BEAUSEJOUR — Andrea Swain, co-owner of Pennyweight Market, a combination bulk food outlet, ice cream parlour and good, old-fashioned general store situated in Beausejour, laughingly opines that one of the challenges of launching a new venture in a small community such as theirs is that "everybody in town knows your business."
Among the benefits? That’s easy, she says: everybody in town knows your business.
Not long after they acquired the space four summers ago, rumours abounded as to what it was going to be when it reopened, Swain continues, seated next to her associates Kimberley Friesen and Laurie McLean, inside their cute-as-a-button shop at 802 Park Ave. The previous owner had been around for more than 20 years, and ice cream and milk shakes were two of her main drawing cards, so there was some concern — OK, a lot — on the part of the high school students down the street that the three of them were going to turn it into a (here she lowers her voice to a whisper) health-food store.
Friesen, who, like Swain, grew up in Beausejour, located 45 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, was at a neighbourhood pool party in July 2017, a few weeks before Pennyweight’s grand opening. She recalls being peppered with questions, including one from a 10-year-old girl splashing about in the shallow end who was under the impression the former locale’s beloved "candy island" was about to become a thing of the past. The second Friesen told the youngster not to worry, that the colourful array of gummies, licorice and chocolates wasn’t going anywhere, she came bounding out of the pool to give her a big, albeit wet, hug.
"I’m from here so I get that not everybody embraces change," Friesen says. "At the same time, they all have your back and hope you’re successful at whatever it is you’re attempting to accomplish. Andrea, Laurie and I are committed to growing the town so that it flourishes, and that goes for everybody who calls Beausejour home, pretty much."
Five years ago this month, Swain and McLean, the latter having moved to Beausejour from Winnipeg a couple years earlier, were at Friesen’s place, enjoying a glass of wine in the backyard on a warm, Friday evening. The conversation turned to work at some point; more so, how none of them was overly satisfied with that aspect of their life. They can’t say for sure who broached the subject first, but agree each felt they’d be better off managing a place of their own.
Next thing they knew, Swain was on her phone, Googling "businesses for sale in Beausejour."
"Hey, look, Scoop-A-Lot’s available," she announced seconds later, referring to a Bulk Barn-style enterprise she and Friesen were already familiar with, having shopped there dozens of times.
"That settles it!" Friesen said, raising her glass. "The three of us are buying Scoop-A-Lot!"
To which McLean semi-jokingly shot back, "Uh, I don’t really know you two that well, and it’s not like we have a ton of money. So no, maybe we’re not buying Scoop-A-Lot."
For the rest of that summer and continuing into the fall, the three women, each a mother of two, spent at least one evening a week holed up in Friesen’s basement, piecing together a business plan. It wasn’t until they had gone over every single detail with a fine-tooth comb — What sort of operation would it be, exactly? How much would they require in terms of financing? What would they even call the joint? — that they approached Scoop-A-Lot’s owner, to let her know they were interested. (In answer to their third query, the tag Pennyweight Market was McLean’s idea, pennyweight being a semi-common unit of mass in the Middle Ages. "Laurie knows weird things, that’s all there is to it," Friesen says, teasing her pal.)
"Practically from that first night in Kim’s backyard, we were 100 per cent confident this was what we wanted to do," Swain says, offering a visitor a Pennycap (don’t mind if we do!), their rendition of an iced cappuccino, prepared with cold brew coffee and vanilla soft-serve ice cream. "Still, the day we found out that a community futures loan we applied for had been approved, meaning there was basically no turning back now, I pretty much had a heart attack."
The trio took possession of the stand-alone, 2,500-square-foot space on Canada Day 2017 and spent the next five weeks in full-on, renovation mode. The attractive-looking, wooden display units? Those are repurposed pieces they stripped and stained themselves. The vintage curios, a charming collection of yesteryear scales, washboards and manual typewriters that dot the premises? Most are gifts from a local they affectionately refer to as the "scrap man."
