When the Pakosz family was planning a new building to move their health food store to, they all had the same word at the top of their wish list: wow.
After years of continually outgrowing the space at a strip mall, the owners of Healthyway Natural Foods in Campbell River. B.C. – Donna and Will, and Will’s parents Kay and Bill – made up their minds to create something big enough for now and for the future, and they wanted it to be special. “We aimed to create a ‘wow’ factor when customers walked through the door,” says Will. “We wanted our merchandising and store layout to have an intelligent plan.”
The family’s vision has worked. There are lots of wows with Healthyway, and it starts outside. The building exterior has many elements borrowed from the region, utilizing wooden posts, cedar shingles, stone and barnboard at the entrance way.
The wows come fast and furious as you enter the store and look toward the supplement department. Brightly coloured wooden crates are used prominently in displays and end caps. Product is augmented by things like wicker baskets and handbags, flowers and live plants. A few open umbrellas hang from the ceiling. The aisles are wide and the lighting is good.
Donna is quick to duck the spotlight regarding the store’s look. She credits each department’s manager and their teams for creating attractive and distinctive displays. “The entire team contributes to the look. Will and I have a vision, but lots of other people helped bring it to fruition. They take pride in their work environment and do all they can to make it better.”
Donna points to supplement manager Kira Neumann as the perfect example. “Kira is a great department manager, and she is also an accomplished artist away from work. This comes through in how she makes things look in her department. We have lots of people on our team who have a creative hobby or skill away from work. I think what they are doing is creating a place they want to come to work in.”
Another strong contributor to the store’s creative efforts is grocery manager Lance Surina. Fairly new to the Healthyway team, he is a native of Campbell River. He was lured back to his hometown from a job at Whole Foods in Vancouver, and with him he brought some good ideas for creating appealing displays, end caps and case stacks, says Will. “Lance has helped push our merchandising expertise…he has really contributed in this area.”
Will says this focus on wowing customers has worked. “Many customers don’t realize what they are looking at but they do feel it.”
Will’s connection to the business came in 1993 when his parents Kay and Bill bought an existing health food store in town and re-named it Healthyway Vitamins Plus. “It was 600 sq. ft.,” recalls Will. “I joined as a part-time receiver in 1995. It was just a summer job while I was going to school, but I ended up never leaving.”
As his parents neared retirement, they proposed to Will that he take over the store. Knowing it was a big job, Will consulted with Donna to gauge her interest in joining him. At the time, Donna was just finishing up a degree in social work. They both saw the store as a great opportunity, so they took it.
Like many retailers, Healthyway moved because they needed more space. They had literally outgrown their original store in a strip mall many times over, growing from 600 sq. ft. to 3,400 sq. ft. “Our first store had four expansions,” recalls Will. “All we could do was take over the unit or half-unit next door when they came available. We were enjoying growth, but we couldn’t keep up. It just wasn’t practical or functional anymore to try and grow this way.” With no where else to grow, a total lack of office space and a desire to have a more updated space, Donna and Will began to look for a new site.
Their wish list consisted of two points: a spacious rental space with adequate parking, but their search resulted in nothing. They found it virtually impossible to find a good commercial property in Campbell River to meet their needs. So, they changed their thinking and began to look for a building they could buy.
One location they found had some positives: it was downtown and it had a great parking lot with three points of entry and space for 25 vehicles. That said, it needed major work. “It was the site of a former Arby’s fast food restaurant,” recalled Donna. “The lot had been neglected – it was totally overgrown. It really was a stain on the downtown. It took a lot of vision to imagine how it would look.”
Donna and Will were not discouraged by the downside: they bought the property in partnership with his parents and went to work.
Will sketched what he thought they could do with the building. “We had to hire an architect…and he did a good job of conveying our vision, plus he incorporated some of his own ideas.” They used the existing Arby’s shell, gutted it and began making changes to suit their needs.
By the end, the Pakoszs had brought their vision to reality. “The finished product is very close to the original sketch I made,” says Will. The store measures 6,000 sq. ft., counting the back room and café (a brand new feature at Healthyway). There is now a second floor and it houses the store’s office and staff room, taking up roughly 1,200 sq. ft.
The remaining 1,500 sq. ft. on the second floor is taken up by a yoga studio. “We wanted to create a destination that could offer other health opportunities for our customers,” said Donna. “We secured a renter before we started to build. We thought it would be an attractive location for another business, being above a health food store in the downtown area. I think it has been a benefit to both our businesses.”
