They say all good things must come to an end, but in the case of local grocery chain 49th Parallel Grocery, it hasn’t ended, it’s just changed.
Effective Monday, Feb. 20, the Richmond family has turned the reins of their four stores over to the folks from Country Grocer, who have long been a staple in the industry on Vancouver Island.
Wayne and Harmina Richmond bought the 49th Parallel in 1977 from Alex Campbell, who went on to start the Thrifty Foods stores which are now owned by Sobeys. In 1977, the 49th, as it’s affectionately called, was located in a converted house on the corner of First Avenue and Symonds Street, with a side entrance on Symonds and another entrance on First Avenue. Founded locally in 1951 by the Paivarintas, it was sold to the Campbells in 1973.
“Alex and I had worked together at K&R Foods in Duncan, so we knew each other really well,” said Wayne Richmond. “In early ’77 I contacted Alex about the possibility of Harmina and I buying a store. There was one in Union Bay and another in Victoria for sale and I wanted Alex to have a look at each one with me.”
Wayne and Alex travelled to Union Bay one Sunday to look at a Red and White store, and then down to Victoria to check out a store down there. After lunch, they pulled over at the top of the Malahat to talk things over.
“I had asked Alex what he thought and he asked what I thought. It was kicked around for a few minutes and then Alex said, ‘why don’t you buy my store in Ladysmith?’ I looked at him, somewhat awed, and then said OK,” Wayne said. “And that’s the start of the whole story.”
The original store was very tiny and two people could not pass in the aisles.
“We had a hell of a time setting up displays, as there was just no room. Most of our produce was on display outside in front of the store,” Wayne said.
At that time the store not only sold groceries, but goods such as wool and dyes and the like.
“We had to really clean house, not just to make room, but to get to know what we had and what didn’t work,” said Harmina. “The first thing to go was Playboy.”
The Richmonds said it was “quite a long haul” in the grocery business over the years. In the early days, after the store closed for the night, it would be Harmina cleaning the floors so the store was ready for the next day. Their son Peter was 14 and daughter Kathy was 11, and other than school, the store was pretty well what the children knew.
Maureen Fourmeaux was the main cashier and Kathy would work behind her bagging the groceries. “Kathy never failed to say, ‘thank you for shopping at the 49th’ to every customer as they left,” Harmina said. “Peter would help stock shelves and move stuff around in the back store room, which was so small we had to move stuff three or four times just to get at what we needed.”
In 1979, the Richmonds expanded the 49th Parallel brand into Chemainus when they bought the store and building at the end of Oak Street where the Thetis Island ferry docks. In 1997 the move was on into Cedar, and then in 2008 the family purchased Bruce’s Grocery, a 75-year-old business in Duncan. The Chemainus location was totally rebuilt into a bigger and brighter and more convenient location in 2013, and then in 2021, the 49th in Duncan moved into a spanking new 25,000-square-foot store at Berkey’s Corner.
“It’s had its ups and downs, but well worth it,” Wayne said. “We’ve gotten to know so many people and not just in town. With our new stores over the years, we’ve been able to be part of other communities and even other families and to continue to meet so many people has been the real experience.”
Peter said 49th Parallel has employed in excess of 3,000 staff members over the years. The majority have been students working their first job, but there are 11 staff members who were with 49th Parallel for more than 40 years and many more with 10 or more years at the store.
“We like to think that they believe they are part of the big family and are being looked after,” Peter said.
The Richmonds talked about community connections and said for example, there’s an employee in Chemainus whose mother was Wayne’s babysitter and whose great-uncle was his cub scout leader.
“Staff and community are No. 1 and that was hugely important if we were to make a deal with anyone who came to talk about buying the business…” Wayne said. “Keeping staff strong and part of the family was uppermost in all four of our minds.”
He said he’s always believed strongly in community involvement and giving back in the places where they’ve done business and made a living.
“If we can’t support the folks that support us, then we’re not doing it right,” Wayne said. “That is another reason why Country Grocer was chosen as they feel as strongly about community as we do.”
When asked what was the reason for selling the business at this time, Peter noted that he’s nearing age 60 and “there really is nobody interested in taking over, as all the grandkids … have their own careers and are doing their own lives.”
Peter said there were other interested buyers and 49th Parallel was “approached often” last year. He said Country Grocer’s offer “might not have been the best one,” but that company’s views on keeping staff a “part of the big picture” was an important consideration for the Richmonds.
“That’s when we really sat down and decided that it was time. We looked at everything that was coming our way, and appreciate all the work and time all the others put in. We felt the most comfort from Country Grocer,” Peter said.
Wayne said Country Grocer is also a local, family-run business with longtime employees, and has grown in some of the same ways that the 49th did.
“So in the big picture, it was almost like mirroring us,” he said, “and that was a comfortable feeling and the four of us realized that it was the best decision.”
As far as the future, Kathy said she’ll still be involved in the business and working at the Ladysmith store, but without the worries she had before.
“I love the people I work with and the rest of the staff but it will be a big change as it’s really the only job I’ve ever had,” she said.
Peter will remain working through the transition period and said “after that, well, we’ll see,” though he will continue to look after 49th’s parent company HarWay Holdings.
Harmina will enjoy her gardens and her view. Wayne said since he’s been told he’s not getting a new car or even an old hot rod, he’ll have to think about what he wants to do, because first thing in the morning, “I want to get up and go to the store right away.”
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