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Durham Natural Foods

durham natural foods storeDurham Natural Foods has seen two distinctly different phases in its 39-year history.  It has been a big operation.  And it has been a small operation.

Store owner Gilles Roy and his brother, store manager Ray Roy, agree: they prefer the smaller – and current – size of the business.


A long-serving health food store in Sudbury, ON., Durham Natural Foods operates out of a 1,000 sq. ft. house in the northern portion of northern Ontario’s largest city.  

The store is located in an almost perfect location, straddling two worlds.  Literally steps to the south is busy LaSalle Blvd., a high-traffic, commercial east-west artery that sees thousands of cars daily.  Not far away is the New Sudbury Centre, the city’s largest mall.

And just across the street, to the north of the store, is a quiet residential neighbourhood, which has proved to be the source of abundant foot traffic since the store opened in this location in 1990. 

When Gilles and his wife Louise started Durham Natural Foods in 1978, they opened in an 800 sq. ft. space in the core of downtown Sudbury on Durham St. (which is where the name originated).  Although she was six months pregnant, Louise was very involved with starting the store and getting it up and running.  And  even though she was actually a full-time mother to three, she continued to be involved in many aspects of the store over the years.

Like most of the pioneering retailers in our industry’s history, Gilles and Louise had their ups and downs and challenges, as they were going into unchartered waters where few retailer had gone before.  But they persevered and made it work. 

After three years – in 1981 –  it was going well enough that they decided to open a second store.  This one would be opened in the quickly expanding northern part of the city (not far from the current location.)  “We decided on that area because of the number of people who were moving to that area,” recalled Gilles.  “There were many new homes with big lots and new neighborhoods.  It was very residential…definitely the suburbs.”  The new store was in a mall and measured 1,500 sq. ft.

One issue that had to be dealt with was finding a second store manager.  It was at this exact time period that Ray – Gilles’ brother – became “available.”  Ray took over as manager of the existing downtown store and Gilles headed north to oversee the new venture.

Memories of the mall

Gilles remembers both good and bad about the mall location.  Two things that were negatives were the high rent and the fact the store had to stay open based on the hours the mall dictated.   The best thing about the location was a steady stream of traffic, so the pros and cons balanced themselves out.

Downtown at the original store, things got busier.  In 1982, to accommodate demand, Gilles and Ray found a new larger space.  “It was in the brand new Canada Trust building,” remembered Ray.  “It was only two blocks away but it made a huge difference.  We started to see a lot more foot traffic, as all the banks were located in that area. 

With a new 3,000 sq. ft. location in a brand new building, Gilles thought it was time to try something new and different.  “When you’re that age, in your 20s and early 30s, you’re pretty confident in yourself and figure you can do anything and it will work.”  And so, Durham Natural Foods opened a natural health restaurant in the store. 

The logic of opening a restaurant was sound, explained Gilles.  “We sell such good food in the store, it’s just logical to want to expand on that and offer the finished product to your customers.”

The one thing that made the restaurant work right from the start was hiring an experienced chef.  Soon, the restaurant was busy and the downtown store was buzzing with activity.  Gilles was even able to parlay the successful downtown food venture into something beneficial for his northern store.  “We set up a food bar in the second store.  The chef would prepare food that we’d take up and sell.  It worked very well.”

Amazing growth

At this point, Durham Natural Foods was at its absolute zenith: starting with an 800 sq. ft. space, the business now had two 1,500 sq. ft. stores, with a full-blown 1,500 sq. ft. restaurant and a food bar service.  It was at this time, recalls Gilles, that they started to take a look at the business and its direction.  “Adding the restaurant and food service bar kind of took us sideways for about a decade.  It was a major challenge, but we were able to survive it.”

Ray says things came to a head about two years later when the chef left.  “When that happened, he was almost impossible to replace.” The restaurant and food bar lasted another few years but after five years of operation, Gilles decided to pull the plug.  He still thinks the idea was a good one.  “I think in some ways, we were way ahead of doing things in Sudbury no one else was doing.  Maybe the community just wasn’t ready.”

Meanwhile, up at the north store, Gilles was going through some other issues.  “It became really difficult to operate in the mall, because you are really forced to follow their rules regarding store hours.  You had to be open the same hours as every other store.  The hours were really long and then they introduced Sunday shopping and you had to be open for that, too.”

Not long after, a potential solution materialized. Gilles spotted a house for sale on nearby Montrose Ave.  “It was a little house, and I walked by it all the time with my kids.”  He toured the house and began thinking about the possibilities.  It was 1,000 sq. ft. on the main floor, with a 500 sq. ft. one-bedroom apartment in the basement, and another 500 sq. ft. room.  Gilles saw the potential of this house as the future home of Durham Natural Foods.

Gilles made the plunge, and bought the building.  The store has been in that location ever since... for 27 years.

Ray says the two stores had a relatively uneventful stretch until a new crisis popped up in 2003: Canada Trust had sold its downtown building and the new owners wanted Durham Natural Foods out.  “We hunted for a new location and we just couldn’t find anything suitable.” 

Two become one

At around the same time, Gilles had been considering the option of operating just one store.  “Because we couldn’t find a suitable location downtown, the idea of consolidating the two stores into one was starting to make sense.  And after studying the feasibility of it and going over all the numbers, we realized the best option was just to have the Montrose store.”

In retrospect, the move was a good one, said Ray, as the downtown core was starting to go through major changes.  “The timing was good, as a number of business were vacating the downtown, including all of the anchor stores, including Canadian Tire and Eaton’s.”

“Where is Ray?”

