Canada's business magazine for traditional natural health retailers

11 minutes reading time (2161 words)

Fresh start in Bracebridge

muskoka natural foodsMuskoka Natural Foods Market has new owners and  a new expanded home in a busy downtown location.

How do you replace a legend?  How about by creating something legendary in its own right?

This is what happened when two couples bought a well-known health food store from its original owner and then moved it into a high-profile space and created an amazing thing of beauty.

Muskoka Natural Foods Market has new owners and  a new expanded home in a busy downtown location.

How do you replace a legend?  How about by creating something legendary in its own right?

This is what happened when two couples bought a well-known health food store from its original owner and then moved it into a high-profile space and created an amazing thing of beauty.

 

When Curt and Laura Dunlop and Jed and Shannon Corbeil bought Muskoka Natural Foods Market from Jane Langmuir in November 2015, they knew they had big shoes to fill.  Jane is somewhat legendary in Ontario’s natural health community.  She was a founding partner of Toronto’s The Big Carrot in the early 80s, and was the founder and sole proprietor of Muskoka Natural Foods Market in Bracebridge, ON for 28 years.  She created a big following in the region over the years, which has served as a wonderful launch pad for the new owners.

Laura, Curt, Shannon and Jed had some strong ideas for the store, backed by their own business experience.  “Jed and I have been in business together since 2008, with a craft beer pub, an events company and a wedding band,” explained Curt.  “We were looking to make investments that aligned with our beliefs, allowing us to focus more locally (our events business takes us to Toronto often), into an industry that was growing.   And we wanted to get our talented wives involved in a business they would enjoy and be proud of.”

Deep roots in Bracebridge

All four were regular long-time patrons of Jane's store, and have friends who had worked for Jane, so they had some insights into the business.  Another thing the group has going for it is a history in the Bracebridge area.   “We were all raised here, and have our roots in this great community.”

To make sure the transition was as smooth as possible, it was decided that Laura would ‘shadow’ Jane at the old store for two months prior to the deal closing, learning Jane’s various methods, theories and practices on the many aspects of running a store. 

muskoka naturals staffWhen the group took possession of the business on November 2, 2015, Curt says the first thing they did was gather the employees to offer some peace of mind.  “We reassured the staff that we were not here to make any sweeping changes to their employment, and that we were focused on making small improvements to the great business Jane had built with the great staff.”  The frank discussion worked, as virtually the entire staff moved over to the new store, so there was a great deal of continuity in the transition and a potential crisis was averted.  It also opened up the door for more opportunity and responsibility for many of the long-term staff. 

The next major business decision to be addressed was the store’s location.   For years, Muskoka Natural Food Market had been located just west of the downtown in a strip mall on Highway 118.  However, the lease at this location was up in 2016, and Curt said they either had to move quickly to sign a new long-term lease or find a new spot.   They decided to look around to see what was available.

Upon investigating potential options, they found an excellent spot on the downtown’s main street, roughly a kilometer away.  The new space was large and held loads of potential.  It had served many retail roles in the town’s history, the most recent as a Sears store. The owner was retiring, so the timing could not have been any more perfect.  

Curt said the new location was secured with the help of a real estate agent, and negotiations began on very familiar footings, as Curt had worked for the building owner during high school years when the space was a Home Hardware.  Jed’s mom had also worked there.  “A benefit of being in a small town is having personal relationships that can help make things happen,” said Curt.  “We sat down with our accountants and the real estate agent, and made it happen.”

The location had things the previous spot lacked.  “We liked the fact that it would put us in the public eye, that we owned our own parking lot, that there was lots of square footage, and that a renovation would be fairly simple.”

muskoka naturals muralOn May 1, the group took over the space and set a target opening date of July 1, just in time to welcome the first crush of summer tourists. “We started with a ‘dream budget,’ and then down-graded it to a ‘reality budget,” said Laura.  “After we started looking at the costs of some of the things we wanted to do, we had to cut it down.”

With keys in hand, they had 58 days to transform a former Sear’s appliance store into a booming natural health store.  Right out of the gate, there was an issue.  Removing the long-affixed linoleum tile was taking longer than expected.  All parts of the reno ground to a halt.  Ultimately, the tile was removed and the floor was polished down to its beautiful concrete origin, but a week was lost in the process.

The reno was a big job: lots of walls had to be removed and new ones created.  An entire kitchen had to be installed, along with the requisite electric and plumbing needs.   Washrooms had to be added, too.  In the store’s backroom, a 12’ x 30’ walk-in cooler was installed.

A local company – Propeller Fine Homes – was brought in as general contractor.   Better known for the creation of some of the finer homes and cottages in the Muskoka region, Propeller was a natural fit to do the job, as one of the partners (Gavin Hammond) was a long-time friend of Jed and Curt, and is also married to the store’s front-of-house manager Sarah Kernohan. 

During the reno, some incredible post-and-beam work was uncovered, much of it in the area of the store’s mezzanine and the stairs leading up.  Virtually all of it had been dry walled over in previous renovations and now it is enjoying a second life and adds some welcome character and reveals some of the store’s history.

