The Growing Grocer
Alberta’s independent small-town grocery chain talks about securing a beachhead in Edmonton’s ‘burbs
by Tim Querengesser
Photograph Ryan Girard
Outside it’s raining at the Freson Bros. head-quarters in Stony Plain, a half-hour freeway commute west of Edmonton. A squint-eyed distance away, the company’s new, 43,000-square-foot, 24-hour “Fresh Market” – the most urban of its 15 small-town grocery stores, many of which remain branded as IGAs – looms large. I’m led into the office by Mike Lovsin, one of three brothers running the company under Frank Lovsin, their father, who started it in 1955. Mike stops at a wall plastered with the company’s flyers. “That word,” he says, tapping “Alberta” on one of them. “That’s what this company is about.” He’s right. But Freson Bros., thanks to this move to the suburbs, is also increasingly surrounded by giant, non-Albertan competitors, including Walmart. Mike and Ken explain what that means.
Tim Querengesser: You’re an independent surrounded by chains. What’s that like?
Mike Lovsin: We have 15 stores, primarily in northern Alberta – Peace River, Grande Prairie area – and [the Fresh Market] is really our first exposure close to a metro Edmonton [area]. We’re a fresh store that sells groceries. But to answer your question, now more than ever – you’re aware of what happened. Sobeys bought Safeway, so a really big company bought another really big company. But our job is to look after the folks that work with us and the customers that our people meet on a daily basis.
Ken Lovsin: Mom and dad were brought up in a coal mining community. The coal mines shut down so he [Frank Lovsin] moved into the grocery business. Sixty years ago, as today, we needed to survive. We’re second generation grocers. We need this company to be innovative to grow so we can move it to the third generation. We can’t run a business now like we did 10 or 15 years ago, with the competition.
TQ: Explain the “We’re a fresh store that sells groceries” remark.
ML: I think if you go take a look at our store, we’re really focused on fresh. We cut meat in our store; we cut Alberta beef in our store. We have a lot of local produce. The bread that we make in the store, we make. We have a good selection of hot food. Our goal is to be the best. Not only in Stony [Plain] but in Edmonton.
TQ: But the Stony Plain store is in the suburbs. Why expand out of small towns?
ML: Opportunity. I think as you’re growing up and you’re a hockey player, you want to play the best hockey you can; you want to find out how good you are. And, you know, we wanted to get as close as we could to Edmonton and still have the small-town values that a Stony Plain can provide. Do I see us moving the next step into a metro [area]? We’re real close. I mean could I see us moving… into Edmonton? Why not? We believe we have a store that would fit a lot of people in Edmonton, because a lot of them are from where? Small-town Saskatchewan, small-town Alberta. I mean it’s all about good, fresh food.
TQ: What do you have to change because of your competition, then?
ML: We have to be experts at fresh – because if it’s a price component, we [only] have 15 stores. Walmart is the biggest merchant in the world. If I go to Mr. Coca-Cola and say, “Listen, I want a price on two-litre pop,” and Mr. Walmart goes to Coca-Cola, I’m pretty sure we all know who gets the best price on pop. That’s the commodity. We believe that we’re competitive [on price], but we also believe there’s no comparison between what we can offer the customer – fresh – compared to Walmart.
TQ: The grocery business is one of the toughest to make a profit in these days. What’s your secret?
ML: I think it’s attention to detail. And you know 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. That’s it. 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. I don’t care what it is. That’s the truth.