The Grocers Behind Our Grocery Stores: A History of Local Food Vendors

Bowring's Store, interior view, late 1920s
Chris Shortall's history of local food vendors ... in 1000 words.
Bowring's Store, interior view, late 1920s
Bowring’s Store, interior view, late 1920s

Article by Chris Shortall

Prior to the influx of TRA stores (Sobey’s, IGA, Safeway, Foodland, Lawtons, and Needs), Loblaws stores (Dominion, Atlantic Superstore, No Frills, Save Easy, Shoppers Drug Mart), and Walmart, grocery stores in Newfoundland have had a very local history.

For example, as far back as 1918, Royal Grocery (now Moo Moos) used to have a grocery store near Holdsworth Court on George Street. Run by the Ryan family, Royal Grocery used to supply to Bell Island during the booming mining days. When the city appropriated the land from their original location in 1961, they moved to their Kings Road location. Things were going so well in the mid-70s, Royal Grocery and the Ryan Family built a giant warehouse in the arse end of Mt. Pearl, before it was called Donovans Industrial Park. They used to have convenience stores throughout the city. When the owner declared bankruptcy, it was only because they were giving out too much credit to customers. And you know what happened? Other local businesses helped them back on their feet.

Back before everyone in town had their own car, their neighbourhoods had fully functional corner grocery stores like Royal Grocery. They were community centres and meeting places, where word of mouth spread, and life’s daily necessities could be purchased. Duff’s Grocery used to occupy the space that is now the Shopper’s Drug Mart near the Taxation Centre on Empire Avenue. Even Clyde Wells’ parents had a store. But now these family owned businesses are pretty much long gone and the few that are still around are at risk of becoming corporatized.

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Horse-drawn cart loaded with sacks, c. 1939. Photo by Gustav Anderson

Rabbittown’s staple, Jackman and Greene, was originally operated by two brother-in-laws, and is still one of the true long-standing corner grocery stores in the city. A man named Harry Kelly bought Jackman and Greene from Toby Jackman in 1957, and his son Frank is running it now, serving the changing demographic of the Cookstown Road neighbourhood. Frank says Jackman and Greene opened over 100 years ago, and his father Harry Kelly used to work there before starting his own store on New Gower Street where Lar’s used to be, across from Mile One.

During the recession of the 1980s, Dominion and Sobey’s encroached on the island, and existing businesses couldn’t expand and keep up with bank charges. So places like O’Keefe’s and Royal Grocery had to close their doors. As our locally owned and operated businesses had trouble surviving, foreign owned businesses filled the void and the corporations from away made themselves at home.

Weighing fish, Tessier's warehouse
Weighing fish, Tessier’s warehouse

However, some family run stores not only survived but thrived the hardships of the 1980s, and did so because of their ingenuity. These include Bidgoods, Belbins, Colemans, and Powell’s. Coleman’s expanded out of what was a department store in Corner Brook, and now has 12 grocery stores in the province, making them the largest independent wholesale/retail food operation in Atlantic Canada. Sobey’s has moved into another classification because it’s become such an unconscionable bigwig in the food supply sector. Colemans recently won a pile of awards from the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers for their family’s work and their flagship store in Corner Brook. Colemans major expansion occurred in the 1980s, when second generation Coleman kids bought out some other stores and ventured into their own wholesale supply chain, Western Wholesale/Focenco; the Coleman group could now independently procure, warehouse, and distribute to its holdings.

Bidgoods in the Goulds has also become a veritable institution in its own right. In 2000 the family donated 38 acres of land in the Goulds to the grand concourse authority to open the stunning Bidgood Park. Starting as a small outport general store in Petty Harbour,

Roger Bidgood and his wife Jenny took over her family’s shop and expanded it to include a fish processing plant and wholesale food limited. They established a salt beef packing company and it is by and far the best place to source local food products. As the Bidgoods family show, these entrepreneurs were and still are philanthropists who make and create our community with little recognition. They haven’t sold out to Sobey’s or Dominion yet, and hopefully they never will.

With the introduction of Costco, the entire grocery supply landscape in the city changed overnight. Old family owned Wholesalers like myself at GJ Shortall, and JB Hand and FJ Wadden’s, were put to task to provide pantry staples at lower and lower costs, as consumers could find cheaper foodstuffs in larger packaging – suitable for their shrinking families. Costco effectively introduced the absurdity of mega sized bulk foods for the everyday consumer. But don’t get me wrong, it is cheaper to buy in bulk, and it has meant some food staples have remained somewhat stable in pricing, but the best part in my eyes is reduced packaging.

Outside the overpass, another player was, and still is making waves. Powells. In 1948, Herbert J. Powell of Carbonear opened up a small local retail store. After having some success in the grocery business, he relocated with his wife Isabelle and their four children to the town of Bay Roberts in 1955. Here he opened up Conception Bay’s FIRST supermarket under the name Powell’s and later added locations in Carbonear and then Harbour Grace. Today, Powell’s Supermarkets are continuing their success through the business practices of Mr. Powell’s son, David J. Powell, and his grandchildren; David Jr. and Adam.

So there’s been a noticeable shift in history as small scale operators expanded and, in many cases collapsed, while big scale companies just kept changing and slowly eating up more and more of the market share. And it’s still happening. Without support from the everyday shoppers, dystoian futures of foreign owned mega stores will become our reality. Personally I like knowing whose pockets my consumer dollars are lining, because I have some feeling that they might be able to help me/us out at some point. But maybe I’m just too idealistic and community oriented for the business world.

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Rawlins Cross, W. J. Murphy Grocery Store, exterior view, pre-1950

Belbin’s opened in 1943 when Robert George Belbin and his sons opened up a shop in the front room of their family home on Quidi Vidi Road. Through the sixties, the store expanded to include the meat cutting room that became the cornerstone of the store. In the eighties, when a new generation of sons took over, they started a home meal line. Dinner’s Ready is made onsite and is the best in Newfoundland microwaved meals for busy people on the go. Belbins is a wonderfully unique experience which offers a specialty cheese club and the finest balsamic vinegars and gourmet specialties, along with the everyday staples and locally made products (like Five Brothers Cheese – see page 8!). Because the family was always looking for ways to make the store as comfortable and convenient as possible, they offer online ordering and DELIVERY. To this day, they have some of the most friendly staff of any store in the city.

These families and their businesses have fed and employed our city’s population for years and are an integral part of our community. But that is being threatened by Sobey’s who are expanding again nationally, and are charging merchandising allowances to suppliers (a clawback), and Dominion who reported doubling their profits in the last quarter of 2014, amid buying out Shopper’s Drug Mart. The only way you’ll get a deal at one of these stores might be from a disenfranchised employee at the cash register, and you’ll never see someone from a Sobey’s or Westons family around town, because they don’t live here.

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