Didn’t you know, Farm Boy left and grew up.
Its fresh-faced brand character may still wear her sweet scarf and wide-brimmed straw hat but, as of Dec. 2, the popular Ottawa-based food merchant will be 40 years old.
The anniversary marks an important milestone for President, CEO and partner Jean-Louis Bellemare. He founded the modest product store in 1981 with his future wife, Collette, in their hometown of Cornwall. At 18 turning 19, he was still staggering on the brink of adulthood.
Today, Farm Boy is a success story from Eastern Ontario. It operates 42 locations and counting in the province and employs a corporate and retail staff of 5,600.
“I’m always very proud and very impressed by the support we’ve received from our customers along the way,” Bellemare, 58, said in a telephone interview. “It was a long, long ride but one we still love and are still very passionate about.”
For Farm Boy, its focus has always been down to one thing.
“We say it all the time, we’re all about the food, and 40 years later, we’re still all about the food,” he said.
Farm Boy has tried to distinguish himself from other grocers in ways that go beyond Mikey, its animatronic monkey swinging over bananas, or the sounds of clucking hens in the egg corridor. Its goal is to provide the best service, the freshest food and chefs inspired meals, a market-style shopping experience and a wide assortment of private-label products.
Farm Boy hires and trains the kind of employees who not only tell customers where they can find a product but will personally guide them to the location, he continued.
“One thing about our culture is that we really care about our customers and we really care about our delivery of a good experience to our customers,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re perfect – by far – but Farm Boy. It’s really hard.”
Farm Boy consists of 16 stores in Ottawa, eight in Toronto, four in the GTA, 12 in the southwest region, one in Kingston and one in Cornwall. Empire Company Ltd., which also owns the supermarket chain Sobeys, has aggressively expanded the Farm Boy banner since it acquired the grocery store for $ 800 million in 2018. With Empire behind it, Farm Boy has better access to high-quality sites around downtown Toronto and the city center. GTA.
The Toronto stores are doing “very, very well,” Bellemare said of a market that remains highly competitive. “If anything, that makes us better. We just have to play a faster game and, often, we have to be a little more flexible, change and adapt to what the customers want. “
Bellemare holds a minority stake in Farm Boy with Jeff York, his former CEO, and top management members Donny War and Shawn Linton.
His brothers Normand and Daniel helped the business expand from a small Cornwall operation into the Ottawa market with the opening of eight locations, between 1992 and 1997. Its first store was in Orléans. Normand came on board as a partner when Farm Boy was a few years ahead while Daniel joined 10 years later.
“This is not a one-man show, this is not a two-man show, it is not a five-man show,” Bellemare stressed. “There are a lot of people who helped build Farm Boy to where it is today.
“One of the things we, the Bellemare brothers, have done very well as a team is that we have hired smart people. We have always, always hired the best people we could afford. Many, many people make the mistake in business. trying to save money by hiring someone who will be a little cheaper.We did the opposite, we always went with who we thought was the best person.
“We found these Donnys. We found these Shawn Lintons of the world and Jeff Yorks of the world, and we found many, many others, “he said.” That has always been our philosophy; surround yourself with intelligent people, and so you grow company. If you have smart people, they help you figure this out. That was a big, big part of our success. “
Bellemare said it’s the people at Farm Boy he’s most proud of. Take Yvon Belair, for example. He joined the company immediately out of high school, 39 years and nine months ago.
“Here’s the kicker: when that guy started and I asked him to get a head of lettuce, he’d come out with a case of cabbage,” Bellemare said. “He didn’t know the difference between a lettuce head and a cabbage head.”
Not only did Belair straighten out his leafy vegetables, but he also went on to learn the different aspects of the business, working his way up to a senior position. Today, he is vice president of operations, with between 3,000 to 4,000 employees reporting under him, indirectly.
“I’m so proud of such stories. It just shows you that Farm Boy was built with lots, lots of people, and he’s one of them. ”
Normand, whom Bellemare described as “highly innovative,” created Farm Boy’s first private-label product: the lemon nail dressing. It was a great success. Today, the company has about 1,800 of its own items. “People all over Canada will order some of our products.”
If it seems like a new Farm Boy shows up every few weeks, it’s because kind of exists. On Thursday, the Ottawa suburb of Stittsville welcomes a new and improved 28,729-square-foot Farm Boy on Hazeldean Road, not far from its original location.
The company has a number of additional stores scheduled to open this spring in the southwestern GTA region and “many more websites,” which it has yet to publicly announce. “Right now the focus is on Ontario,” said Bellemare, who lives in Ottawa. “There’s still a lot of room to grow this company in Ontario.”
What was particularly difficult for Farm Boy was the COVID-19 pandemic, which began 20 months ago. The company has been “challenged like we’ve never been challenged before,” Bellemare said, adding that they still deal with ongoing problems in getting products, equipment and packaging.
“It was very, very difficult for everyone. We had to light a penny. I hate the word pivot now because it’s overused but, my God, we had to pivot. We went to a sidewalk (trap) to try to accommodate our customers. We changed hours. We did so many things. ”
He praised his team for the “phenomenal” work it has done in serving customers as best it can. “Farm Boy did a great job but so did all the other retailers. Everyone came in – suppliers, warehouses. It was incredible to see.
“It’s going to be 40 years in December and I can tell you, I never want to manage another pandemic, and I hope I’ll never have to go through that again. That said, seeing how people came together was really amazing as well.”
Plans to retire are not in Bellemare’s mind today. He has two children, both adults, and is now a grandparent. “I’m committed to staying with the company while I have a ball and I still love what I do.
“We’ll take it as it comes. There are a lot of smart people in this company right now. The day I retire, this company will continue. It will continue, and probably even get better. “