When the opportunity to open up his own FreschCo franchise came around, Eric Nugent jumped at the chance.
After all, the born-and-raised Winnipegger has done everything possible to climb up the corporate ladder from one grocery store to the next, in many ways, for nearly a decade.
"But back when I first started that minimum-wage supermarket job in high school, I never thought I’d even stick around — let alone own my own store," Nugent told the Free Press. "I couldn’t be happier and prouder about being able to achieve this after all of that."
Friday, Nugent will open the doors for the first time to a new FreshCo store on Henderson Highway and Kimberly Avenue.
He’s already hired more than 90 staff members to make this possible, and he’s set up partnerships with several local businesses to feature their products at the new location — including Perfect Pierogi, Natural Bakery, City Bread, Winkler Meats and Jimel’s Bakery.
Getting any of that done during COVID-19, however, wasn’t easy. "The pandemic completely changed everything about the way we set any of this up, or how we went about it," he said.
"Especially when it came to hiring, it’s weird not being able to see the people in-person that you’re recruiting… everything was online for the sake of making things safe."
Still, Nugent thinks it’s an advantage that his supermarket is opening up after proper pandemic protocols — sanitization stations, arrows to allow physical distancing in aisles, plexiglass barriers and deep daily cleaning among others — have already been established by other stores.
"We’re almost a year into this crisis now," he said, "but that means we don’t have to do that kind of adapting that other grocers had to do when they had no idea how to navigate this.
"And to me what’s most exciting is that it’s a discount store, which is especially the perfect fit for the Winnipeg market."
Sobeys Inc., the company that owns the FreschCo brand, seems to agree.
In June, 2020, the grocery store chain announced it would be converting several current and former Safeways in Winnipeg into FreshCos. And across Western Canada, back in 2017, Sobeys’ parent conglomerate Empire Company Limited, said it was on its way to converting at least 25 per cent of its Safeway and Sobeys stores to FreshCos due to underperformance.
A Sobeys spokesperson confirmed Thursday that, apart from Nugent’s franchise, three other FreschCos are coming to the city in the next few months. One of them will open next week at Niakwa Village on Alpine Avenue. Two others (on Sargent Avenue at Sherbrook Street, and Pembina Highway at McGillvray Boulevard, respectively) do not have a set date yet. Two FreshCos are already open, one on McPhillips Street at Jefferson Avenue, and the other on Regent Avenue at Lagimodiere Boulevard.
Sylvain Charlebois, a leading food distribution and supply management expert, said the writing’s been on the wall for premium stores like Safeway for quite some time.
"The pandemic just accelerated this," he said. "The market is shifting from a socio-economic perspective and I think you’re going to see more companies trading down their premium stores for a while because of the trends customers are setting, who are getting used to seeing discounts."
"To me, it’s all about what the consumer wants," said Nugent. "Right now, more than ever, we’re all trying to save up on money. And I’m proud to own a FreshCo franchise because it’s that hard-discounts supermarket which is what my community wants."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.