A miracle on Main Street
Every day, main street businesses across the country shutter their doors, falling victim to the tremendous pressures of competition, globalization and technological change. Yet despite it all, a crew of hardy business owners manages to beat the odds and stay open. From Halifax to Vancouver, we spoke with the owners of some of these businesses – a bakery, a seed store, a barbershop, and more – to learn how they've managed to thrive, decade after decade.
Location: Kemptville, Ont.
Owners: Rick Grahame and Debbie Wilson
Survival strategy: Focusing on fresh products and quality ingredients
Like his father and grandfather before him, Rick Grahame rises long before the birds to begin his day at his family-owned bakery in the Eastern Ontario town of Kemptville.
At 2:30 in the morning, five days a week, Mr. Grahame heads to the annex at the back of his house and fires up the massive wood-burning brick oven that has been in use at that location since 1885. His sister and co-owner, Debbie Wilson, often joins him a few hours later to help provide doughnuts, bread and other baked goods for local restaurants and retail customers.
There has been a bakery operating at 115 Clothier St. E. since Alphaeus Patterson started it more than 130 years ago. The shop has been in the Grahame family since 1960 when Rick's grandfather, Leonard, bought it after working there for 21 years.
Grahame's Bakery is one of those businesses that give a small town its character, having defied the challenges of modern consumer preferences and competition from chains like Tim Hortons. The bakery itself is a rear addition tucked behind a clapboard house on one of the town's main streets; a small pennant hung like a flag indicates its presence. It accepts cash or cheque only.
Named to the Canadian registry of historic places, Grahame's is one of the last bakeries in Canada to use a wood-fired brick oven – a mammoth devourer of softwood that takes two hours to heat up and is responsible for the heritage designation.
Generations of parents have made the bakery a regular stop before or after early morning hockey practices – Grahame's cake doughnuts are locally famous. Long-time residents remember being served by Rick's grandfather, and his father and mother, Ken and Rose.
But it's a tough grind. Mr. Grahame, 52, inherited the shop when his father died in 2005. He starts his day at 2:30 and doesn't finish until 5:30 p.m, usually catching a power nap at noon. Ms. Wilson, 58, puts in three long days each week, while family members pitch in during busy times. And both siblings – who had careers elsewhere before returning to the bakery – have spouses who bring in the lion's share of the family income.
"There's not a lot of wages being taken out – it's more you're making a living and you're a service to the community," Mr. Grahame said. "There's a lot of satisfaction from customer service and dealing with the public, and seeing the younger people grow up and having families."
His keys to success: Ensuring the best quality, freshest product, and not pricing yourself out of business while keeping ahead of rising costs.
Customers "appreciate quality and want to be able to come in and ask what's in this or what's in that," he said. "You don't want to get away from your call and get too cheap on your product 'cause customers can always tell."
Location: 34 locations across the country
Owner: Marc DeSerres, grandson of the founder
Survival strategy: Selling specialized art products that aren't widely available
Any company that can survive a century in Canada's retail landscape has a deep faith about its raison d'être. For arts supplier DeSerres, much of it boils down to the doctrine of creativity.
"I always believed that at the end of the day, there would be artists," says Marc DeSerres, a third-generation entrepreneur whose grandfather, Omer, started the business. "That was my basic conviction."
DeSerres today is a 700-employee company that sells paints, canvases and other supplies in 34 stores spanning several provinces. Revenue is about $50-million to $100-million a year, with a small but growing internet business that offers some 25,000 products.
Not surprisingly, Mr. DeSerres, 64, is an art buff himself, and works from artists including Edward Burtynsky and Vik Muniz grace the walls at the retailer's Montreal head office. A former chairman of the Montreal Musée d'art contemporain, he's not too philosophical when asked how his company has defied the odds over several decades.
"Frankly, there aren't many places in Canada where you can buy an easel," he says. "For us, it's a big business because it's a specialty."
The story of DeSerres began in 1908 when 26 year-old Omer bought an iron workshop on the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Denis streets and turned it into a hardware store, parlaying that early success into a network of shops distributing plumbing and heating equipment. By the early 1950s, Omer's son Roger had taken over what had become a thriving chain selling increasingly diverse merchandise.
