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Sunday, March 3, 2024
Valu-mart: 70 years, three families and one grocery legacy


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The tale of old town’s Hendriks Valu-mart is a family story. Or really several family stories, rolled into one.

The first family of what is now Valu-mart was the Chambers. From the 1950s, Scottish-born Gus Chambers owned the Red & White, a full-service grocery store in part of what became Kennedy’s Pharmacy, now Nina Gelateria, on Queen Street.

Chambers’ young son, Don (he’s now the Valu-mart butcher and has been for almost 40 years), was weaned on the shelves and in the storage rooms of that Red & White.

He worked after school and weekends, between Niagara District High School, summer softball games and fishing and swimming in the Niagara River at Gilligan’s Marina.

Over the years, he did just about everything in the store. After graduation and a few tries at other endeavours, he returned to the family business and took up butchering.

In the early 1970s, Gus Chambers (and Loblaw, the building and brand owner) built a new Red & White store, where Valu-mart is today. Don became the butcher.

“It was a bygone era,” says Chambers, sitting in the low-ceilinged storage area, above the Valu-mart. He admits he’s in his early 70s and despite his wife’s urgings, has no immediate plans to retire.

“So much has changed over the years. In the old days, everyone would just shop in town. It was all families. The town was self-sufficient,” he remembers.

“There were two or three hardware stores, four grocery stores, three gas stations and a movie theatre.”

Another change, Chambers recalls, is how they received their meats. “I used to haul around 150-pound carcasses. Now it all comes in boxes. And no one had ever heard of veggie burgers.”

By 1980, the Chambers family was ready to pass the grocery baton to Ruth and Adrian de Laat, and their young family. Very experienced in the grocery business around Ontario, the de Laat couple liked the look of Niagara-on-the-Lake and bought the business.

“It was a nice little community,” says Ruth de Laat. (Adrian died 15 years ago). “We moved here at a good time. The economy was strong. The town was growing but there was still a real sense of community.”

It was during the 1980s that the Red & White became Valu-mart, part of a branding change by the parent company, Loblaw.

But even the rapidly changing demographic and local purchasing patterns didn’t change the way the de Laat family did business.

The values of loyalty, community and family were still their touchstones.

“I remember we would get phone calls at home and someone was having a party and needed something after-hours. Adrian would go and open up to get it for them. And we delivered to seniors.”

It wasn’t just their own three school-aged children who worked at the store, helping the family and learning the business. “I think just about all the kids in town worked for us at one time or another.

She remembers the Dietsch boys: “All the Dietsch boys worked with us though high school and beyond. Now they own the Sandtrap Bar and Grill.”

By 1990, the de Laats were looking for skilled managment to help run their burgeoning grocery business.

Once again, family became a determining factor.

Adrian’s nephew, Tony Hendriks, proved to be just the right person. From the age of 14, Hendriks had been working in the grocery business in his hometown of Vineland. He started as stock boy, working part-time through high school and college.

At family parties, Hendriks recounts that he and his uncle would talk incessantly about the grocery business. It was almost as if Uncle Adrian was preparing the young Hendriks for his ultimate career.

By the time the de Laats needed a store manager, Tony, now in his mid-fifties, was ready for the job.

“Adrian was really my mentor,” Hendriks says. “Everything I know about the grocery business, I learned from him.”

By 1999, Hendriks had not only learned every aspect of the business, he and his wife Michele had purchased the franchise from his aunt and uncle.

“It is a neat family legacy that we have been successfully in the same place — the same business — for 40 years.”

Hendriks attributes his belief that employees are family, to the way his uncle related to the store team.

“I now hire more on attitude and outlook, than skill,” says Hendriks. “I can teach people pretty much all they need to know. But I need to have a great attitude first.”

Not surprisingly technology has dramatically changed the grocery business in the past three decades. Pricing, in-store promotion, signage and ordering are almost totally automatic.

“Sure, technology has changed a lot over the years. But not the need for good customer service. It really determines the relationship you have with your customers.”

One of the challenges of a small store (Valu-mart’s 6,000 square feet is small by any measure; the biggest Loblaw stores can be up to 100,000 square feet) is fighting for products that reflect the demographics of local customers and the produce available from the local agriculture sector.

“We have to push back for our customers,” Hendriks says — defending his customers’ needs is important to him. “Our customers’ product choices are much different than the average rural community.”

On top of that, he says, customers tastes have also changed. “We’ve changed from a lot of package items to many gourmet items, organics, vegetarian products and so on. People are becoming more and more passionate about their food.

“We’ve also had to convince Loblaw to engage local food producers, so the system can allow us to buy local.”

Hendriks believes too much technology can take the humanity out of the interaction with customers. “Our store is the meeting place. It is a place to catch up with each other. Our staff know so many customers by name — it is the essence of what we are.

“There are bigger stores now you can go to. Most of our customers come here because it’s convenient and it’s personal.”

Hendriks says he wouldn’t want to run a big store. “No way. It takes the personal touch away from running your business. I’d rather be in the store talking with our customers or unloading the trucks with our team, than sitting in an office.”

It is almost as if Hendriks’ staff and customers are part of his family, too.

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