Once the decision was made to consolidate, Gilles and Ray had serious concern that the move from the downtown core would result in the loss of their downtown customer base.  Ray had spread the word about the move with those merchants who remained, in the hopes they’d direct customers to where they could find Durham Naturals.  But they knew that would not be enough, so they decided to have a bit of fun.  “The one thing I think we had going for us was that Ray had built a huge following among his customers,” recalled Gilles.  “So, we ran an ad campaign based on the theme ‘Where’s Ray?’ We ran it for six months to make sure people knew where we had moved and where they could find Ray.  The ad also had a five dollar coupon.”

The campaign worked as 90 per cent of the downtown customer base began shopping at the Montrose location in New Sudbury.  “I never would have projected that high a number,” said Gilles.

Combining two stores into one was not without its challenges.  “We now had to accommodate staff coming to New Sudbury from the downtown store with hours,” said Gilles.  “We doubled our staff overnight, so we had to adjust.  It took a lot of thought to make it work, including expanding our hours to give staff the hours they needed and to make it more convenient for our downtown customers.”

Adjusting to customer needs

And for the reasons they left the mall – being told when to open, including on Sundays – society was now making the same demands.  “To stay viable, we had to expand our hours.  We now had to be open Sundays and evenings.  In the mall days, we had a small staff so it was hard to do.  You have to adjust to customer needs and the trends of society.”

A major reason for the store’s success has to be partly attributed to the ability to maintain dedicated and long-term staff members.  “We had one person stay with us for 14 years.”

After 39 years in the natural health retailing business, Gilles has seen his share of fads, phases and trends.  He has seen our industry evolve.  And he has seen how the migration of our products into the mass channels has forced traditional stores to cope or die.  “The first product to go mass was granola.  Then it was yogurt.  This forced us to look for replacements.  We soon realized that there were other granola and yogurt people around who were better and with more cutting-edge products.  We found good companies – some just starting out – that wanted to break into the market.  This worked perfectly for us, as we were food experts who offered knowledge and good product.

 “The same thing works today.  There are always new cutting edge products and that is our job: find them, learn about them and sell them.  There is always room for a specialist, offering knowledge and good service.  I think there will always be people looking for that service and unique products.”

Gilles acknowledges that more people are buying natural health products online, but he knows there is just as much confusion as clarity for online shoppers. “Those are the people that come and see Ray.  They trust him and they have confidence in his recommendations.”

More focus on supplements

Ray says in the beginning, Durham Natural Foods was just what its name implied – 80 per cent of its sales were from food, with the remaining 20 per cent being supplements and HABA.  And now, that number is reversed.  Food accounts for 20 percent of sales, while the majority of sales are supplement-based. 

“It is getting harder on the food side, as everyone is doing food.  It’s getting harder to find unique food products, as it doesn’t take long before they end up at the grocery store.  Costco is amazingly nimble at jumping on product.  We might get a six or 12 month exclusive on a product, then suddenly, it’s in Costco. Same price, but double the size.  We adjust, then move on and look for the next big product.  It’s about being a pioneer in the finding of these up-and-coming new food products.”

Gilles is philosophical about how things have changed and is willing to even share the credit (or blame) for the current situation.  “When we got started in this business, it was to bring good food and good supplements to people.  So from that aspect, we succeeded.  People are eating better food, taking greens and supplements.  Health food stores were the leaders in this area, and in other things, like causes for the environment, recycling and bring your own bag programs.  I was using solar power at my cabin 25 years ago.  Now, this stuff is common place.”

Word of mouth

When you’ve been in business almost four decades, you garner an established following. “But we also see a steady stream of new customers, too,” explained Ray.  “Our reputation is good, so we are seeing lots of new people who come to us through word of mouth.  We appreciate that type of recommendation.” 

The store implemented a rewards program in January.  “We didn’t know who our customers were,” said Ray.  “Now, we have their contact info and we can track purchases and visits and that is a big deal.  Every customer counts and you always have to be prepared to innovate.”

Durham Natural Foods became a member of the Health First Network (HFN) just over 10 years ago, and Gilles says that has been a huge benefit to the store.  “We were part of the original Vita Health buying group in the 1990s, which became the United Health Merchants and then HFN.   We joined HFN a few years later and it has worked superbly for us.  It’s nice to be independent, but it’s also nice to be with a group who are looking out for each other.”

Gilles served on the HFN board for three years and learned a lot being part of it.  “I did pick things up by osmosis.  Networking was valuable with board members, especially at the annual general meetings.   Peer to peer gatherings makes a difference.  When I go to a HFN meeting or AGM, I always want to bring at least one thing home.  Being part of Health First has definitely had an effect on our ability to succeed.”

Durham Naturals has always spent two per cent of its annual sales on some form of advertising, ranging from newspaper, Yellow Pages, TV, radio, and alive Magazine. The store also has a website and Facebook page.

Gilles says the major reason Durham Natural Foods has been able to stay relevant for 39 years is by knowing who they are.  They had their taste of going big with two stores and a restaurant.  The current situation is perfect.  “You have to look hard to see if what you have now is really good.  Doing nothing or remaining who you currently are is always a consideration.  It’s a tough decision to make, especially for young people.  But it’s important to be aware of what you have and what you want…beware what you wish for.  That said, you can’t have regrets.  It would be terrible to be in your 50s or 60s and look back and wonder ‘what if’ or ‘maybe I should have’ …”  

People want personal service

Gilles has seen some health food stores in Sudbury come and go.  He has seen the expansion of organic food and supplements into other retail channels and online.  He says the one thing that has remained consistent over the years is people want personal service. “That remained steady: they want service from someone they know and trust.  And that will never change.  It’s all about service and customer relationships.  If you don’t enjoy serving people and interacting, don’t do it.  But if that’s what you like doing or being able to lead a staff to do, you will succeed.  You have to have the mechanics in place – things like inventory control.  But what will make you is one-on-one interaction with people.  We are still able to serve.”  •


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