Ottawa’s Farm Boy marks milestone with plans to compete against big-box GTA grocers

As local grocery chain Farm Boy celebrates 35 years in business, it’s looking further afield in search of growth.

“We want to get the brand out to the GTA,” says Jeff York, the company’s co-CEO.

The company already has a southern Ontario presence with stores in cities such as Kitchener, Brantford and Whitby and is targeting the province’s largest population centre for future expansion.

Mr. York says the Greater Toronto Area could one day support as many as 50 Farm Boy stores.

“That will keep us busy for a while,” he says.

Farm Boy opened its first location in Cornwall in December 1981 and now has 23 stores, including 13 in Ottawa. The company’s current growth is increasingly coming from outside the city.

“At end of this year, we’re going to have more stores outside of Ottawa than inside Ottawa,” Mr. York says.  

He says Farm Boy looks for places that only have standard big-box stores when it's looking for new areas to set up shop.

“We’re looking at markets where you’re going up against traditional competitors, where Farm Boy is really wanted,” he says.

The company, which employs more than 3,000 people, opened its first “urban concept” store in Westboro last year with an emphasis on more freshly prepared food and improved options for in-store eating.

Mr. York, who joined the business in 2009, helped lead the company to put an increased focus on freshly-prepared, ready-to-eat meals.

“What attracted me to the company was that I was a big fan and a shopper,” he says. “To successfully get into the take-out food, the salad bar, restaurant world – not many businesses can transform like that successfully.”

While Farm Boy was well-positioned to capitalize on these trends, Mr. York says it wasn’t always  easy.

“You need the vision to go after it, because you’re essentially taking a retail concept and merging (it with) a restaurant concept,” he says.

Selling more prepared food, in particular, was a learning experience, he says.

“I call it a journey, the whole food industry now, if you think you know what you’re doing and you think you’re right, you’re wrong,” he says. “You have to just continuously keep getting better, improving, testing and then listening to your customers and solving their problems.”

Mr. York says he spends a lot of time visiting stores to see what works and what customers are saying.

While other retailers are feeling pressure from online shopping, it hasn’t affected Mr. York’s business yet. Still, it’s on his mind.

“I think a lot of retail is under stress right now with the internet and online retailing, but if you have a great store experience and you have the food available that the customers want, they’re going to come to your store. We’re going to get hit by the online business but not to the extent of, say, a clothing retailer, home fashions, furniture, books,” he says. “These industries were totally transformed.”

He says he thinks that while people might be interested in buying some things, like laundry detergent and toilet paper online, he’s not sure they’ll want to buy fresh food over the internet.

That should be good for Farm Boy.

“We don’t carry a lot of (those household) products, anyways. Farm Boy’s all about the food,” Mr. York says.