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The Great Vine, Huntsville, ON

the great vine health storeCome the warmer weather – late spring until Thanksgiving – Huntsville, Ontario is a pretty happening place.  Come the warmer weather – late spring until Thanksgiving – Huntsville, Ontario is a pretty happening place.

Located slightly more than 200 kilometres north of Toronto, it is situated in the municipality of Muskoka, a district that boasts over 1,600 lakes.  The district has a legitimate claim as Canada’s most popular summer vacation haven, when the population more than doubles.


Come the warmer weather – late spring until Thanksgiving – Huntsville, Ontario is a pretty happening place.  Come the warmer weather – late spring until Thanksgiving – Huntsville, Ontario is a pretty happening place.

Located slightly more than 200 kilometres north of Toronto, it is situated in the municipality of Muskoka, a district that boasts over 1,600 lakes.  The district has a legitimate claim as Canada’s most popular summer vacation haven, when the population more than doubles.

Summer is when the streets of Huntsville are bursting with vacationers, cottagers and travellers, all making the most of the region’s precious few months of warm weather.  

Come late fall, however, the crowds are gone and local businesses have to find ways to produce enough revenue to keep staff employed and keep the heat and lights on.  The goal is to remain solvent through the bleak winter months, so they can once again enjoy the bounty the spring and summer crowds bring.

This is the annual task that faces The Great Vine.  It is a challenge the health food store has met for 30 years.


Challenges for northern stores

“Northern stores – and I would anticipate all rural stores – face similar challenges that are different from their urban counterparts,” explains Catherine Cole, co-owner of the store.  “Depending on their structure and location, they will have seasonal shifts of customer base and that affects cash flow, hiring, purchasing, marketing and even access to the store in terms of things like parking.”   

Northern stores, she adds, face another challenge in terms of purchasing and shipping, meeting minimums and competitive pricing. “If you are out of the range of the Trans Canada Highway, more than 100 kilometres away from that major east-west shipping route, you can find the cost of doing business skyrockets. Suppliers have larger minimums and it is impossible to participate in bottle return programs.  Smaller companies with an urban base are unable to ship or the cost of the product can be prohibitive when shipping is added. This is especially true with mass having the purchasing power to often undercut prices significantly.”

great vine groceryOver the years, Catherine and her husband Kenneth have learned to adapt to the feast-or-famine environment in Huntsville.  She says part of the secret has been to always treat the store as a work in progress. “We are constantly learning and upgrading our knowledge and adapting to economic and social trends to keep vital and engaged. In a small town, we have found we have to be many things to many people. We have a very clear mandate in terms of the products we choose to carry in that they must be in keeping with our philosophy or healthy, sustainable, clean and planet friendly. We started off with just bulk foods and vitamins, and now we have organic and non-GMO bulk and choose supplement companies that are in keeping with those standards. 

“We have had to diversify because we need new energy and reasons to attract customers, so we also have fair trade clothing and jewellery.” 


Flexible attitude

The Great Vine has not tried to be all things to all people, explains Catherine, but a flexible attitude towards product offering has been crucial to the store’s success.  “To all in town, we are a health food store. To some, we are the place to buy cool clothes. To others, we’re where they get their locally produced organic non-GMO meat, or the place they go to get fresh produce, herbs and spices, as well as a host of locally made products. The more irons we have in the fire, and the more relationships we nurture means more customers in the door and more sustainability.”

Canada’s most successful health food stores all have a strong connection to their communities, and The Great Vine is no exception.  Catherine makes the most of the store’s main street location.  “We often give part of our store frontage over to different community groups for their marketing. We sponsor and donate on a weekly – even daily – basis to many of the community groups and sports teams in our town. We are incredibly active members of our community, involved in community groups and committees that give us visibility and community recognition.”   

