Independent and Proudly Community-Based
Vancouver Island’s 49th Parallel Grocery has a long-standing family history of putting customers and community first.
By Ronda Payne
Most people get to a point where they chafe under the watchful eye of a parent. Peter Richmond is one of the few who thrives in these conditions and has been working for his parents since returning to the family business in 1996. To be fair, his dad Wayne Richmond, co-owner of Vancouver Island’s 49th Parallel Grocery with wife Harmina, isn’t even remotely a micro-manager.
“Though owner does trump president sometimes,” Peter Richmond says with a laugh.
In this scenario, father is happy to let son do his thing in the role of president and CFO. Wayne simply likes to keep his eyes on the financials and know basic details about what’s going on.
“As any owner would,” Richmond says. “He’s very active in what’s happening and what’s going on. Certainly, there’s daily communication. He likes to check the numbers every day. He knows them even better than I do sometimes, I think.”
That’s saying something, given that Richmond is a CPA.
It’s this kind of family involvement that has made 49th Parallel the organization it is today. One that is seen as customer-centric and community involved. These foundations aren’t accidental. The small grocery chain’s basis was created purposefully by Richmond’s parents as they sought to bring fair prices, quality selection and reliable service to smaller Vancouver Island communities.
The Beginnings of 49th Parallel Grocery
“My parents bought the business in 1977,” says Richmond. “The 49th Parallel Grocery had been in business since 1951. My Mom and Dad have been active since day one. We’re a customer-focused company and that’s important. We’re in touch with our communities.”
Frans and Lempi Paivarinta started things off in Ladysmith in 1951, then sold the business to Alex and Jo Campbell in 1973, a few years before the Richmonds bought the store. Wayne and Alex were friends from working together for Shop Easy and a deal was struck that moved the Richmonds into their own operation and Alex went on to found Thrifty Foods.
“I think when he started in ’77 he had four employees and Mom and Dad and us kids,” Richmond says. “We’ve been very fortunate to grow with the community. Now we have about 380 employees and we’re getting ready to open our fifth location.”
The Ladysmith store still sits on the original site at Symonds Street and First Avenue, having had its share of renovations and rebuilds. In December it will celebrate 70 years of business as 49th Parallel Grocery. The most recent expansion, in 2010, saw the addition of departments customers expect in a local grocery: a floral shop, deli, bakery and café.
“It’s amazing how many people he knew in the business,” Richmond says of his dad. “The times have changed a little bit. I love listening to my dad’s stories. How personal it was. You had more visits from company reps and suppliers, even before COVID. We do miss that a lot. You just don’t see the suppliers like we used to.”
The grocery industry has seen its fair share of changes over the years and with it, 49th Parallel Grocery has seen some changes too.
Growth and Change
The 49th weathered the challenging late 70s and early 80s when interest rates hit all-time highs of more than 20 per cent and people were losing their shoes and shirts in addition to their homes and businesses. There were bright spots after these tough times. What began as one store grew to a second in Chemainus in 1979, which Richmond’s aunt Nelly and uncle Ron took on.
“Through the 80s they added more locations, some of which aren’t in the fold anymore,” he says. “He definitely didn’t stand still. He could certainly tell you some interesting stories from the 80s.”
Then, the late 80s finally saw a new 17,000 square foot Ladysmith store replace the old original which had been bursting at the seams for quite some time.
“We went through several expansions,” Richmond explains. “I came back to the family business in 1996 and at that time, my dad had scaled back to the one Ladysmith store. The one in Chemainus was being operated by my aunt and uncle, but he was building one in Cedar, so going from one to two and needed help. The business was growing, so I came back.”
The Cedar location opened in 1997 and has had a few renovations and upgrades since, with the most recent in 2019. The Chemainus store rejoined Wayne and Harmina’s stores when it was purchased back in 2006 from Richmond’s aunt and uncle who have recently retired from the business.
Modern Additions that Plan for the Future
In 2007, an interesting, yet very clever purchase occurred. That of a print shop. Known as 49th Parallel Printers, this is a full-service Xerox-equipped print shop for the mid-island region that has full-colour, digital capabilities.
“We’re our biggest customer,” Richmond jokes. “We print all of our own signs.”
In 2008, a new store in Duncan was opened when Bruce’s Grocery (which had been in business for more than 75 years) was purchased.
Chemainus got a brand new 49th Parallel Grocery store in 2013. This 22,000 square foot beauty eventually replaced the old existing store and brought a new level of full-service, modern convenience to the community including a scratch bakery.
It wasn’t long before another need was recognized. Things were going well with the four stores: the flagship Ladysmith location with head office and floral shop called Blooms at the 49th, Cedar, Duncan and the new Chemainus store. But Duncan was growing and there was definitely an opportunity to do more for this thriving community.
