Canada's business magazine for traditional natural health retailers

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Community Farm Store

community far store staffOne of the most unique things about Community Farm Store in Duncan, B.C. is it holds its management meetings in the soothing waters of the nearby Cowichan River.

 One of the most unique things about Community Farm Store in Duncan, B.C. is it holds its management meetings in the soothing waters of the nearby Cowichan River.

Well, maybe not all of its management meetings are held there. But it’s a telling fact about the store, its owner and management that they can put their swimsuits on, bob around in the Cowichan and solve the store’s (and the world’s) problems.  It’s the ultimate boardroom.

Yes, Community Farm Store is a health food store, with everything you might find at any full-service retailer in the category.  But it can’t be defined in such a narrow scope, because there’s so much more going on there. The store is doing all it can to be part of and influence its community in ways big and small.

 “I guess for me it might be about putting our foot forward as a model for other communities here in Canada,” says store owner Nicolette Genier.  “Encouraging businesses to go the extra mile, to not be just retailers but actually, with intention, see themselves as community builders.  Here at the Community Farm Store, we consciously set out to change the demographics of the region by serving and attracting shoppers and staff who choose organic, avoid GMO's, and wish to make ethical purchasing decisions for themselves and their family. These are the kind of people that can change the world, one purchase at a time, one meal at a time.” 

Celebrating 25 years

Community Farm Store has a charming history.  Started 25 years ago in 1993 as a true farm store in nearby Glenora, its success – and lack of space – prompted a move in 2003 to a roomier location in downtown Duncan.  The new home was in The Duncan Garage, a restored heritage building with 2,000 sq. ft. of space.  An organic coffee bar and vegetarian café were added, offering a healthy, simple menu of items.

By 2014, the store was attracting hundreds of customers per day and had by far outgrown it’s location, and so another move was required.  This time, it was on the outskirts of town – less than two kilometres from downtown Duncan – in a 10,000 sq. ft. space, with a second 7,000 sq. ft. building next door to house a healing centre, a crystal shop and a Waldorf store. “To remain true to the shoppers who lived and worked downtown, and to maintain the symbiotic relationship with our café and coffee bar, we re-opened a mini-Community Farm Store in the Duncan Garage,” said Nicolette.

Transforming  the new location, a large boxy space that had previously been home to an auto parts store, was nothing short of miraculous, Nicolette explains.  “The design of the space happened mostly at my kitchen table.  My builder, Henk, taught me how to use an architect ruler and we spent hours and hours drafting what seemed to be a space that would be suitable for the Community Farm Store. Tami (store manager Tami Popp) and I had lots of conversations – yes, many at the river or the ocean – and our list of priorities included a staff kitchen that would be the ‘heart’ of the store. We wanted staff to be able to prepare food and eat together as part of their workday.   We wanted administrative space that was not hidden but rather overlooked the store and made the managers and staff easily accessible to the customers.  We had to have a space that would showcase our very long and beautiful, custom-made apothecary, which we had pre-built by Henk prior to the move.” 

Multi-purpose mezzanine

Another dream for Nicolette was to have a mezzanine. “The height of our new location barely allowed for a second floor but thanks to cooperation and great suggestions from our builder and the architects, we now have a mezzanine where we can host community events, have an onsite office for the bookkeeping staff, a healing room for the staff and community and a staff bathroom with shower and laundry. We especially love the open design that allows the upstairs area to look out over the store.”

Other priorities included an expanded bulk bin section, a walk-in freezer (which the store never had before), a much bigger walk-in cooler (triple the size of the one they had at the Duncan Garage) and most importantly, that a thriving, beautiful produce department had to be the first thing seen as customers came in. Nicolette dared to defy industry standards that suggested all coolers be on outside walls and she created a very vibrant department for produce and cooler items at the very front of the store to greet the customers, as well as an eye-catching pergola-style front entrance with big beams and a place to grow plants and park bikes. 

Now into its fourth year in the new location, the Community Farm Store has over 13,000 members and is experiencing steady growth. Being strong allows them to address important issues beyond the store’s four walls.  Helping to build a strong community in Duncan and the surrounding Cowichan Valley is something the store focuses on daily, and it starts with food.   “Organic, local and Fair Trade are always our preference,” says Tami. “We don’t carry any coffee, sugar or chocolate products unless they are fairly traded. Each department is clear on what our guidelines are and asks the questions necessary to ensure the potential new product meets our standards. We have a questionnaire for our local growers and we like to make farm visits to see for ourselves and to get to know our farmers better. These road trips also make for some great newsletter content. If we are looking at honey, we have questions specific to hive care and treatment. If we are looking at eggs, we have questions about feed and care of the chickens.” 

Community Farm Store created a buzz a few years back when it first went 100 per cent GMO-free, says Tami. “It took almost a year to go through all the products one by one to create a non-GMO shopping environment. We put up signage to communicate with our customers as to why they may no longer find some of their favourite products on our shelves and suggest alternatives. Now we just need to look closely at anything new coming in to ensure we stay true to this commitment.” 

  Roughly 65 per cent of the store’s sales are food related – grocery, produce, dairy and bulk –  and 28 per cent is supplements, health and beauty and other non-food items. “We would consider ourselves a health and whole foods market,” explains Tami.  “We strive to have the most beautiful organic produce department to welcome our customers but our wellness department (staffed by 10) is a big draw for those customers who are wanting inspiration for their physical and mental evolution. Collectively, our wellness team has credentials in holistic nutrition, herbalism, aromatherapy, reflexology, reiki, energy medicine and homeopathy. We have also employed two naturopaths. Other departments include our beautiful custom-made apothecary (200 bulk medicinal and culinary herbs and 80 teas), bulk food department (with 125 items), pet food, and an ever-increasing selection of reuseable water bottles, stainless steel containers, glass straws, beeswax wraps, mason jars and accessories and other non-food items.”