As for the interior walls being painted jet black, well, that’s chalk paint, their notion being that children waiting for their parents to finish shopping could dress things up with their artwork. Not that there was a whole heck of a lot to buy Aug. 8, 2017, Pennyweight Market’s first official day in operation.
"Lentils and cream of wheat, lots and lots of cream of wheat," Friesen says, explaining because they didn’t want to be burdened by debt, they were extremely cautious — "All right, cheap," McLean allows — early on, opting instead to take a wait-and-see approach.
"We had ice cream, coffee and candy, which drew a crowd initially," Swain interjects, "but as for bulk, it was a lot of us gauging interest by asking people what they were interested in before we spent a bunch of money on stuff (hello, flax seeds) that might sit around forever."
Almost four years later, in addition to a dizzying assortment of spices, legumes, flour and dry pasta, Pennyweight Market (pennyweightmarket.ca) also stocks dozens of made-in-Manitoba products, including Happy Dance hummus, Cook’s Creek kimchi, East India Co. sauces and Amanda Lynn gluten-free perogies.
The thinking behind that was pretty straightforward, Friesen says: "Why can’t Beausejour have nice things, too?"
"The three of us would go to events like Third & Bird or Scattered Seeds and see all these super-creative people turning out all this super-creative stuff, so we started reaching out to various makers, letting them know if they wanted to sell their goods here, we’d be more than happy to make room for them," she goes on, mentioning Hot Cups, a Winnipeg-based tea and beverage company, and Archie’s frozen pizza, produced in Starbuck, as recent adds that have already proven to be big hits.
"Or people who shop here will spot something trendy on Instagram and mention it to us, asking if we’ve heard of it, too," McLean pipes in. "Then, the next time they drop by, they’re so pleased to see we now carry it because that means they no longer have to drive to the city to get it."
About that; because it’s only 30 minutes, give or take, from the north Perimeter Highway to Beausejour, Pennyweight Market welcomes its fair share of Winnipeggers, including "a ton" during the summer months headed to a cottage or campsite in the Whiteshell area, one of the reasons they recently expanded their weekend hours.
All three openly admit running a business during the past 15 months — you know, COVID-19 — has been daunting, to say the least. Never mind constantly counting heads to ensure only the prescribed number of people are poking through the aisles at any one time, they have also devoted an inordinate amount of energy determining how an environmentally-conscious enterprise such as theirs would operate under myriad restrictions.
"Pre-pandemic, almost everybody who came here would bring their own containers, which is the whole point of buying bulk food in the first place, right?" Swain says, mentioning it isn’t uncommon for people shopping for cake or pie ingredients to return a couple hours later with a warm slice, saying, "Here, try this."
"We still don’t allow people to scoop themselves, but what they can do is drop off their jars ahead of time, which we happily fill for them. I can’t tell you how many of our customers are pumped we’re not forcing them to use plastic (bags). I mean, in this day and age, that’s a very big deal for lots of people, just like it is for the three of us."
Lastly, we wouldn’t ordinarily end things with word of a 113-year-old empirical law but in 2021, there you have it.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law from 1908 details how thin a line exists between being excited and being panicked; that the telltale signs — dry mouth, sweaty palms, increased heartbeat — are almost identical. McLean isn’t a schooled neuropsychologist, far from it, but that hasn’t stopped her from apprising her business partners of that fact, whenever they worry about this, that or another thing.
"The first couple years were a bit of a struggle but what I always said was it’s the exact same feeling in your body whether you’re stressed or excited, so they shouldn’t worry if we hadn’t sold a thing all day. Rather, they should be excited, knowing things were bound to change any minute," she says.
"I have to admit, I’d never heard of such a thing before Laurie came along," Swain says, grinning from ear to ear. "But it has been comforting to know I have a new definition for whatever might be ailing me as a small business owner: constant excitement."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.