When Wal-Mart announced last May it planned to permanently close its downtown Sault Ste. Marie location, it was a major disappointment for area residents who relied on the department store for everyday necessities, especially groceries.
But for Lisa Vezeau-Allen, it was a lightbulb moment. Where others saw a door closing, she saw one open.
“It had always been my long-term goal to initiate and start a social enterprise in Sault Ste. Marie for people with barriers,” said Vezeau-Allen, who is also a city councillor.
“I knew there was a definite need in terms of really meaningful skill development, paid employment, all of those factors, to build toward successes as an adult, and there’s definitely not a lot for adults in terms of opportunities in not just our community but a lot of other communities.”
On March 6, the city celebrated the grand opening of Grocer 4 Good, a grocery store whose main goal is to employ and provide skills development for people with an autism spectrum disorder, other intellectual disabilities, or those who are chronically underemployed.
The modest, 900-square-foot shop has taken up residence in a building on Gore Street, in a part of the downtown newly revitalized, thanks to efforts by the city in 2016.
It will stock dairy and produce items, basic staples, and pet food, and down the road, Vezeau-Allen envisions bringing in specialty items from local producers.
Ten participants are already signed up to work in the store. Part of the related programming will have them venture into the community, lending a hand with other activities to help grow and expand their skills.
“It’s really about making sure that we're giving them a really varied experience so they can get out in the community and feel comfortable in other settings,” she said.
“Because, if all they ever learn is to work at the grocery store, then we’re not serving them well; they need to be able to transfer skills.”
Grocer 4 Good also has a very personal draw for Vezeau-Allen.
Her son, who turned 17 in March, is on the autism spectrum, and so she understands well the need for programs and employment for people who face barriers to work.
She has more than 25 years of experience working in the non-profit sector and spent four years living in Boulder, Colo., where she served as the vice-president of the Autism Society of Boulder County and the director of development for the local YMCA.
There, she was exposed to various social enterprise models – tech equipment recycling, retail, an ice cream shop, restaurants, coffee shops, and more – which reinvest any profits back into the business.
She carried the idea home with her when she returned to the Sault in 2018 and waited for the right time to act.
“It needed to be something that would create fairly sustainable revenue model,” she said. “That’s the key piece with any social enterprise.”
And then the Wal-Mart closed, creating a food desert in downtown Sault Ste. Marie.
In the case of Grocer 4 Good, Vezeau-Allen collaborated with a variety of community organizations to launch. The Ontario Disability Support Program, Ontario Works, Social Services Sault Ste. Marie District, the March of Dimes, and the Sault Community Career Centre are all partners.
General manager Ryan Alexander is the only full-time employee, with volunteers from the community helping to fill in where needed. A board of directors helps guide the venture in its direction.
It’s a model that Vezeau-Allen believes is easily replicable, and, once G4G is humming smoothly, she hopes to introduce the idea in towns and cities across the province.
In Sault Ste. Marie, she’s been grateful for the support of the community in helping to roll out her vision.
From friends who designed the logo and helped brainstorm a name to the two police officers who helped move furniture to the volunteers who have signed up for weekend shifts, the community at large has become invested in its success.
Vezeau-Allen is optimistic that support will open even more doors to the very people Grocer 4 Good is designed to serve.
“I’m hoping now that this does open up other employers to the possibility that, hey, even though someone might have a barrier, they’re a great employee.”