LOEWEN: A lesson learned from big-box failures and small-town pride

Image Credit: Compilation/Jennifer Stahn

Two business-news stories caught my attention in the last week here in the Okanagan Valley. One of them featured local restaurateur, Neil Martens, responding to some aggrieved local patrons of his business, 19 Okanagan Grill & Bar, over the bitterly-perceived steep cost of glasses of wine at his establishment. The other, was the shutting down of national consumer electronics retailer and e-tailer, Future Shop.

On the surface, the two stories may seem unrelated. But they are not. There is an intimate connection between the two that deserves comment.

Everyone knows it’s not an inexpensive prospect to live just about anywhere these days; but this is especially true in British Columbia, most notably in the Greater Vancouver Area and in one of the province’s jewels, the Okanagan Valley.

So locals tend to look for good value, wherever they may choose to shop or dine.

And in the fast-paced world in which we find ourselves, technological advancements have made certain devices all but essential to conducting life-as-we-know-it. And for decades, it has been Future Shop that was often the common go-to place for us to pick up the latest and greatest devices that keep us plugged-in with the rest of humanity.

Some of us even worked there. Myself included.

I began working at Future Shop the day the World changed: September 11th, 2001. It was an auspicious start to a two-and-a-half-year tenure that taught me a great deal about a style of business that was previously unknown to me. Formerly, I had the privilege of an exciting career in the high-end menswear trade, with a small independent boutique first, and a national retailer afterwards.

The world of the big box retailer, however, was vastly different than anything I had encountered before.

And yet I stuck it out, roving the aisles, selling computers first, then home theatre equipment, and finally appliances. Along the way, I got some exceptional training from some top-notch sales managers and colleagues, and came to appreciate the difficult task that the business had in staying on top of a furiously competitive retail sector. But I also came to see quickly that the Future Shop business model was completely unsustainable.

Future Shop’s guarantee to sell goods at the lowest price in Canada was a mantra that was soon adopted by virtually every retailer out there, and not just in the hyper-competitive world of consumer electronics. And it has become an expectation that pampered pusses (a.k.a. “customers”) have pursued with abandon ever since.

Frankly, we need to abandon the notion that rock-bottom pricing coupled with expertise from well-paid and well-informed service staff is an entitlement. It is not.

Which brings me to Mr. Martens and 19 Okanagan Grill & Bar.

Mr. Martens is decidedly not a big box retailer. He’s not even the franchise-holder within a global restaurant chain. He’s one of the diminishing breed of brave food-retailers who, insisting against reason, delve into the territory of the locally-owned-and-operated independent restaurateur.

People like Mr. Martens are obviously passionate about the vision that they have for their unique, local businesses. And they point to a value that we need to consider seriously if we want businesses to remain viable in our communities.

That value is: The imperative to, wherever possible, support the local, small business owners that do so much to model examples of sustainable business (and agricultural) practices.

So the afternoon that I read Mr. Martens’ letter to his patrons, I just knew that I had to head straight down to his restaurant and see for myself what the commotion was all about.

My hope with today’s column, is that, after you read my own response to his letter, you will think twice before walking blithely into anything other than a local, independent business. Even if it means parting with a farthing more than you might have expected.

Here is what I had to communicate to Mr. Martens from my table in his restaurant:

Greetings Mr. Martens,

I have come to your restaurant this afternoon, after reading your articulate letter of exasperation over the perceived slights levelled against your establishment by some local patrons.

Cheyenne (my server) was at my table within moments of being seated in the lounge, and gamely directed me towards the many fine locally-sourced offerings on the menu.

And so I happily await now the peppercorn burger (with a half of fries and another half of the recommended walnut-apple salad), all the while appreciative of the vista that spreads out below the windows overlooking the lake and its Valley.

Now I must say that I am not a fan of the so-called "Okanagan Lifestyle." It seems to be typified by boors-on-powerboats befouling our once-pristine lake, conspicuous consumption generally, and a near-rabid predilection amongst the moneyed for chasing tiny balls around "tracks" like the golf course noted from my table.

But I am a fan of progressive restaurateurs who insist on providing alternatives to the corporate cliches of post-modern culinary "culture." And, to this diner's mind, your prices are entirely fair. In fact, they are competitive with the comparatively poor fare on offer at the pubs and franchise- restaurants that flank what is perhaps the ugliest stretch of urban highway in the province.

(You'll forgive me if I break away for a moment here to actually eat what I have ordered, because it is here!)...


That was a fantastic nosh, I must say.

The fries may be among the best I have tasted. If french fries can be described as airy and crisp-but-evanescent, yours rise to this definition. The burger itself was of the highest quality and ennobled above the quotidian by Okanagan gorgonzola that graced the grilled meat. The bun too: top notch. Finally, the salad: spring greens and sliced apple, with tannin-laden walnuts, a toothsome in-house-prepared dressing and laced with that gorgeous locally-sourced chèvre — it may have been the favourite part of the meal.


It must be disheartening for a business owner like yourself to endure the slights of some clients. I empathize. I too know well the unjustified complaints of those who would rather see a business give away their products and services than align themselves with principled proprietors who really know their stuff, visionaries who seek to impart their philosophy to their employees and the clients that come to patronize their businesses.

Take heart, Mr. Martens. many of us appreciate your efforts. You can be certain that I will be back soon -- next time with my partner Wendy and some of our friends.

All the best to you.

— Jeffrey Loewen is a Kelowna-based writer who works at playing music by day and playing politics by night.

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