"The challenge of retailing in the 1950s was not so much having a store. It was having a supply," says Mr. DeSerres. "My father describes his life as a battle to get goods."
A surprise letter from the Quebec government in 1973 advising the company its headquarters would be expropriated led to the end of DeSerres as a hardware purveyor. The younger DeSerres pushed on with a small staff, focusing on arts supplies.
Hardware had become supercompetitive by then, with Rona and Canadian Tire on the rise. But with art, "you could be a big fish in a small pond," says Mr. DeSerres.
The key to success over the next 30 years was sticking to its core fine-arts-supplies business while reinventing other parts of the enterprise. DeSerres went big into graphic arts before that died with the rise of computerization. It also launched into art therapy, a category which includes adult colouring books, a trend that far surpassed expectations before its decline.
Today, Canada's dominant player for art supplies continues to fend off competitive challenges from independent players and other rivals such as Indigo and U.S.-based giant Michaels. But another threat grows larger by the day.
"I personally think a lot of discretionary money is going to cellphones and it leaves less money for retailers," he said. "Cellphones for a family is quickly a $300-a-month expense and that cuts into other leisure."
-Nicolas Van Praet
Lloyd's Barber Shop
Owner: Lenox Mitchell
Survival strategy: Good service, staff loyalty and a sense of community
Lloyd's Barber Shop has been a staple of Toronto's Bloor-Bathurst neighbourhood, on the northwestern corner of downtown, since 1979, when Lloyd Mitchell bought out a previous barber shop at the location and rebranded it as his own. Though Lloyd died in 2015, his son, Lenox Mitchell, has carried on the family business – along with three other talented barbers who have built up a loyal customer base.
In the 1980s, Lloyd's was an important social and cultural hub for Toronto's fast-growing Caribbean community, which called Bloor-Bathurst its home.
"It was somewhere you could come and you would meet someone you might know, or someone of your ethnic background," Lenox says. "The barber shop is the point of the community. People from all walks of life come to the barber shop. "
In the intervening years, the Caribbean community has dispersed around the city and its suburbs. "But we're still here," Lenox says. "We still have customers that will travel from far to come here. It's part of attachment, it's part of the service that they get, it's part of the conversation, that I guess they want to keep."
The place, frankly, isn't much to look at. It's an old-style barber shop, with décor that looks like it fell out of the 1950s. There's not a lot of curb appeal to its plain storefront and weathered old sign. But people don't come here for herbal teas and designer furniture; they're here for the atmosphere, the conversation – and for a damned good haircut and shave.
"Every customer who comes and sits in the chair, your job is to make them happy. If you can make one customer in the chair feel happy, that one customer may turn into a thousand, if not more," he tells me.
Another key to Lloyd's success has been its remarkably low staff turnover. In a business where the individual skills of a barber are critical to attracting and retaining customers, Lenox and his three colleagues have, combined, more than a century's worth of cutting at Lloyd's. While in theory he could bring in more barbers at busy times – Lloyd's has seven chairs – he says it's more important to have the right people, who are a good fit with the place and can deliver the quality that customers expect.
A lot of competition has come and gone over the years; old-style barber shops like Lloyd's have been pushed aside at the high end by salons, stylists and spas, and at the low end by mall franchise chains offering cheap one-size-fits-all cuts. Lloyd's has survived, Lenox says, by sticking to its values and following its own path.
"Sometimes that may mean you may not make the most money. But if it pays the bills, and it keeps you going, and you're happy, then you can live with that."
Locations: Vancouver and North Vancouver, B.C.
Owner: Phyllis Simon and Kelly McKinnon
Survival strategy: Excellent customer service, carefully curated inventory and exciting in-store experience
It reads like a fairy tale. A small children's bookstore is born: kids race in and hole up with books, salespeople actually know what they're talking about, parents cheerfully line up to pay full price. The store grows and grows. Then along comes a big, powerful wolf in various guises: big box stores, e-books, Amazon. But the bookstore lives happily ever after.
