Like most store owners in small Yukon communities, the new operators in Old Crow are trying to encourage people to shop local, and if that means rolling frozen turkeys down the aisles, they’re up for it.
So far everything is working. Matthew Walsh and his partner Steven Thomas have been rearranging the Co-op grocery store since they arrived in the small northern community last August. They’ve been adjusting store sections according to sales, bringing in new products and hosting fun events.
“As a result, our sales have skyrocketed. And our freight volumes for Canada Post have dropped. So, what that means, instead of ordering online, they’re ordering it here. And now they’re buying it off the shelf,” Walsh told the News on Jan. 11.
That means more money into the pockets of Old Crow residents who hold co-op memberships.
Walsh explained that once a year, after the sales and cost of goods are finalized, “people are paid out on the basis of what they spend in the store.” So local sales benefit the people who live in Old Crow. The co-op also has a locally elected board of directors who provides guidance and advice.
According to Thomas, the store wasn’t in perfect shape when they arrived. Now, goods are clustered in good order and they are eyeing more opportunities to increase revenue. They rent out the two rooms on the second floor to short-term visitors. Bookings have been steady.
They also want to get to know the community.
“Now, every time someone comes in, [we’re] like, ‘What’s new today?’ And we play music, which they love because, before, it was just walking into a quiet store.” Thomas adds the detail with his Newfoundland lilt, “I have my mom’s playlist with, like Bon Jovi, Def Leppard. People love them and all compliment the music.”
There have been events held at the store, buoyed by Walsh and Thomas’ enthusiasm. “Turkey bowling was the highlight. That’s when everybody had the most fun.” They used a store aisle and set up paper towel rolls as the five pins.
“We wrapped the turkey in a garbage bag and taped it so the turkey was still salvageable. You stand up and you just kind of granny roll the turkey,” Walsh said, motioning a four-metre distance between start line and pins.
“Okay, because it’s a turkey and it’s not gonna roll far because it’s not round, it could go anywhere.”
It was a free event and people had a good laugh. Walsh said everybody won something and the top prize for knocking all the pins down was a $50 gift certificate. “I think we had 46 participants, and that was mostly community members and a few contractors.”
They also held two bingo nights, one for ladies and one for men. Again, participation was free and the grand prize was a 30-second shopping spree. Elders, if they won, got an extra minute for their spree down the aisles of the store.
Old Crow is a hotbed of building activity right now, with Ketza Construction and TSL Contractors partnering on two projects, and Wildstone crews working on another two.
“We’ve been selling so many woolly socks lately for the construction workers,” Walsh said.
But other than socks, and a bit of junk food, the construction companies aren’t purchasing food from the store. Walsh and Thomas would like to see this change, but guaranteed freight delivery to the community has been an on-going issue. Over Christmas, the community did not receive parcels containing prescription medicines, or mail, or their copies of the Yukon News.
Walsh and Thomas worked in several northern communities before coming to Old Crow, either on assignment, or for training or relief work. With the benefit of that kind of perspective, Walsh has seen how freight costs tie into the picture of high northern food costs, and the effectiveness of the federal Nutrition North program. It puzzles him how the program doesn’t seem to work for Old Crow as well as it does in other communities.
For example, Walsh sees significantly higher costs for milk in Old Crow at $17.99 for a four-litre jug compared to a retail price in Deer Lake, Ontario of $6.59. Both communities get Nutrition North subsidies and have very thin margins on milk and bread. Prices are marked up only enough to cover their losses from perishable items.
Similarly, he says the cost of a five-pound bag of potatoes is $2.10, but with transportation it sells close to $14 in Old Crow. “Yes there’s a Nutrition North subsidy on it, but [the price is] still high,” Walsh said. The program doesn’t cover actual costs to the same extent as it does in other communities.
Walsh says the cost is all freight. They rely on three different carriers to get food to Old Crow, and they’ve experienced three transportation cost increases since they arrived in August.
Inflation is hitting hard. In addition to the 10 per cent increase in food costs, they have also had to bear the 30 per cent increase in fuel charges. Walsh guesstimates that “the Nutrition North program is about a year behind inflation.”
Nutrition North covers 122 isolated northern communities and is only adjusted annually.
The federal government recently said the next increase will happen on Feb. 1, but the increase amount hasn’t been released yet.
Labour, too, is an issue for the fellows at the store. With so much work available in town paying significantly more, it’s been hard to find the causal labour needed to spell off Walsh and Thomas. Thomas says Old Crow is not like other communities where he experienced people not wanting to work, here there are too many other jobs.
The couple has signed on with the Old Crow Co-op for two years. After that they will re-evaluate, but right now they are loving it. Both grew up in Newfoundland, knew each other in high school and then drifted apart. They reconnected when Walsh spotted Thomas on the Amazing Race, a televised reality show, and sent him a text. ”He messaged me something cute,” Thomas said, and the rest is history. Marriage plans are in the works, but the geographical distance between Old Crow and a Newfoundland wedding with friends and family have delayed plans a little.
Right now, the store is keeping them busy.
“Currently, I’m the banker, the postmaster and the cashier. I’m like, the Waldo — where am I today? I’m like a jack of all trades because it’s really hard to get staff here,” Thomas said. But there’s an upside.
“It works great because I know everyone’s names now. I know everyone’s co-op numbers. I know everyone’s PO box numbers.”
A third person is on the way to help out. When that happens, Walsh and Thomas will have time to get more involved with the community. One of the things they are looking forward to is training with the fire department.
“It just seems like I’m in a small town back home. It almost seems like everyone’s equal,” Walsh said.
“And everyone just helps each other. And that’s what I like about it.”
Contact Lawrie Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org