This fall marks 25 years for the Organic Grocer in Surrey, B.C. The store has been impactful in its community, as recognized with the multiple Local People’s Choice Awards for best health food store, best supplements store, and best certified organic store it has garnered through the years.
For co-founders and owners Garth Owen and Deb Foote, it has been an amazing journey, and they continue to marvel at the things that have occurred since they opened. “There have been a lot of changes,” explains Garth. “We’ve seen the demand for clean food and household products skyrocket, from very basic to very sophisticated. We’ve seen people wanting to get back to the basics, back to ingredients they understand. They especially don’t want to see complicated ingredients in their foods. There are far more allergy and diet concerns now than we’ve ever seen before. People are accepting that there is no magic bullet. They are starting to understand that diet can play a important role in getting their bodies back in balance.”
“The organic industry has really changed,” explained Deb. “Sure, there was certification, but there were no regulations. Even in the U.S., regulations were just in the developmental stage. What has changed is where food comes from and how it is now tracked. Every ingredient has to be documented before the finished product can carry an organic label. And the same applies to how it is produced. Organics was once the fringe, and now mainstream retailers are all over it, they even have their own organic brands. We wanted to create awareness for organics, so, I guess we got what we wanted.”
Garth agrees. “We wanted to have organic available in all stores to the entire population. Now it has happened. Organic food is available everywhere. So, yes, we are happy with the evolution of our industry, but it has made it harder for smaller stores to compete. Our store can keep up and compete price wise, but our edge is our education. That is where we can beat the mass. Educated and accredited staff – we have a strong team of knowledgeable staff, constantly striving to learn more about the products they sell. That makes a big difference in serving customers.”
Two main elements worked in favour of the creation of the Organic Grocer. First, Deb and Garth had immense passion for, and solid footing in, the organic realm. Garth was primarily on the retail side for years, working side-by-side with industry legend and CHFA hall-of-famer Arran Stephens (who went on to co-found Nature’s Path with his wife Ratana) at Lifestreams store and Woodlands Restaurant in Vancouver. He also worked with the East End Food Co-op and Famous Foods, a pioneer in bulk food that has been around for over a century. Garth also spent a decade at Edible Island Whole Food Market in Courtney, B.C.
Deb’s strength came from the supplier side. She handled a multitude of tasks at Wild West Organics – a co-operatively-run organic produce company – from 1986 to 2006. Wild West eventually morphed into SunOpta and then UNFI. “Wild West had a chance to open a retail outlet at the Surrey Public Market, but didn’t have the interest in operating a retail store,” recalled Deb. “So, Garth and I managed to scratch some money together and we got a small loan from the CCEC Credit Union and we gave it a go. We were fortunate Garth had many relationships he’d built up through the years of working in retail. And having a distributor in the family didn’t hurt either.”
Organic Grocer opened in 1993 with Garth more or less as the face of the store, while Deb continued her work at Wild West during the day, and handled the financial side of the business in evenings and weekends.
When Deb and Garth named the store Organic Grocer, it sort of put pressure on them to meet or surpass some kind of bar, and set an example in their community. And the name was also more or less a line in the sand, a stand, a position, a statement. “Yes to all of those things,” related Garth. “We were the first store in Canada to become certified organic …that allowed us to use and display the new Certified Organic label in store. It was quite a learning process about inputs and outputs. Because of change in provincial and federal positions, we are no longer certified organic because retail it’s not recognized under the Canada Organic Regime.
In Canada the organic standards are an agricultural standard,” explained Deb, “But we follow the same standards today as we did then. We still walk the walk. We still live by and follow the organic standards.”
The Organic Grocer has been more than a passive member of its community offering good food choices. Deb and Garth have proudly used it as a platform to initiate positive change and support good causes.
“Some you see all the time and have made a big impact… Organic Week, Fairtrade Month and Non-GMO Month,” said Garth. “This required lots of education of our customers and the community.”
“We’ve become the first Bee City store in B.C.” explained Deb. Bee City Canada’s mission is to inspire cities, towns, First Nations, schools, businesses and other organizations to take action to protect pollinators. “Bee City works with schools to educate students about healthy bee populations, and the role they play as pollinators. If we don’t have a healthy bee population, we won’t have a very good food supply.”
In its local community, the store also supports the Surrey Food Bank, The Surrey Women’s Centre, Sources B.C., Covenant House, and Burn’s Bog Conservation Society. Its organic causes include the Canadian Organic Trade Association, Certified Organic Associations of B.C., Feast of Fields presented by Farm Folk City Folk, Canada Organic Growers and Young Agrarians.
Deb, Garth and their staff are always looking for alternatives, initiating causes and introducing new philosophies through the store. “Naturally, we re-cycle everything we can,” said Garth. “We’ve banned straws. And we really stirred it up with customers when we got rid of plastic shopping bags for a month. There were lots of people who were happy about that, while others were really resistant to change. I estimate that over the last 15 years, we’ve given out almost 30,000 reusable shopping bags. Some are still in use…I see customers bring them in and some have been in use for a dozen or more years.”
The store also encourages its suppliers to ensure a clean, sustainable safe, food supply and reduce their negative environment impact. “We choose to support companies that hold our same values,” said Garth “and we choose to support farmers who value the Earth as we do.”
“We really encourage our suppliers to use cornstarch popcorn packing material instead of plastic bubble wrap,” related Deb. “This is mostly vitamin and body care products. We make sure the operators we buy from are following proper protocols with their labeling. Intra-provincial trade organic labeling hasn’t been scrutinized as it should be, so we spend a lot of time educating small scale manufacturers and local producers. You can’t just say organic if you have just some organic. We’ve done a lot educating of suppliers over the years, but we’ve also learned from them. We steer clear of products that have questionability of their labelling or standards.
Deb and Garth’s passion for the environment and organics cannot be contained by the store’s four wall: it has spilled out in many ways and shapes through their involvement and actions in causes. Garth served two terms on the CHFA board of directors and headed the organic caucus. Deb received the CHFA Organic Achievement Award in 2005. She has served on the boards of Certified Organic Association of B.C. board, the Pacific Agricultural Certification Society and the CCEC Credit Union (which helped fund the original store). She has also been involved with Agriculture Canada’s Organic Value Chain round table and the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada in Truro, NS. She even went through the rigorous training program to become an organic inspector, which would allow her to make recommendations to certify farms and businesses. Although she didn’t take the final step, it gave her tremendous insights into the entire organic process and helped her in her other roles.
Deb and Garth are also active members of a number of Mayne Island based environmental organizations including the Mayne Island Recycling Society and the Mayne Island Conservancy Society. Deb serves on both organizations’ boards.
The Organic Grocer has established itself as a leader in organic, the environment, supporting local causes and educating its customers and community since it’s founding. The store – it seems – has done just about everything a health food store can do. What’s left to accomplish? There’s always something new to consider, said Garth. “We’ve started partnering with local natural and holistic practitioners, a local wellness clinic that offers services out of our store. We work with specialists and other professionals and groups to help people understand their health and the direction their health should take. We’re trying to introduce accredited disciplines from other health sources. We’ll continue to support our core group of community organizations…they are like our family.
“We’ve just added CBD products. That’s new for us and it seems to be catching on.”
For the most part, watch for the Organic Grocer to continue to do the things that have made it a success for 25 years, said Garth. “We’re going to keep on keeping on.”