This is not a fable; Kidsbooks, a Vancouver institution, will next year mark 35 years in business; now in a large new space, which the co-owners purchased after decades of renting.
Founded in 1983 in Kitsilano by former children's librarian Phyllis Simon, Kidsbooks was originally about 800 square feet. In 1990, Kelly McKinnon, in her early 20s and fresh from backpacking through Europe, got a summer job there and stuck around, computerizing the operation among other things. When she decided to leave a few years later to start her own venture, Ms. Simon offered to sell her half the business – and lend her the money to do it.
"It's like a Cinderella story," says Ms. McKinnon, 50.
Kidsbooks moved to a bigger space, and in that location renovated three times and expanded twice – ultimately to 4,800 square feet. They opened a second store in North Vancouver.
"We were always growing but we were growing incrementally," says Ms. McKinnon, "based on demand."
The store's mission has never wavered: matching children with books they will actually read. When Chapters came to town, when e-readers arrived, when Amazon launched, Kidsbooks just kept doing its thing.
"When you run a small business, you're really concerned about tomorrow and you really need to focus on what you can actually do, right? I can ensure that whoever comes into my store today gets good service," says Ms. McKinnon. "I can offer free gift wrap and ensure that time-stressed parents can race in here on their way to the birthday party and walk out with a great gift. Those are the things I can do. I can't control what happens with Chapters or Indigo or Amazon or whatever."
At the same time, they "aggressively" use technology as a tool – to track sales and create efficiencies. The goal is to invest as little as possible in the backroom operations and put as much money as they can into the retail space. "It has to be an experience," says Ms. McKinnon, during an interview in the tiny basement staff room.
When Kidsbooks' long-time home was to be demolished for housing, the easy thing might have been to call it a day, with Ms. Simon at retirement age (she's 69) and the disruption in retail book selling being what it is. But "we couldn't really face that," says Ms. McKinnon. "We wanted to continue the mission."
With coaching from a "mentor accountant," despite Vancouver's sky-high real estate market, they bought a property. They renovated the former restaurant to the hilt and in February, 2016, moved thousands of books four blocks east.
Ms. McKinnon was nervous. "We were closed for five days. And when we opened, people came running in. I've never been so happy in my life," she says. "We took this leap of faith and it's really worked out well. Everybody showed up; they're all shopping."
The 5,300-square-foot store employs about 35 to 40 people; more at Christmas. It also sells carefully curated toys, accounting for about 15 per cent of sales. Adult books are by the entrance, where a browsing grown-up can ensure a child doesn't make a break for it through the automatic doors.
The business is "doing well" with the support of publishers, distributors – and the community.
"People make the extra effort to drive out of their way, to not take the easy route, to come here to support us and I have to say we're grateful. And we try and get better every day so that we can continue to earn their business."
Owner: Trevor Stride, grandson of the founder
Survival strategy: Focusing on bowling's social appeal and incorporating modern trends
Lawrence Stride opened a five-pin bowling alley in 1959, when Edmonton's oil boom coincided with the North American bowling craze.
These days, grandson Trevor Stride runs Plaza Bowling. Amid renewed interest in the sport, he has added craft beer and a food-truck menu, updating the vintage lanes to attract twenty- and thirtysomething customers looking for late-night fun.
Trevor is the third generation of his family to own the bowling alley in the basement of a strip plaza on 118 Ave NW. His father, Terry, ran it from 1977 until retiring last year. That's when Trevor, 37, quit his job in Vancouver and returned to Alberta with his wife and young daughter to buy the business.
"We kind of knew we wanted to do our own thing and start own our own business," said Trevor, who was director of operations for Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria, a chain of about 30 restaurants. "When my dad started talking about selling it, we just kind of looked at it. We always loved the business and it's meant a lot to our family. We looked at where we were coming from, which was the restaurant business, and thought we could apply some of the things we were doing there to the bowling alley model and see if we could attract a new demographic."
