work together, it isn't dog-eat-dog.  It is a true community!

CNHR: What are some of the things you’ve done since taking over?  

Rhonda: I have done a lot of renovations:  added windows, painted, and built a deck for the customers to sit in our park area and enjoy the view.  I have added a lot of different products.  As I have lived in major cities for the majority of my life, I like to bring "the big city" to me and fit it into this peaceful country lifestyle.

CNHR: What are the major challenges you’ve faced and how have you overcomed them? 

Rhonda: My greatest challenge has simply been to be myself.  It was important for me to approach the business in a way that was comfortable for me, but also reflective of me.    

Lorna was an icon.  She had some pretty massive shoes to fill.  She offered many products that were reflective of her lifestyle.  I too have my beliefs and had to be respectful to others, but also myself.  This meant that I did bring in things like organic and/or free-range meats and coffee.  The biggest change we have made is to bring in organic produce.  It was a selfish move on my part, but the area has embraced the convenience, especially during the winter months.  Out here in the woods, folks are not used to a lot of choices.  The people here are very honouring.  The most common comment we get is:  “Thank you for buying the store and being here!”  Most folks had the assumption that Lorna would just close up shop and the store would no longer be here. During our casual conversation when I first walked into her store, I expressed how much I missed my customers.  She said she just knew that I would take care of the people that she had taken such good care of for decades. 

CNHR: Any advice for retailers who are thinking of buying an existing health food store?

Rhonda:  When you want something and believe in something, nothing can stop you!  I happened to have an awesome friend that helped me with a loan, along with my amazing love interest, who believed in and supported me as well.  You have to be a bit crazy and creative in your thinking.  You cannot leave a lot of room for limitations.  

I don't think I would have felt as confident to start a store on a whim, but this store was well established and the whole situation just felt right.  There were too many magical moments to deny that this was the right decision for us. 

Story: Bruce W. Cole      Photos: Dylan Marek

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