For Root Cellar owner Daisy Orser and her husband Adam, it has never been about running an essential service. Like many businesses, their store has been put to the test over the last year.
“We were just happily selling fruits and vegetables, and then in came all of this pressure,” Orser said. “You can say we got to stay open or you can say we had to stay open.”
The Orsers, originally from the Kootenays, opened the Root Cellar on McKenzie Avenue 13 years ago after moving to Victoria with their three sons. The store currently has 120 employees and was described by Orser as five businesses in one: a produce market, meat department, deli, garden and floral section and coffee shop.
“We changed our focus to becoming a destination market. Instead of saturating the city with more locations, it became about bringing people to us – that way we weren’t going to dilute the quality of what we were doing.”
Orser recalled losing much sleep over initially putting COVID-19 safety protocols in place to keep the McKenzie store open and functional, working up to 18 hours a day in March and April 2020. But they were also able to provide many jobs to those needing work as a result of staying open. Orser described the experience as both very technical and a matter of trusting their gut.
“I think the humanity of it was what people could feel, more than the smell of bleach in the air.”
The Root Cellar’s new store, located in Cook Street Village at the former Oxford Foods location, will open its doors as early as late fall.
Oxford Foods, previously known as Fairfield Produce, had been around several decades by the time its owners, the Louie family, were approached by the Orsers about the possibility of giving up the space. Since arriving in the region, the Orsers always had their eyes on the McKenzie Avenue and Cook Street Village locations, but the Oxford owners were not initially interested in making a deal.
Upon more recently deciding it was time to end the business, Oxford Foods put the word out to other businesses and eventually chose to give the Orsers the property.
“The invitation has just been loud and clear from the community.”
The building had noticeably deteriorated over time and was stripped down to mostly studs. Orser described the first six months of turning it around as costly and time consuming. To continue Oxford Foods’ legacy of serving the community, however, certain parts of the building remain, such as the “yellow teeth” atop the building, deemed the property’s crown by Orser.
Preparing the new store has been a challenge. Equipment costs have risen over 30 per cent, there have been indefinite delays on deliveries and some model approximates have been ordered due to certain item shortages.
“The good surprises outweigh the bad. I can’t stand outside of that store with a clipboard in my hand without being approached by almost every passerby with enthusiasm and anticipation about when it’s opening. It’s been such a warm reception that it keeps us on the rails and keeps us positive when the stress creeps in.”
Orser found customers had grown more conscientious toward their spending and the faces behind businesses and said it was the relationship with customers that had motivated them in general.
“We just saw a huge value shift in a customer demographic that was already quite aligned with the way we were doing things – we just saw it accelerate and it really did give us the comfort we needed to plough ahead.”
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Due to a lack of outdoor space compared to the McKenzie store, the Cook Street store cannot accommodate a garden centre and pot shed. The Orsers have yet to decide whether a coffee shop will be included.
“We’re serving the community and hearing what they want and trying to strongly engage [with them] and use our square footage to best represent what they want and need in Cook Street Village.”
Orser anticipated they’ll hire 80 new employees for the Cook Street store and said a hiring fair will be held in July. Applicants can apply for both Root Cellar locations in person at the McKenzie store.
It is somewhat daunting trying to appeal to prospective employees, she said, as other food and hospitality businesses are now able to reopen. She took comfort in knowing they have made a good name for themselves with their first store.
“The customer enthusiasm is our enthusiasm and we’re all committed to the same outcome, which is getting these doors open. It’s been such a gift to be able to embark on quite a huge and daunting project with the certainty that it is already well received.”
For more information and updates on the Cook Street hiring fair, visit therootcellar.ca.
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