Pomme Natural Market, Stong’s Market and Choices Markets all open new stores

Independent grocers expand despite sector consolidation   

Pomme Natural Market principal Craig Hermanson has acquired three grocery stores in the past 15 months and has so far rebranded two  | Pomme Natural Market

Independent grocers and small grocery chains are expanding across Metro Vancouver even as consolidation makes national competitors ever larger.

The expansion comes not only from longtime independent grocer Stong’s Market, but also from the small chain Choices Markets and newcomer Pomme Natural Market.

Stong’s Market owner Cori Bonina helped turn sod at a March 31 groundbreaking along with politicians, developers and others involved in Northwoods Village on Dollarton Highway in North Vancouver.

Bonina plans to open in the development her second Stong’s store when the project is complete early in 2016. The 20,000-square-foot grocery store would be the first new Stong’s location in 26 years.

“We were on the North Shore 20 years ago when we had four stores,” Bonina told Business in Vancouver after the ceremony. “We always wanted to come back.”

Bonina has lived in North Vancouver for decades and believes that demand for an independent grocer is strong.

She is a fourth-generation owner of the company and is also preparing to move her longtime grocery store on Dunbar Street into larger premises. Her family has operated a 14,000-square-foot grocery store at 4560 Dunbar Street for decades, but the location is slated for redevelopment.

Bonina secured a lease until February 28, 2016, and intends to move up the street a few blocks to between West 26th and West 27th avenues on March 31, 2016.

Her future Dunbar Street store would be larger, at around 20,000 square feet, she said.

Other grocers are similarly expanding.

Upstart Pomme Natural Market, for example, has four owners who aim to open 10 stores in 10 years and are already ahead of schedule.

The Victoria-based foursome of Rasool Rayani, Ed Low, Dave Arnsdorf and Craig Hermanson opened a 16,000-square-foot location in Port Coquitlam in January 2014, and then added a 5,000-square-foot second store on Davie Street in Vancouver earlier this year.

Both of those stores involved buying an existing grocer and then renovating and rebranding.

A third Pomme Natural Market is slated to open this summer in Nanaimo.

The ownership team earlier this year bought Nanaimo’s 5,000-square-foot Island Natural Markets, which they intend to rebrand.

“There are no more openings in the immediate future,” Hermanson told BIV. “It’s been a lot with three in the last year and two in the past two months, so we’re in a bit of a consolidation phase. But 10 stores in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island is our goal.”

Choices Markets has also been expanding by buying existing grocers and then rebranding them.

For example, the Vancouver-based company bought the Drive Organics on Commercial Drive earlier this year .

When Drive Organics rebrands, it will raise Choices Markets’ store count to eight locations – seven in Metro Vancouver and one in Kelowna. 

All of these small and independent operations compete against grocery monoliths such as Empire Co. Ltd., which bought more than 200 Safeway stores for $5.8 billion in 2013 and added them to its Sobeys division. Sobeys previously had bought the Vancouver Island-founded Thrifty Foods for $260 million in 2007.

When those megadeals happen, other grocers also get bigger.

That’s because the Competition Bureau usually requires the acquiring grocer to sell some of its stores to maintain a competitive landscape.

That independent law enforcement agency, for example, required Sobeys to sell 29 of its stores in order for the Safeway transaction to complete.

Sobeys then sold 15 stores to Overwaitea Foods and 14 others to Federated Co-op. •