Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News
CHESTERVILLE — When a fire Jan. 20 caused serious damage to the Arctic Co-Op, one of Igloolik, Nunavut’s, two grocery stores, wiping out about 40 per cent of supplies, three partners acted within hours to help cover the loss.
Based in Igloolik, online retail service Arctic Fresh put in the order; headquartered in Kanata, Canadian North Airline delivered the goods via its extensive Nunavut routes; the third partner was none other than Chesterville’s own Mike Dean Local Grocer, happy to do what it has done with great success for close to 45 years … buy and sell food on a discount basis.
Working together, the three partners delivered five palettes of fresh produce, meat and dry goods to the Igloolik food bank to help see the community through its official state of emergency.
Arctic Fresh doesn’t supply the Co-Op or the other community grocery, the Northern Store. It’s in competition with the two stores through its online service, with Dean’s staff and suppliers completing those orders out of Chesterville.
For about 14 months, under president Gordon Dean, the business, which also operates stores in Bourget and Sharbot Lake, has been filling the bill for Arctic Fresh. It all started, Dean said, after he met Igloolik company principals who were looking for someone in the south to handle logistics and supply.
“Arctic Fresh was trying to run the supply end itself and was finding it very cumbersome and expensive,” Dean recalled during a masked interview in his company warehouse in Chesterville. “What they needed is exactly what we do; we have the infrastructure already in place.”
Arctic Fresh has as its long-term goal eliminating food insecurity in the North. CEO Rhoda Agutimarik points out that seven out of 10 children in the region live in food insecure households.
Dean says the online retailer is in a position to realize the goal; while Northern residents will always pay a premium due to the freight charges of getting food to them, Arctic Fresh can charge less because it has no physical stores to maintain.
The partnership possibilities were discussed for about a year before a working arrangement was struck. The logistics, Dean said, are complex and had to be firmly established. Nothing is ever perfect, but most of the bugs have now been ironed out.
Dean’s hired four extra staff to handle the Nunavut business. They take in the daily orders from Igloolik, assemble them, and pack them in sturdy cardboard boxes at the warehouse, all protected in endless amounts of bubble wrap. For larger orders that arrive from the territorial government and other institutions such as Christmas food hampers, others among Dean’s 75 staff roster are temporarily pressed into Nunavut duty.
Containing about 60 per cent fresh produce, 20 per cent meat and the remainder in assorted packaged foods, the boxes are secured on palettes and trucked to Ottawa International Airport several times a week where they’re loaded on board a Canadian North Boeing 737 — and occasionally Air Inuit — for shipment to Iqaluit and transfer via smaller aircraft to Igloolik and several other destinations across Nunavut. In most cases, customers pick up their packages at the airport.
These customers are being introduced to a name they probably don’t recognize, “Nancy’s Fancy”, Dean’s own house brand with “Nancy” being his mom who still works in the Chesterville store. Starting with bread several years ago as a way to give the company extra recognition, there are 600 lines under Nancy Fancy including more than 30 types of pickles. All of the products — other than packaging — are Ontario sourced.
The Nunavut operation is a curious place for Dean’s — which began as a lone grocery store in Chesterville — to have landed as a high growth portion of its entire business and as a boon to sales registered to its flagship store.
Over several decades, Dean’s focused on retail expansion, moving into Winchester, Vankleek Hill and Almonte with super stores. But faced with big box competition in those markets, it offloaded the big stores which were being “cannibalized” by the “cult-like” Walmarts of the world. The focus became home town, smaller stores in Chesterville, Bourget and Sharbot Lake.
With its trucking and warehousing setup, other opportunities came up for Dean such as Arctic Fresh and distributing to smaller, independent stores across Eastern Ontario. It’s all about partnerships and working outside the multi-million dollar mainstream grocery system controlled by Sobey’s and Loblaw.
For the big operators, a $2,000 order is hardly worth the effort; but that’s big for Dean which can quickly pull together the staff, product and delivery requirements, the president said.
Dean said his company and Arctic Fresh are just scratching the surface in terms of potential online food deliveries in Nunavut; “Right now, we’re not even getting the peanuts… just the shells.”