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Closure may be in store for independent Calgary grocer

Closure may be in store for independent Calgary grocer facing increasing costs
WATCH: One of Calgary’s few remaining independent grocers says it may be forced to close if it doesn’t get more community support. Tomasia DaSilva reports.

One of the last remaining independent grocers in Calgary may be forced to shut its doors unless it gets community support.

“This is probably our last year,” owner Craig Sollitt said Wednesday. “If we can’t change the dial this year, we can’t go on.”

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Sollitt and his wife Leann OConnor bought The Bownesian Grocer in 2012. For the first three years, the couple said the grocery store in the northwest community of Bowness did very well. Then Alberta’s downturn hit.

“The oil prices tanked and the economy tanked,” Sollitt said. “We were hoping that would be a one-year thing or two years, but it’s just hanging on.”

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The owner of an independent grocery store warns he may have to close down.
The owner of an independent grocery store warns he may have to close down. Tomasia DaSilva

Sollitt said that has made it hard for them to hold on. While sales have stabilized, overall operating costs have continued to rise, including the costs to pay his employees. The grocer was forced to reduce staff from 30 employees to 20.

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“Over the course of the seven years that we’ve been here, the minimum wage has gone up 59 per cent,” Sollitt said.

The couple said it has made a number of other changes to their business model to help stay afloat. They have expanded the store from a conventional grocer to add niche products such as organic foods, locally-sourced items and gluten-free products. They also added a large prepared food section complete with two chefs.

Tony Frias is one of two chefs at an independent grocery store.
Tony Frias is one of two chefs at an independent grocery store. Tomasia DaSilva

“I was in a restaurant group for 20 years, and with the downturn in the economy, it was getting to be quite a tough environment,” executive chef Tony Frias said. “This is a passion that I have and I’d love to see their passion aligning with mine and go forward.”

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Sollitt, who has been a grocery man his whole life, would like to see that too. But he said that is up to the community.

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“If people buy their groceries online or they go to the big-box store or don’t support the neighbourhood grocery store, then it’s going to disappear. Simple as that,” he said.

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Sollitt said independent businesses are more connected to a community, tend to hire local and know their customers.

The customers Global News talked to agreed the closure would be a huge loss to Bowness and the city.

“That would suck,” shopper Michaela Ward said. “Because the next one is Safeway and I would have to take the bus because it’s not close enough to walk there with kids.”

“It’s always a loss when independents go down,” shopper Mark Thomas said. “They’re important to our economy.”

Mayor Naheed Nenshi and the area councillor also agreed, tweeting out their support for the store and its owners who have supported many others in the community.

The Bownesian Grocer has participated in many local events and donated a lot of local food. It has even partnered with another group to help provide products for a free food pantry outside the store.

Free food pantry set up outside of The Bownesian Grocer.
Free food pantry set up outside of The Bownesian Grocer. Tomasia DaSilva

Sollitt said it is a matter of a few dollars to keep them open. Right now, the store sees about 4,000 transactions a week, with customers spending an average of $17 to $18 a visit. He said if they spent another $2 every time they came in, the store could make it work.

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“We’re not looking to get rich,” Sollitt said. “We just want to survive.”

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The grocer recently introduced a loyalty program to drum up sales. It also plans to roll out online delivery to all of Calgary soon.