The new and improved Healthyway has created a positive ripple throughout the town, says Donna. “It was definitely well received. City employees were happy with the development: we took a run-down eye-sore and improved it. The rest of the community has always been supportive. Existing customers loved everything. The new store provides a better shopping experience, we’re offering more selection, more food products, our new meals to go, and with the added space, it’s much easier to maneuver. It seems as if everyone was pretty happy with everything we did.”
“The store was a finalist in an architectural award design contest,” says Will, adding, “When we opened, we made the front page of the local newspaper. People loved our story…a family business growing from 600 sq. ft. to a new 6,000 sq. ft. location. We still get a lot of kudos from our community and out-of-towners.”
Since completion of the project, Donna and Will have been happy to consult with other local businesses who are going through their own commercial developments by sharing their experiences.
Healthyway is the only traditional health food store in town, but like all retailers, faces competition from drug and mass.
Campbell River is the last major urban centre for people travelling to the north part of Vancouver Island. With a population of just over 35,000 (2016 census), it serves the locals, people heading north and the residents of the nearby islands of Quadra and Cortez. “North of us, services are sparse,” explains Will. “We get a lot of out of town shoppers.”
Where Campbell River’s economy at one time was resource-based, with commercial fishing and logging, it has now evolved more into tourism, including sport fishing. “The local mill closed down several years ago, although we still have a mine west of us,” says Will. “The population is growing. There are other developments going on. There’s new home construction, and some large apartment buildings going up. The new hospital build has brought in people, the same as a dam project. These have all helped with local growth.”
As the population grows, Will says the pressure is on to find staff for the store. “That is probably our biggest challenge these days…finding the right people with the specialized knowledge base. We’ve had to be flexible at times and be creative in moving people from other departments.” Donna agrees that filling all the positions has become more difficult as the store has grown. She says staff member Jessi Vanderveen is the type of employee Healthway – or any store – would love to have. “Jessi has been on board for 15 years, and she can trouble shoot in any deptartment. She is trustworthy, loyal and dependable. Currently, Healthyway has 35 people on staff, either full or part time.
One of the trickier, more complex additions to the store’s staff came with the challenge of opening the café. “For years, people had been asking us to open a café, a place where people could get a healthy lunch,” explains Donna. “Neither of us had a restaurant background, just a passion for cooking and good food.” In fact, it was the last thing we added when we built the store. And we knew we had to get the right person in to run it and make it a success.”
Will and Donna feel they were fortunate to attract Ralf Spodzieja, a Red Seal certified chef, to run the café, along with his wife Jodie. “Ralf and Jodie have owned their own business and have worked in high end resort kitchens. For now, they are appreciating an improved quality of life working in a healthier and less stressful work environment.”
The café itself has turned out to be something of a home run for the store, said Will. “It has brought in lots of new customers. The big draw now is the downtown lunch crowd. People come in and grab a bowl of soup and sandwich. The cafe adheres to values that are congruent with the store. There is a focus on local products and mostly organic ingredients. The cafe tries to offer options to satisfy most dietary choices from vegan and gluten-free to ethically raised animal proteins and good old fashioned comfort foods that have been ‘healthed-up’ a bit. We are getting good feedback from our health conscious customers.”
Because of the store’s growth the past two years, it became necessary to create department managers. “As we’ve evolved and changed, the store works better now that it is more departmentalized,” said Donna. “The result is we’ve created leadership roles for some of our people. We have regular leadership meetings to discuss concepts. We give a lot of autonomy to our leaders and they do the same with their teams.”
It has been a learning experience for the couple in the past few years, said Will, and they plan more of the same for the near future. “It takes a lot of hard work. You’re constantly evaluating, innovating, renovating… we always want to keep moving forward.”
Donna concurs: “It is a state of constant evolution. We grew so fast the last couple of years, we are always looking for ways to be more efficient. After the growth in sales and the size of the team, it was time to shore up the foundation again. We went back to reviewing and revising policy and procedure and putting it to paper so that it could be a resource to the team and reduce some of the redundancy in training new hires.
Will sums it up: “If you’re not moving forward, you are moving backward. We have to keep moving forward. We've worked really hard, and we keep working hard. We care about our business and we are always trying to make it better.
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