It has been 60 years, and a long road, since Frank Lovsin and his partners started a small butcher shop in Hinton, Alberta, the forerunner of what would become Alberta’s largest independent family owned and operated grocery chain.
But 60 years has not left the family enterprise in any way complacent. In fact, with a new generation at the helm, Freson Bros. has not lost any of its spirit and determination to create great shopping experiences in its 15 stores.
60 Years in the Making
Originally known as Freson Markets, the company was founded by Frank Lovsin and two partners in 1955 as a butcher shop in Hinton, Alberta. The name was an amalgam of the founder’s names: Frank Resek and his father Leo Resek and of course, Frank Lovsin. Dan Lovsin, Frank’s youngest brother started in 1958 and still remains a senior partner.
Frank and Dan’s parents were Slovenian and Croatian immigrants who initially raised their family in the coal mining town of Mountain Park. In an earlier Western Grocer article, Frank recounted the day in 1950 when the mine closed and how the experience of his father losing his job was pivotal to his life. “We were in a coal mining town. We didn’t have indoor plumbing or running water or central heating. We existed. I was in grade 10. I came home from school and there were ladies in our kitchen crying. I thought our dad had been killed. That day, I grew up. I was 16 years old.”
Frank says his parents used their small savings to buy a home in Edson. He recalls the day his brothers had been given $20.00 to buy coal for the family-which amounted to a small fortune in those days- but lost the money. “To be so vulnerable,” Frank laments, adding that he vowed never to be that susceptible again.
The Lovsins kept expanding with the second store opening in Peace River in 1962 followed shortly after with the Fairview store. Frank moved from being a store manager to over-seeing the entire operation from an administrative perspective, freeing him to continue expanding the business.
Frank had always had a strong desire to get involved and played a role in the early formation of the Independent Retail Grocers of Alberta, consisting of IGA members who wanted to lobby for beer and wine sales in Alberta and deal more effectively as a group with the IGA wholesale.
Frank was one of the first members of the CFIG from Alberta. “I remember being in Toronto and decided to go to see about this organization, going into the office and meeting Arnold Rand, the first president. At the time there were only four members from Alberta but we brought our members in and that greatly enhanced our ability to speak as a group.” Frank has remained active in the CFIG ever since.
Since 1965, Lovsin has also been involved in everything from Rotary Club of Peace River to Toastmasters, the Chamber of Commerce, Alberta Energy, the Alberta’s Premier’s Council, Fairview College and minor hockey. His awards include Peace River Citizen of the Year, Alberta Small Business of the Year, the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Medal, and the Alberta Lieutenant Governor’s Silver Medal. In December of 2008, he received the most prestigious award one can receive: the Order of Canada. Frank was recognized “for his contribution as a volunteer, philanthropist and entrepreneur who has served as a vocal advocate for his community in regional and provincial affairs.”
Throughout the years, the company has received numerous CFIG awards. The new Stony Plain store was awarded the National Gold Award for Top Independent Grocer of the Year for 2014.
Freson Bros.’ most recent award is the 2015 National Grocers Association Creative Choice Award for Marketing in the Best Integrated Marketing Campaign category for their ‘Watermelon Fest’ campaign. The company was represented by Marketing Director, Mandi Fawcett in Las Vegas, Nevada on February 10th to receive the award.
Structured for Success
The corporate and management structure of Freson Bros. is a key factor accounting for its long-term success. Today, Frank Lovsin is chairman, board of directors, while Mike Lovsin is chairman, Doug Lovsin is president and Ken Lovsin is vice-president, IT. Dan Lovsin is active on strategic direction as well as nine other managing partners throughout the company, making for a very dedicated team.
Nurturing a dedicated team of employees is a top priority for the company.
In an interview with Alberta Venture, when asked about the secret to making money in such a competitive industry, Mike Lovsin said “I think it is attention to detail. And being good at what you want to be good at, and for our company that’s fresh.
We really like to look after our people. If you’ve got people who want to work in your store, whether it’s a car dealership or a grocery store… they want to be there, and enjoy the people they’re working with, you’re going to get a good product.” The other reason is that Freson Bros. realized that to be successful against such fierce competitors as Walmart it would have to differentiate itself through a strong emphasis on fresh. “We have to be experts at fresh,” said Mike “because if it’s a price component, we [only] have 15 stores. Walmart is the biggest merchant in the world. We believe that we’re competitive [on price], but we also believe there’s no comparison between what we can offer the customer — fresh.”
Indeed, Freson Bros. has put a lot of emphasis on its ‘Fresh Market’ brand, which is demonstrated in its newest store in Stony Plain and recent remodelling of other stores where the design, graphics and services create a unique in-store food experience. These renovations include the Peace River location.
The 43,000 sq. ft. Stony Plain flagship location features a glassed-in atrium with vaulted ceiling as its entrance, creating a sense of spacious modernity. Upon entering the store, customers are greeted by the bustle of a fresh market and can flow easily around departments. The centre of the store has been reduced in favour of a larger perimeter, which houses the fresh departments. “The first thing customers will see when entering the store is our Market Garden full of fresh produce,” says Doug Lovsin, emphasizing the importance of the fresh market concept to how this store differentiates itself.
Past the Market Garden, is a section called Healthy Choice including organics, natural foods and gluten-free products with shelving arranged adjacently to set it apart from the centre of the store. Beside this is Banj’s Smokehouse and The Butcher Shop. Here, products such as bacon, sausage rings, jerky and pepperoni all made on-site with only top quality Alberta beef and pork. This department also employs an open market concept where butchers cut and prepare meats and product is displayed in a walkin cooler with glass doors to allow customers to fully view what is available. Following this is the fresh fish counter.
One of the most unique features of the store are the prepared foods on offer in Freson Bros. Kitchens, an open concept that integrates with the Bakery Department to create one large area for customers to experience a whole new level of service. The area features a 70-seat restaurant and a Hot Kitchen, “Our answer to the dine-in or take-out concept,” says Doug. Beside this are the Kitchens of the World featuring a daily hot buffet and a 20 foot salad bar. In the centre is the Harvest Kitchen, where customers can both purchase prepared foods or buy the ingredients and even learn how to prepare them for themselves.
A true testament to just how much Freson Bros. new concept has resonated with Albertans is their recent participation in Taste of Edmonton, the country’s largest food festival. Freson Bros. is the first grocer to be invited to the event, which has been a mid-summer tradition in the Albertan capital for the past 31 years. Until now, the invite-only event had been an exclusive venue for Edmonton restaurants and chefs to flaunt their food and beverages.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for us to share our experience, know how, and love of food,” said Fawcett. Freson Bros. showcased its popular instore made Ivan’s Sausage brand, warm cabbage coleslaw and slow roasted rotisserie pork at the show, which was held at Churchill Square in downtown Edmonton from July 16-25.
Fawcett said the reputation and quality of the food being produced by Freson Bros.’s unique home-cooking style kitchens helped to earn a nod of approval from the Taste of Edmonton organizers who visited the 60-year-old company’s new flagship store.
The Next 60 Years
While Freson Bros. is well served by the current generation of Lovsins, when asked about the future Frank proudly says, “We have 18 grandchildren…so the future definitely looks bright.” Statistics suggest that many businesses fail in the second generation, so it has been imperative for management, says Frank, to stay focused and adapt to market changes quickly. This will be just as true for the third generation as it is now but by all indications the Lovsin family has grocery retailing in their blood and will find ways to remain innovative and continue to engage the customer.