Innovations arrive slowly in the bowling world. Other than computerized scoring and automated pin setting, the Canadian invention of the five-pin version could be the only major change the game has seen. That was in 1909.
So Trevor focused on improving the game's social appeal. He renovated the kitchen and made room for a rotating selection of craft beer. He tossed the old menu and began selling hearty "comfort food" – stadium-style nachos, hand-cut potato chips, and grilled cheese on sourdough bread.
"The social end of things is something we thought we could try and focus on," he says. "Bowling is already really fun and we thought we could surround bowling with the amazing social things that we really enjoy, like craft beer, great food, great music, late nights and bring in a new customer."
In addition to the bowling alley's traditional customers – bowling leagues and kids' birthday parties – there are now DJ nights, and food truck Mondays.
"Our main customers are people who are looking for a night out; the people who are interested in craft beer and artisan cheese. Things like food trucks and DJs, that's who's coming down now."
Although the number of Canadians who bowl is unchanged since 2001, the sport has gained popularity among people aged 20 to 44 years, Statistics Canada says. At the same time, fewer teens and seniors are bowling.
His dad, Terry, figures the average age of Plaza Bowling's customer has dropped by 25 years. He credits his son's experience in the food industry and use of social media promotion.
"Over the last few years we've noticed quite an influx of younger families coming back in and enjoying the sport of bowling," Terry says.
Samosa and Sweet Factory
Location: Etobicoke, Ont.
Owner: Sandhu family
Survival strategy: Using technology to bring down costs
While Harpal Sandhu's samosas brought lots of customers to his restaurants in the eighties and nineties, the dishes were a loss leader. After a few years, he and his business-partner brother Harminder began distributing them to other local restaurants and grocery stores in the Toronto area. Beloved as the samosas were – Mr. Sandhu's team couldn't make them fast enough – they couldn't turn a profit.
Some part of the business model needed to change. Soon enough, an idea struck the brothers: automation. In 1999, the brothers worked to modify a perogie maker to accommodate a samosa's shape, filling and dough.
"It was a hit," Harpal Sandhu says. "It was an investment, but it was paying off." People who'd usually order 1,000 samosas a week suddenly wanted 2,000. More retail partners came aboard. So, too, did distributors. From the Sandhu family's first pair of restaurants emerged the Samosa and Sweet Factory, with a retail store and a suite of packaged products under the Apna Taste brand that are distributed in Canada, the U.S. and Australia.
The factory, part of a seemingly ever-expanding complex on Albion Road in Etobicoke, now makes at least 150,000 samosas a day – only a fraction of which are sold from the neighbouring retail store, where lines stretch so long on weekends that "you will not be able to walk into this place," Harpal Sandhu says. The factory also makes a line of Indian desserts and dishes including vegetable pakora.
The samosas kept it so far ahead of the competition, Harpal says over tea and a few of his company's signature products, that the family expanded its samosa production strategy to its other wares. Most are produced with automated or semi-automated machines, coming at a low cost that keeps clients coming back for more.
"The growth of the business happened because the family was together," says Harpal. Both his wife, Balinder, and Harminder's, Jaspreet, do supervising and quality control. Harminder's son Manraj works on the retail side. Harpal's son Param now handles production; Param's wife, Raman, looks after accounts.
Param has worked in many aspects of the family business. "They made me work from the bottom, clean the gutters, work under everybody, clean the washrooms, everything," he says, nearly eight years after starting there. Now he knows how the whole plant works, and is thankful for it. "I can walk by and know exactly what they're doing wrong or right, and how we could do it a little bit better."
Harmsworth Decorating Centre
Founded: Before 1893
Location: Brampton, Ont.
Owner: Jim Harmsworth, great-grandson of the founder
Survival strategy: Live modestly and don't be a tenant
House-paint seller David Harmsworth plays many roles: colour technologist, designer and even counsellor to couples split over painting the bathroom in, say, dreamy cloud or elk horn.
And as the fifth generation of his family to sell paint in Brampton, Ont., he also sees himself as a historian.
David and his brother, Scott, are the fifth generation of their family to sell house paint. The Harmsworths have been in business since before 1893, and at the same downtown store since 1904.
