Many health food stores across Canada possess a certain intangible: it can’t be explained in a few words. It is a thing – or group of things – a feeling, a spirit that makes a store unique. It is woven into the store’s culture, and it is what sets the tone for a happy customer experience.
Many health food stores across Canada possess a certain intangible: it can’t be explained in a few words. It is a thing – or group of things – a feeling, a spirit that makes a store unique. It is woven into the store’s culture, and it is what sets the tone for a happy customer experience.Les Aliments Naturels L'Eau Vive in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, QC (40 minutes east of Montreal) is one such store.
There is a feeling when you walk through the doors that there is something special about this place. It might be the brightness, with natural light pouring through the many windows. It is the welcome you receive from the pleasant staff from the moment you walk in the door. The second floor restaurant is also a major contributor, drawing lunch crowds daily, thanks to its unique and varied menu and its spacious patio, offering unparalleled views of the nearby mountains and countryside.
When asked what customers enjoy most about her store, co-owner Lucie Durand doesn’t hesitate to pinpoint the reason. “They like the ambiance. It has a community feeling that attracts customers who share the same values. It has become a meeting place for a lot of people. We get to know them. They are looking for a sense of community, and this is the place for them.”
Lucie is the daughter of L’Eau Vive founder Nelly Vidal, who started the store in 1988 because she was having difficulty locating the same type of healthy food she was accustomed to feeding her family in her home country of France. She started small and the store has grown over the years. Lucie joined the business in 1998 as partner.
There are many other things that set L’Eau Vive apart, says Lucie, but one of the most important is the relationship between the customers and the staff. “They trust us: they trust that we have done our homework and found the best products possible. They don’t have to question if the products we carry have poor quality ingredients. And we give them a good selection.”
Lyne Quesnel is an account manager with Assured Natural, and L’Eau Vive is one of the stores she looks after. She agrees with Lucie’s assessment about the staff and she knows why. “The staff is so good because the owners are so good. Nelly and Lucie are great people, and they appreciate their staff so much. The staff love their work. They are never down – they’re always happy and motivated. They really bring the store to life!”
Lucie mentioned product selection – that, too, has helped build the store’s following within the city of 20,000. “You can do a complete shop here. Personal care products, supplements, grocery and produce. We do our best to offer local organic vegetables and fruits as much as possible. And we are going to put a new focus on bulk foods.”
Another factor drawing customers to L’Eau Vive is its propensity to discover and introduce new products. “We offer a place for small producers…they often can’t get into big stores …it’s difficult for them to get established. We help the small businesses get their foot in the door. It helps us: our customers see us as leaders because we seem to have the cutting edge trends people are looking for. When they do get into the larger grocers, we are happy, because that means good products are getting out to more people.”
Over the years, L’Eau Vive has become known for re-inventing the way it looks. Lucie says over its 32 years, the store has moved four times and had multiple renovations. “Nelly rented a small space to open the store at first, then was able to buy a building and grow from within. In this location we have now, we were on the main floor, in one of four units. We eventually took over the whole floor. When we built the second floor, we were able to move the offices up there. We also had a big common room for staff to use and to hold seminars, and we were able to build some practitioner rooms.”
The store measures 6,000 sq. ft. The main floor layout includes bulk and the recently expanded grocery and supplement departments. Space opened up when the health and beauty section – along with eco-friendly accesories –moved upstairs during the last renovation in spring 2019.
The HABA section features an eco-friendly, zero-waste boutique, and an area where people can buy ingredients to make their own products. Additionally, there is a wide selection of local beauty products, soaps, shampoos, creams and cosmetics, and a self-serve bulk shampoo refill station.
The dream of any health food retailer is ample parking, and L’Eau Vive has fought hard over the past few years to keep enough space to accomodate its customers, who drive from all around the region. Currently, there is space in both e front and back to accommodate approximately 40 vehicles. Customers can enter the store from either parking area. The small restaurant on the main floor was eventually moved to the top floor, necessitating the reclamation of much of the space, with the exception of a couple of practitioners’ rooms, the office and a small staff break room. “It feels like every three years, we take on a new project,” laughs Lucie. “These days, we are maxed out for space in our back room…so we might have another reno coming soon!”
The store’s restaurant – L’eau a la bouche – continues to grow in popularity, attracting business people and professionals as well as locals who are looking for quality vegetarian and vegan cuisine. “It brings in people that usually would never come to a health food store. It introduces them to all we have to offer. It is busiest at lunchtime. We have a large open terrace with a view of the mountains. It is like a little oasis, very intimate. You feel like you’re in the trees.”
As the warm weather has arrived in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, the terrace has been empty and the restaurant closed, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, the store remained opened. But it wasn’t easy. Lucie says meeting all the necessary requirements was like trying to hit a moving target. “It seemed like every day, we had to react to something new, every time the government made an announcement. We had to be concerned for both staff and customers.” Protective glass shields were installed, masks were made available and cleaning was non-stop. “We had someone at the door to count and restrict the number of people in the store. The same person disinfected carts, and the cashiers disinfected the area around the cash after each transaction.” L’eau Vive does not have online e-commerce, so instead, the store created a delivery service. “We were able to turn that around very quickly,” recalled Lucie.
“It took a while for it to catch on, so we placed an ad in the local newspaper to let the people know. We were able to still serve people who were quarantined or didn’t want to come out. It worked great. We had a lot of people use it. It's a service we are going to have to keep. Seniors and people who don’t drive like it. We deliver 10 kms around the store.” The store also did a lot of curbside pick-up, which it also plans to keep doing.
Additionally, L’Eau Vive expects to keep things like the protective glass at check out, the personal protection equipment, social distancing floor logos, and limiting customers in the store at one time, at least for the near future. When asked if the store will be able to re-capture that magical feeling, that wonderful customer experience that so defined the store, Lucie is confident it will return. “I think we will be able to re-capture what we’ve had before with certain restrictions.
Customers were stressed early, but they came around. People are happy to come here, because it’s not as restrictive as a grocery store. The staff is friendly and smiling, they love the ambiance even under the conditions we have to follow. Even though some safety elements – like protective glass – will stay, so will the good humour of our staff, making a customer’s visit to our store a wonderful experience.”
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