Partners include the Huntsville Festival of the Arts, YWCA Muskoka, Huntsville High School Co-op Program, Reel Alternatives, Rotary and Hunters Bay Radio to name a few.  The store also provides space inside for a weekly farmer’s market.  “We hold workshops and host speaker events on a regular basis. We are now using social media to keep our customers informed through Facebook livestreams as well as hosting a weekly radio show called Food For Thought on The Bay 88.7 FM.” 


United by winter

great vine coolerFacing the adverse winter months has brought a sense of unity to Huntsville’s business owners, an “us against the world” spirit.  Catherine says this has resulted in a very strong business improvement association (BIA).  “We are blessed to live in a town with a vibrant and active BIA that hosts a number of initiatives to help us get through the off-season and capitalize on the busy season. Our town did away with parking meters downtown. It was one of the biggest blights on shopper satisfaction.  Since they’ve been removed, it made it a lot easier for people to shop downtown than go to the mall.”

The BIA has been behind some very creative and popular stunts.  Huntsville’s main street has been closed down multiple times and transformed into: a cross-country ski circuit (snow trucked in), a beach (sand trucked in) and a grass-covered pedestrian haven (sod trucked in).  “We’ve had Midnight Madness, Customer Appreciation Nights jointly with other stores, Canada Day celebrations, The Maple Syrup Festival, Beer Fest, concerts in the park, concerts at noon, Tiny Tots Halloween Parade, Harvest Festivals, Winter Comedy Festival, and lots more,” offered Catherine.   “We have had some crazy events on the main street and,  as we are smack dab in the middle of it, we really reap the benefits. It has made our main street a unique place to visit.”

One event in particular stands as a tribute to town merchants who have turned a dead period into something very special.  “November is traditionally the worst month of the year for us,” explains Catherine. “It is hunting season. Twelve years ago, a few of the downtown merchants decided to create a fashion and makeover show, marketed to the local women whose husbands were away hunting.  It highlighted local merchants and local fashions.  It garnered sponsorships and was sold out. As the years went by, we partnered with not only the Chamber of Commerce but also with nearby Deerhurst Resort.  Headliners were brought in and it became a ‘Girlfriends Getaway Weekend.’ The Saturday of this weekend is now the busiest day of our year. November is now a fantastic month.  The success of this event and others are a tribute to the imaginative, creative and engaged downtown merchants.  We do these things to say, ‘We want your business and we want you to have an experience to remember and come back to.”


Seizing opportunities

The Great Vine made the most of a rare special event that came to town in early 2018.  Huntsville hosted the Ontario men’s curling championship in February, a gathering that brought 5,000 visitors to town.   “One of our fair-trade clothing suppliers – Ark Imports – produced a curling sweater this summer. So, we contacted the event planner and signed up to be a vendor and worked with Ark Imports to create signature accessories – mitts, hats and scarves.  These were made just for the event, and they have a lower price point to mitigate risk.  We marketed the event to our local curling community.  This is a great event, and it is something that will help us get through the long winter season.”

Although it is true that the BIA has helped bring local businesses together under one banner, Catherine has worked diligently to forge some unique and strong one-on-one relationships with many of the town’s retailers.    “Our neighbours are truly our partners. We try very hard to support and nurture each other and try not to work at cross-purposes. There is a lot of communication and partnerships in downtown promotions.  We hold customer appreciation nights two times a year.  These are geared to the locals, and we offer spectacular deals over the course of a few hours.  Everyone starts with a passport, and it gets stamped as they visit each store, with the winner winning a grand prize.   

“This event alone – initiated by two non-health food retailers that had great traditions of customer appreciation evenings – brought in a huge spike in sales. Now, it’s a tradition and customers look forward to the night: savings for them and a great off-season bump in sales for us.”