A Second Duncan Store Now Open
“It’s been in the works for a long time,” says Richmond of the new 25,000 square foot store in Duncan that will be the second to support the community.
This fifth location opened in March and it certainly didn’t go according to plan with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing unexpected challenges to the process.
“We weren’t expecting to be opening with COVID-19 protocols in place,” he says. “It has been an interesting in our business. At the end of the day, our stores aren’t huge. We’ve had to be creative while adding queuing lines and social distancing in our stores. We have all that planned in the new store too.”
Obviously, when the new store’s plans were being developed there wasn’t any awareness of COVID restrictions let alone the need for physical distancing. While grocery delivery was in the cards, the accommodation for this was expanded after COVID protocols became a standard in the grocery industry, putting a greater demand on square footage.
“We’ve got a grocery delivery and staging area and customer pick-up area for online orders,” he says.
In addition to the grocery delivery area, the new Duncan store also offers a scratch bakery like the Chemainus location.
“This steps up our bakery offering quite a bit,” he notes. “And we expanded our take-home meal options. We’re actually going to be making fresh pasta in store. We’re expanding our pizza program. A lot of very exciting things.”
There will also be an expanded produce area, a full-service butcher shop that will produce hamburger and sausages daily.
With all of these features, there should be a great load of activity around the opening, but again, COVID seems to be the damper on the party as it has been for many organizations over the last year. There will be no grand opening and no big push to drive people to the store.
“We’re struggling a little bit with not being able to create any excitement,” Richmond says. “We’ll be focusing on our local area neighbourhood. Getting to meet our new neighbours and hopefully they’ll like what they see.”
Because 49th Parallel Grocery is smaller and nimbler than regional or national counterparts, it’s going to be easy for Richmond and his team to adapt to the needs of the community and bring in the products they want.
“We’ll be ready to adjust products,” he says. “As a small company… we can respond quickly and adjust.”
The store will bring several new things into the fold, but one thing will absolutely never change: the dedication to customer service. This means features seen in some larger chain stores won’t be found in the new Duncan location or any other 49th Parallel Grocery for that matter.
“We will not have self-checkouts in this store,” Richmond says. “We won’t have them in any of our stores. Our focus is on our customer and serving our customer. It comes back to our overall vision statement. We talk about wanting to play a big part in the daily lives of our communities. To us, this means finding everything from finding top quality best products, offering a competitive price and providing the best possible service in a friendly shopping environment.”
Now, with a team of about 380, Richmond knows family members like his sister Kathy, who is the organization’s executive assistant, as well as her husband Mark and Peter’s wife Lesley within the head office are constantly striving to fulfill Wayne and Harmina’s vision of a true community grocer. When asked about community involvement, Richmond points to his parents’ early days in Ladysmith.
“My mom and dad, they jumped in. They got involved,” he says.
There was a big community event not long after they took over the store in 1977. As Richmond explains, the event’s organizer needed pop and other supplies but didn’t know how much.
“Dad said, ‘Awe, come on over at nine, get the key and get what you need. Write it down, we’ll hook up tomorrow to sort it out’, that’s the way it was. He gave him the keys to the store,” he says. “Giving back has always been part of my mom and dad’s mantra for sure. Just being involved and in tune with the community and what’s happening. Contributions to schools. Local kids programs, food banks and other non-profit organizations is a daily event. Recently, the 49th contributed $5,000 to the Tour de rock bringing donations to this cause to over $200,000.”
The store managers are still “slugging stock and talking to customers” in Richmond’s words. They don’t spend their days locked away from the day-to-day operations.
“Our team members have done amazing things this year in terms of stepping up to the plate, being an essential service, as we’ve been called,” he says. “Everyone has worked extra hard. We would not be where we are today without a great team.”
The team members at 49th Parallel grocery are empowered to do right by the customer.
“It’s impossible to outline everything in black and white,” he says. “We tell our team that it’s their job to send the customer home with a smile and we’ll figure it out afterwards if there’s an issue.”
That approach is in line with the general vibe of smaller, independent grocers on Vancouver Island.
“Grocery is quite different on the island,” he notes. “There are more independents over here than a lot of places across the country. People are shopping more local. They’re a good group too. It’s an exciting business. Things are changing all the time. I like being in connection with people and the community.”
Certainly, things are different for 49th Parallel grocery than had been expected with the new Duncan store opening, but it seems that rolling with the punches is just part of the legacy Wayne and Harmina created. With the ink still wet on the new Duncan store’s signs, there’s nothing planned in terms of new locations, but clearly, the Richmond family doesn’t sit still for long.