Flashback: Born in Chesterville, unique grocery chain Mike Dean’s reinvents itself to survive in a tough industry

Mike Dean's Super Food Stores President Gordon Dean. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

CHESTERVILLE — Mike Dean’s Super Food Stores’ flagship King Street location is where it all began for the small-town grocer, and where the next generation of this Eastern Ontario family business continues to adjust and adapt to an evolving marketplace.

When his father bought that first Chesterville store from George Laflamme in 1976 (in the building beside the current store), “there were seven grocery stores in town,” says Gordon Dean. That includes general stores, competing grocery stores and a butcher shop in the village at the time. “Talk about a different day,” remarks the company president, in his office at the local grocer’s North Dundas headquarters.

Today, the operation represents one of just 76 independent grocery retailers left in Canada, down from 2,000 in the 1980s, according to Gordon. Among the chains in that group, Mike Dean’s is unique as a rural Ontario operation with a trio of outlets  — in Bourget (12,000 square feet), Sharbot Lake (12,500 square feet) and Chesterville (11,000 square feet).

Today’s grocery store, Gordon says, must compete for a consumer wooed not only by online sales and discount stores, but especially regional “destination malls” anchored by superstores owned by the dominant five grocery giants not part of that group of 76 — Sobey’s, Loblaws, Costco, Metro and Walmart.

The challenges are felt in Chesterville, he concedes, where the village population has increased over the past decade and yet “probably half the people are driving to Ottawa every day now.”

Acutely aware of each change in his home village’s commercial landscape and knowing the impact on the number of customers through his own door, Gordon says the enterprise has “reinvented itself” by eschewing the traditional focus on large volumes sold cheaply. They have shifted toward more specialized, local products and “a ton” of food prepared or cooked in store.

“That’s what will keep us alive as a retailer is that specializing in local and a lot of local, and people know it’s local,” he says. “Volume has become irrelevant. Today, I don’t care what my sales are … It’s a matter of what products are we selling? Are we selling products that make sense?”

Local customers are today more likely to be attracted into the store on their way home from work to buy a hot meal or a fresh, prepared dish — a niche in which proximity still matters. “Everyday there’s something that you can get and take home for supper, ready to go,” he says, rhyming off such fare as barbecued whole chickens, wings, ribs, meatloaf, tourtiere and more — “and tons of pizza.”

Chesterville also hosts the company’s 8,000-square-foot warehouse, located on Industrial Drive, feeding all three stores, and it’s in Chesterville where much of the fresh food is prepared as well. “Our office is here and our overhead staff are here,” he adds.

Bearing the name of the founder who passed away in 2017, the business continues to support the family begun by Mike and Nancy Dean — their children and grandchildren.

Gordon and his wife, Pamela, are fixtures at the business, and their four children — Siena, Thomas, Benjamin and Samuel — have growing roles within the aisles of the store as well. “I skipped a lot more school than my own children when I worked here as a kid,” Gordon laughs, while conceding his progeny are following his childhood example by helping out.

His sister, Julie, and her husband, Daniel, are part of the team, and their mother continues to be a regular presence at the store, too. Nancy “likes doing her part,” says her son, adding with a smile that she “still does work too much.” A retired teacher, the family matriarch is, of course, the inspiration for the store’s own in-house “Nancy’s Fancy” brand of products, which Gordon and his father introduced — to her surprise — 20 years ago.

The company employs 75 people, “three quarters of them full-time,” the president proudly notes. “We would rather have full-time staff than three sets of part-time staff with no benefits.”

For years, Mike Dean’s has contributed to a variety of charitable causes in Chesterville, such as supplying food to various Rotary Club of Chesterville events and selling calendars to support the Chesterville Lions’ Christmas hamper distribution. Also receiving support are the Dundas Junior Farmers, Chesterville Agricultural Society, both elementary schools in the village, North Dundas District High School, Timothy Christian School, Morewood Recreation, and Art on the Waterfront — to name but a few.

Ruth Gilroy of Chesterville, a Rotarian, lauds the Deans for supporting causes like the Club’s annual Breakfast with Santa and its recently revived Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner.

“They contribute a major amount to the breakfast,” says Gilroy, tallying outright Dean donations of  “78 dozen eggs, 30 loaves of bread, jams, ketchup and coffee” plus discounted orange juice at the most recent Christmas event alone. “They give a lot.”

“Mike Dean’s has always been good to the Lions, no matter how you look at it,” says Carl Robinson of the Chesterville Lions Club, who also points out that Lions and other service clubs are always welcome to set up and sell fundraiser tickets inside the store.

Gilroy has been shopping at the place since it opened up nearly 45 years ago, and says she is always able to get what she needs. If an item happens to be out of stock, “I just ask somebody, and it’s back on the shelf. Gordon’s ready to help, same with Pam, Julie, Dan … and of course, Nancy. They’ve been great.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the township’s 2020 Explore North Dundas Spring/Summer Resource Guide. The involved interview took place in February 2020.

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