Tight network

Catherine says this tight network is used for other business purposes, for example to alert each other of shoplifting sprees.  “We have also worked hard to create and nurture our relationships with other health care practitioners, physicians, pharmacies, our local health care unit and hospitals. We are a trusted resource for complementary health care in our community.”

great vine householdFacebook has helped Catherine and the store connect strongly to the community, thanks to a new, recently introduced activity.  “We have been on Facebook for a while – posting info about events or products that we are featuring… the usual kind of thing. What took us to a new level was starting live Facebook streams on a regular basis. Every Friday at 11:30AM, we host a two-minute video, focused on a wide variety of subjects that are educational and not sales driven in nature. We started this past September and it is absolutely crazy the impact they have had. When I go out to the grocery store or the post office or a restaurant, I am constantly met with ‘I saw your video’ or ‘I loved your video - can you talk about…’. I have been amazed by the feedback and engagement. It is a simple tool that we do with our phones and I would suggest every retailer to do it.”


Positive feedbackThe Facebook streams have had nothing but positive feedback, reports Catherine.  “Our sales have boosted in every category and I feel we are reaching people that may not have been engaged in that way before. I do put aside a very modest marketing budget on Facebook to boost posts that start to go viral.  Some of our videos have had over 7,000 likes…and this is in a town of 18,000.” 

The Great Vine has also begun to use Instagram, and is in the process of creating a YouTube channel to compile Catherine’s Facebook videos.   

Every week, on her Food For Thought radio show, she focuses on how to help her listeners make healthy choices. “It helps create relationships with our customers and community.”  The store also works with vendors to put co-op dollars to use with things like unique signage and re-useable bags. 


Local supplier partnerships

the great vine fairtrade clothesLocal supplier partnerships are important, too, says Catherine.  “We have been working with local farmers and producers for a long time. We have helped nurture and promote exciting local brands like Wild Muskoka Botanicals and their extraordinary elderberry syrup. We purchase and promote produce from local farmers and producers, offering a wide range of veggies, sprouts, organic and non-GMO meats and poultry. We act as a weekly pick-up location for Eat Local Muskoka, where customers come and get their food baskets. We regularly feature the handicrafts of local artisans and host local popups and events that feature unique works of art, jewellery, clothing and ceramics. We buy local when possible and Ontario, then national when not. We know the stories behind the products that we sell.” 

One of the wonderful aspects of The Great Vine is it’s beautiful home: the historic 1899 Dominion Bank and Post Office Building. Catherine explained that a fire destroyed most of the town’s original buildings years ago but this one survived.  “It was built for the doctor of the town and is one of few remaining historic gems.  It has retained much of the original design elements, including the wood floor, the glorious 12 foot high tin ceilings and exposed brick.” 


Turning 30 this year

The Great Vine turns 30 this year and Catherine and Kenny have been at the helm for 28 of those.  She was working at the store as a part-timer when the opportunity presented itself to buy the business in 1991.   It was a good fit, as Catherine was passionate about homeopathy.  She went on to become a homeopathic practitioner and a Fellow of the British Institute of Homeopathy (F.B.I.H.). 


Right place, right time

great vine staffShe knows the store serves a vital role in the community, adding they found themselves in the right place at the right time for a true life changing vocation.  “The Great Vine is not simply a retail store, a place to purchase items – it is a hub and we are proud to say a trusted resource that creates meaningful change in people’s daily lives. Over the years, we have held our customers’ hands, wiped away a tear, danced unabashedly, we have created dialogue and connection on issues commonplace and of life and death. We have created, nurtured and maintained relationships with our customers, our community, and our Great Vine family.  We help our customers and ourselves to lead our best possible lives. Without The Great Vine, Huntsville would be a different community.” 

Catherine was 21 when her mother died of cancer.  “We ate a typical Western, processed food diet and there is a lot of cancer and Alzheimer’s in my family.”   She says the skills she has learned from The Great Vine have been life changing for her.  “Actually, I would call it life and death changing. I feel educated and equipped to meet the future – to become a ripe senior citizen armed with the skills and diet to help me meet the changes to come.  I am honoured to have been a part of a team that has created a space for conversation for those with life-threatening and chronic disease, where they know they can share and access information safely and in confidence and trust. I never spoke about cancer with my own mother but she is with me every day that I am a part of someone else’s story.  The Great Vine changed my trajectory.”  


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