Although the mezzanine is currently the only area that has not been made customer-ready, work is already underway to make the most of this unique feature.  “The plan is to put a yoga studio in the front part of the mezzanine,” points out Jed, and then turning, adds, “while the back part will be for what we call ‘co-offices.’  This will be aimed at people who maybe work from home and want to come here and enjoy a coffee and do some work.  They will be able to go up to the mezzanine, and have a quieter space to work away from the main café seating area.  We will have work stations set up, and they can spread out, have some peace and quiet, with full wifi access.  We will rent the space out on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.”

There is a whole world going on beneath the mezzanine, too.   It is an inviting, cozy and intimate area.   It is where you find bulk items, the kids’ section, organic produce and a special space dedicated entirely to gifts.  

Shelving on wheels

Out on the store’s main sales floor, a “help” desk is located dead centre, and there is always a staff member in the area to answer customer questions.  In a trend being seen in more health food stores across the country, many of the shelving units are on wheels. In a moment’s notice, they can be shuttled off into the area below the mezzanine, creating a massive space that is ideal for meetings or guest speakers.  “One thing we are planning to do in the near future is hold a monthly concert series in that area,” explained Laura.

The Deli Lama was a fixture at the old store – an onsite kitchen preparing healthy vegetarian snacks and meals.  It was popular but always crowded.  The new expanded Deli Lama kitchen area is at least six times the size (roughly 20’ x 40’) and includes two distinct seating areas.   The larger one is adjacent to the café, with rustic, over-sized wooden tables and chairs – offering a real Muskoka feel to the dining experience. 

muskoka naturals seatingThe second seating area is at the front of the store and like the other area, it offers the rustic tables and chairs.  However, it also has a long counter, running the width of the large floor-to-ceiling window facing busy Manitoba St.  It has stools and it offers diners a chance to relax, enjoy the sun and watch the world go by.  Also at the front of the store – and you see it the second you walk in – is one of the store’s most striking features, The Living Wall.  Utilizing Woolly Pocket planters, it is a wall of plants.  It is pre-plumbed, with irrigation tubes leading up to each plant.  They are fed on a timer.   It brings a welcome element of serenity to this dining area.

From virtually any place in the store, you can see the murals.  Stretching up from the floor to the top of the 16 foot high walls, they command your attention without being obtrusive.  A giant blue jay overlooks activities below in the deli.   A red cabin in the main dining room has a real working door, beckoning patrons to venture out to the 60 seat outdoor patio (weather permitting!)  The entire back wall of the store is a birch forest in winter.  And at the check-out area, a brilliant crimson cardinal leaves customers with a lasting impression.  “The murals were painted in only six days by a Brazilian couple based out of Toronto called the Clandestinos,” says Laura.  The artists have extensive international experience creating large-scale public murals. 

Although the entire look of the store was a group effort, Laura is quick to give much of the credit to Shannon.  “Shannon is a graphic artist by trade, so she has a real sense of what works and what doesn’t.  She had a big influence on how the store looks now.”

Currently, the sales floor is officially listed at 5,000 sq. ft., although it feels bigger. (Editor’s note…it feels like 6,000 sq. ft.)   There is also a large back room for receiving, storage and food prep.  In addition, there are offices in the back.  This was an upgrade from the previous store, which was totally maxed out at 3,500 sq. ft.  “Jane's store had almost no storage or office space, the aisles were cramped, and the shelves were overflowing,” said Curt.  “Most of the expansion was minimal, and was more about creating space and comfort.”

One of the new bells and whistles added that the old location couldn’t have is an expanded bakery.  The old store did some items – muffins, treats and bread – but now the new store offers an expanded selection of gluten-free, organic and vegan products.  “Bracebridge is without a bakery,”says Curt, “so we are hoping to fill that void.”  The new café has a dedicated staffer – Kathy Hunt – on duty to make customers their favourite coffee, juices and smoothies.  

muskoka foods living wallCurt says from the first day the new store opened, feedback from customers has been amazing.  “Comments vary… people like the decor. They like the expanded selection for food and drink. They like the location.   The space is truly inspiring. We're becoming a hub. We're being discovered by locals who had no idea the old store existed.”

Not surprisingly, the Dunlops and Corbeils are not finished.  If anything, says Curt, they’re just getting started.  “We’re planning on moving up to the mezzanine soon.  We have lots of ideas for the business. We want to create a monthly concert series. We want to get more partnerships, talks and demonstrations with health practitioners and product advisers. We want to use our parking lot for seasonal events. We want to convert the shed/entrance to a greenhouse. We want to get feedback from customers to tailor the products to what is desired...maybe more grocery store feel, or maybe we're more supplements and remedies...”

 Laura says the strength of Muskoka Natural Food Market will continue to be outstanding service.  “We know we can’t compete on price.  We have an amazing, educated staff in place.  We are fortunate they came over from the old store to join us in the new location.  We will continue to focus on providing our customers with outstanding service.”  •

 

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