His love of art and architecture and an eye for design drew him to the family business in 1981. But he was also keen on keeping the family name on the sign.
"It's not always about the business itself. Sometimes it's about the history of it. And that's what grabs me," said Mr. Harmsworth, 56, who along with his brother Scott works for his father, Jim, at Harmsworth Decorating Centre in the city on Toronto's outskirts. "It was really the family part of it."
James William Harmsworth, David's great-great-grandfather, started the business in 1890, or maybe it was 1887. Record keeping was spotty then, David says, and the exact dates are fuzzy.
What's certain is each generation adhered to a formula that kept the family business going amid a sweep of history almost as long as that of the country itself. Three people work at the store – the brothers and their dad. David wants to hire a fourth, but he's in no rush. After all, any independent store that can survive the spread of the mega-hardware sellers must have a model that works.
"We don't really pay a lot of attention to [big-box retailers]," he says. "I think they attract a certain kind of customer, maybe price is more important to them than quality, maybe they don't worry about the service. But a lot of people start out at a place like that and they gravitate to us because of the difference. When they walk in here they're going to get looked after properly."
David boils it down: stay on top of trends; get involved in the community; live modestly; and don't be a tenant.
"I think one of the biggest factors was my great-grandfather and great-great grandfather had the foresight to buy a building. It gave us a home. When you don't have to worry about paying rent, it goes a long way," he says. "We didn't move. We stayed in the same place. We didn't expand too much. … You've got to be happy to live a modest life."
As for the next generation, there are 10 young Harmsworths in the family; David is confident the business will carry on.
"It only takes one of them to get the same sort of sense that this thing needs to go on," he says. "There are lots of things you could do in your life but, you know, a lot of them could be worse than this. One of them will probably figure it all out."
Halifax Seed Co.
Locations: Halifax and Saint John
Owner: Emily, Ali and Nancy Tregunno
Survival strategy: Staff expertise and staying on top of trends
If there is a secret ingredient in the formula for the Halifax Seed Co.'s enduring growth, it may be a genetic predisposition to thriving in hardy conditions.
At 151 years old, the family-owned Nova Scotia horticulture business has survived several lifetimes of challenges. Those began with war and a historic explosion that decimated Halifax's downtown and waterfront, extended through the Great Depression, and into the big-box era and all of its mighty price wars.
More recently, Canada's oldest family-owned, continuously operating seed company has tackled hurdles tossed up by online shopping and related shipping costs. It has found new momentum, though, in local food trends.
"Growing your own food has helped to keep us relevant," said Emily Tregunno, a fourth-generation co-owner (her sister, Ali, and mother, Nancy make up the other ownership shares). "We've worked extremely hard at making sure we're up on all the current trends."
In addition to bringing new and innovative products to the horticulture market in Atlantic Canada, the seed company has cultivated top-level expertise amongst its staff, which includes more than 50 full-time employees split between Halifax and Saint John. One staffer, Ms. Tregunno said, has been with the company for more than 40 years.
"Our strength is our staff and the knowledge that we bring to our customers, whether they're trying to grow their first tomatoes or making sure a golf course is tournament-ready two days out," Ms. Tregunno said.
She and her sister, Ali, took over day-to-day operations a few years ago after their father and the family patriarch, Tim, became ill with cancer. He passed away in 2012. That meant their company lost its leader and had no choice but to deal with succession issues.
Despite earlier inclinations towards other careers (Emily has a degree in psychology and Ali in sports and recreation), the Tregunno sisters developed an interest in both the business and extending the family's legacy in it.
"We realized there were things within the business that really sparked us," Ms. Tregunno said. That included ensuring secure employment for the staff members, many of whom watched the sisters grow up.
In addition to providing year-round employment for full-timers (a rarity in the industry) and health benefits, the Halifax Seed Co. offers employees a 5-per-cent matching pension contribution.
"My biggest responsibility is making sure the 50-plus people we employ have them and their families looked after," Ms. Tregunno said. In the process, she'll do the same for her own.