The store has close relationships with local farms.  “We used to have annual growers meetings to help set out who would be growing what and commit to buying their products. Today, we no longer have the annual meetings but still have ongoing discussions and long-standing relationships with our growers that allow us to buy basically whatever they can grow. There are definitely certain things we look forward to every year. To assure that the produce we are selling to our customers is truly organic, we ask that our non-certified farmers fill out paperwork to verify that they are adhering to the organic practices that are outlined by IOPA.”

Meeting ‘certified’ demands

Tami explains that in other departments – like grocery, cooler and the apothecary – it happens as well, that some of the local suppliers are not certified organic.  “But in all honesty, they have stricter standards than what certified organic demands. If the product is not certified organic, we do follow up with the growers, makers and manufacturers to find out more about their practices.” In many cases, when doing their research on natural products that do not meet their specifications, they are able to help the supplier to take the steps or source out the ingredients needed to go 100 per cent organic.” 

Nicolette had been an employee at Community Farm Store from 1996 to 1999, left, then came back in 2004 first as staff, then as a co-owner.  Today, she is the Community Farm Store’s ‘soul’ owner (the café became an independent entity owned and managed by Susan Minnette in 2012) and much of the tone for the business is shaped by her life experiences and what outcomes she would like to see take place.   

“Having an atmosphere of love, appreciation, enthusiasm and respect for both customers and staff is of utmost importance. We strive towards not taking things personally, taking interest in each other and seeing problems as opportunity for growth and learning. Every question or request and even complaint is an opportunity for conversation and engagement. Conversation can be a very transformational tool if deep listening and true interest in the other person exists. The space between the two people that are engaging is where true miracles can occur.”

CFS does all it can in taking a leadership role in educating people in Duncan with its community actions, explains Tami.  “Nourish Cowichan, Glenora Farm, Providence Farm & Therapeutic Riding Association and Cowichan Valley Hospice are the local organizations that we support on a regular basis through our membership program. This year, in honour of our 25th anniversary, we sponsored the stage for 39 Days of July – a free music festival that ran for 39 straight days.  We have supported events to promote literacy, school lunch programs, local sports, arts, music, shoreline cleanups, local elder gatherings, support for caregivers, Cowichan Woman Against Violence, Cowichan cat rescue, SPCA, search and rescue groups, feeding volunteers at pipeline protests, March Against Monsanto and Green Party events.”

When asked how she would ideally like the community to look upon CFS, Nicolette responds by saying, “As a business that operates for the wellbeing of the community and the planet – not for our own bottom line. A place where people can meet and be met. A place that is true to its values, but always growing and changing with the needs of the times.  I would hope we help people feel inspired and enthused.  When it comes to serving the community, I would like us to continue doing what we do today but do it even better. I’d like us to be known for our ethics but also as the place where you feel the most valued. I’d like us to be known as a place where everyone wants to shop and to work. 

Sense of purpose

“I would like to see us become an educational facility for nutrition, all aspects of health, farming, food production, biodynamic agriculture and more... a workplace culture that values it's sense of purpose more than a pay cheque. To bring the concept of the threefold social order to our community where culture, economy and politics operate autonomously is also high on my list of aspirations. We also have a goal as a store to become a teaching facility of health and wellness in a threefold way – mind, body and soul; thinking, feeling, willing; hands, head and heart. We also plan to incorporate a grab-and-go (or stay) kitchen/café into our vision – these plans are in the works now.”

The Sol Centre (mentioned earlier) helps CFS accomplish many of its goals.  The 7,000 sq. ft. building, located next to the store, is a community space that offers healthy, environmentally-friendly, healing, mind expanding and inspiring businesses a place to come together.  The main floor houses several enterprises – including the  Waldorf Store, CFS for the Soul Crystal Shop, G.I.F.T.S. (Global Initative Fair Trade Store) and Glow Juicery and raw food cafe. Upstairs is a healing community that offers a variety of alternative services and healing modalities, including organic ink/sacred art tattooing, biomagnestism, acupuncture, colon irrigation, reflexology and reiki.  The space also boasts a large room for seminars and workshops and a 660 sq. ft. movement space for activities like yoga, dance and kickboxing.

With strong store management and a great team of 60 staff, Nicolette is able to focus on other things.  “My role seems to be one of overseeing, inspiring and holding vision for where we are going. I have ongoing conversations with staff and management, attend management meetings and work tirelessly in the background with matters of community outreach. It may seem some days that I am no longer in the store, but in truth, I am mostly working with the initiative next door, the Sol Centre and the Freya Sophia Waldorf Store. This is where my heart is right now, but for me, it is not separate. Each day and each task is somehow dedicated to the bigger picture. In terms of day-to-day actions and responsibilities, I attend a lot of meetings that evolve out of local issues and needs of the organizations on which I serve either as a committee or board member. I also strive to learn, so I attend classes, study and engage in a lot of conversations. I also take my responsibilities as an Oma quite seriously -- I absolutely love to have time with my four grandchildren who are ages one, three, four and six.     

“Things have evolved, so that Tami is truly the manager and I am at arms length now, working full time as a builder of community and an ambassador for all things that have been birthed into the world through Rudolf Steiner. I have also been travelling to explore initiatives where elder care and youth (education) and biodynamic farming and food co-ops exist within a close vicinity to each other.  “We have the opportunity to educate and inspire hundreds of people every day.  We are very proud of the work we are doing.” 


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