When Dan and David Stezenko started in the grocery business, among the lessons preached by their father was not to take customers for granted, and don't take anything as a given.
“You have to work to earn people's trust and it's a privilege to serve them,” said Dan, of the advice dispensed by father Yuri, a Safeway regional manager in Thunder Bay for 35 years.
“He taught us to work hard, be humble and earn your way in this world.”
For the brother duo and co-owners of Quality Market, surviving as an independent grocer in a city crowded with big box chain stores means separating yourself from the pack.
The second-generation grocers have found ways to do just that.
Last October, the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers recognized them with national awards for being the best in their mid-Canada region and gave them a bronze medal in the small store category for their new Campus Hill location, one of two stores they operate in the city.
Opened last summer, the 11,000-square-foot outlet on Golf Links Road is branded as a “fresh store” offering top quality produce, meat, cheese, bakery and a salad bar.
Designed by Vancouver's Horvath Interior Design, and with contributions from Dan's wife, Jennifer, the open concept store features spacious aisles, warm earth tones and incorporates energy efficient lighting and refrigeration.
“Thunder Bay's a very crazy market,” said Dan, 44. “Wal-Mart is opening up two more stores, there's a Target coming in, and that's in a city of about 100,000.”
But he knows shoppers are a discerning bunch in choosing where to buy certain items. About 70 per cent of the Campus Hill store is stocked with produce versus general groceries, about the reverse from most stores.
“It's a different trip for a different purpose. We can co-exist and that's why we've positioned ourselves with a different niche,” said Dan.
“Our main focus is on having great service and products that are readily available and always fresh.”
A commissary-style kitchen prepares take-home meals and three giant island coolers are loaded with pastas, sandwiches, salads, fruit trays and ethnic dishes.
“We come in between five and six in the morning, start cooking and prepare stuff all day,” said Dan.
The grocery business is in the Stezenkos' blood.
The family became independent grocers in 1988 when Safeway reduced its stores in Thunder Bay and it was able to acquire its own Centennial Square store in the south-end Fort William core.
“We were completely unknown and it was difficult to break in,” said Dan. “We had to prove ourselves to the community and develop our business.”
Dan spent his formative years stocking shelves, cutting meat, handling produce, sweeping sidewalk snow, cleaning bathrooms, and working an 80-to 90-hour week while earning his commerce degree at Lakehead University.
“It took me six years to get my four-year degree.”
By 1995, a second store was opened at County Fair Plaza which operated until a year ago after the landlord had other ideas and chose not to renew their lease.
But planning for the concept of the Campus Hill store was already underway.
The brothers had hooked up with the Northco Group, prominent local commercial developers, to lease the current space near one of Thunder Bay's busiest intersections at Golf Links-Oliver Road.
Close by are a slew of new subdivisions infilling the space around Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, its research institute, and the campuses of Lakehead and Confederation College.
With Golf Links Road scheduled for four-laning this summer, Northco has ambitious plans to construct five more outlet-style stores on the property.
“It's easily the best location in the city,” said Dan.
With a combined 100 employees between the two stores, each has its own personality.
The 27,000-square-foot Centennial Square store, managed by younger brother Dave, 42, retains its traditional grocery store feel. Campus Hill has the appearance of a trendy, upscale market, but Dan insists it's not its exclusive clientele.
They keep prices competitive by buying produce directly from wholesalers at food terminals in Toronto and Winnipeg.
Where chain stores are tied to their suppliers, the Stezenkos will go anywhere to get a deal. They tap into the bounty provided by farmers in the region selling organic beef, vegetables, fruit and prepared products.
The Stezenko's have also generated plenty of good vibes in Thunder Bay through their humanitarian and philanthropic endeavours which have filled a trophy case with business, customer service and environmental sustainability awards.
With their Bring-Your-Own-Bag program, customers with a reusable bag receive a 10-cent wooden token that can be deposited into bins to support local charities.
“We've had a philosophy for more than two decades, we want to be good to the community that's been good to us,” said Dan
The Stezenkos are also part of a federal strategy to promote and provide healthy eating choices on Northern reserves where fresh food is priced too far out of reach for many Aboriginal people.
In a joint effort with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, they participate as one of 33 federally approved vendors in the Nutrition North program where government subsidizes the air transport of fresh and healthy food to remote communities.
“We're able to provide people in these communities with our shelf price with no premiums at all,” said Dan.
Although the orders have been slow to develop, “we have great hope it's going to be a very big part of our business.”
The store also consults with a dietitian from the local health unit on preparing meals for outpatients released from hospital. Another program, Dinner to Your Door, prepares complete microwaveable meals for seniors and shut-ins.
“We're also pretty proactive with our catering division to corporate events, church groups and family functions.”
Dan jokes that the brotherly dynamic with David works well in having two stores 11 kilometres apart, but they talk on a daily basis.
Dan is the numbers guy, handling the accounting, union negotiations and some marketing, while David is the PR guy specializing in employee training and community programming.
“We have a well-oiled machine with great management that works for us and we delegate well,” said Dan. “We don't try to micro-manage.”
This past April, they've launched a new web presence with an online grocery shopping feature. Geared to working families or seniors shut in by weather, consumers have a choice of 6,000 items for home delivery.
Dan said it's a model they copied from grocers in larger cities that he hopes will resonate in Thunder Bay as more professionals move into the community.