By Deb Draper
Community Natural Foods, based in Calgary, has been providing organic and natural food products to health-conscious customers for more than four decades. It all began in 1977 when brothers Peter and Gary Wilkes wanted to be able to source and provide whole food and health options that weren’t easily available in the 70s. It was an idea ahead of its time, a niche in the market that has since become expected in today’s mainstream grocery shopping.
After the first Community Natural Foods opened in downtown Calgary, it grew quickly and soon moved into larger quarters on 10th Avenue SW. In 2000 a second location opened further south, Chinook Station Market, and three years later another opened in the north, Crowfoot Market. Then in 2019, Calgary Co-op, one of North America’s largest retail co-operatives, purchased the successful company. As stated in the November 4, 2019 press release, “the sale was part of the succession plan for the Community Natural Foods’ owner, a coming together of two long-time community-focused Calgary retailers.”
“The Wilkes brothers had set it up as a vertically integrated business, diversified with a manufacturing component, a commercial real estate division, and the retail section,” said Adam Martin, general manager of Community Natural Foods. “Basically, the company was split in two with Calgary Co-op acquiring the retail part. The manufacturing side, MW Natural Products remains under Gary Wilkes making nutritional supplements, natural soap and ready-to-eat foods.”
A New Look for the Flagship Store
As soon as the Calgary Co-op acquisition was completed, the 10th Avenue market underwent a major renovation in layout and design, bringing it into the 21st century look of the other two markets in the city.
“We wanted to ensure the shopping experience makes sense,” said Martin. “The store had changed many times over the course of its 25 years, so the layout was a bit confusing. For example, because produce had been added later in the game, it was positioned at the back corner of the store.” Now produce takes its place at the front, welcoming customers when they arrive with a bountiful selection of organic and local produce, showcasing family farms and local producers.
Martin noted the health and wellness section expanded into another 1,500 square feet of space, replacing the old seven-foot shelves with lower shelves to make it more open and easier for customers and staff to interact. Throughout the entire store, shelving and sight lines were adjusted to continue a feeling of space and ease of movement.
The Community Café is now set further back into the store with a new menu offering a large range of dietary options. Meanwhile, the bulk food section, something that has always been a prominent part of what Community Natural Foods is all about, has expanded and relocated to the front of the store.
“That ‘bring your own container’ movement is something we’ve been doing since 1977,” said Martin.
“We really believe it’s an important part of health food stores and a way for us to support the waste-free movement in Calgary.
With the renovations in our flagship store downtown, Calgary Co-op has certainly stepped forward in putting capital into the business. There’s a real desire to ensure Community Natural Foods continues to grow and to grow fast in the coming years. And feedback about the new layout and look has been overwhelmingly positive. That’s especially great because Community Natural Foods isn’t just a retail store to our customers; it’s their home, and there’s a lot of passion that comes from that.
“One of the things we’ve recognized over the past two years is that the shoppers at the two stores are quite different. We want to make sure we’re respecting the history and value that’s been created under both banners. Calgary Co-op is already doing a lot of work in organic foods and a really nice job with their Natural Choice section; we wouldn’t want to degrade the experience in either store.”
Martin added, “At Community Natural Foods we’ve been focused on local for 40 years, and it’s interesting that in Alberta specifically there is a growing trend of up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the food or CPG space. Look at what’s happening with Venturepark in Calgary, incubators all across the city, the Food Processing Development Centre at Leduc. There seem to be a lot of cool and innovative products coming to market, and absolutely we’re more focused on this. “
“We’re at farmers’ markets, maker markets, trying to figure out who’s the next up-and-comer. One of the things we talk about with our brand is that we want to be trailblazers. We continue to focus on the environment and wellness, but we’re also looking for that next piece. Who are those biodynamic organic farmers, the regenerative organic farmers, what’s that next innovation, how can we push the boundaries even further?
We hold two purpose statements in the forefront of our minds when making major decisions: First, wellness for all, making sure we can cater to people with specialty diets, that there are options wherever you are on your wellness journey. Second, respect for the earth, holding out environmental sustainability messages. We see so much green-washing in the world right now, and it’s great that it’s catching people’s attention, but that is sewn into the fabric of our business. Every major decision that we’re making, one of the first questions we ask is what does it mean to the planet, and are we making the right decision?
There’s been a trend the past ten years or so towards the local economy, local supply chains, but with all the supply chain disruptions that we’re seeing now, it’s a very different conversation than we’ve had in the past. Now it’s not just a social issue topic; it also makes good business sense.”
It’s an exciting time for health and wellness retailers as the number of acquisition and investments continue to grow. This is great news for not only the customers of Community Natural Foods but for the entire industry.