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A recipe for success

Ready-to-eat foods attract a steady stream of customers to Dépanneur JLS Villeneuve de l’Ouest

JLS_foodservice_2When opening Dépanneur JLS Villeneuve de l’Ouest in 2017, Lison Villeneuve was confident that the lasagna, spaghetti and other ready-to-eat meals she made at night in the kitchen of her family’s new gas station/convenience store in Amqui, Que. would sell like hot cakes.

Three years later, however, even she is surprised by the strong and steady demand for those prepared foods from townspeople and passers-by in the forested rural hub in Eastern Quebec, 80 km north of the New Brunswick border, and the big bump that food-driven traffic brings to her c-store business.

“Our decision to put in a kitchen and eating area with a focus on ready-to-eat foods was a very good one,” says Villeneuve, who co-owns the business with her sister, Suzanne, and their father, Jean-Marie.   

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According to Villeneuve, one in every five customers who walks into Dépanneur JLS Villeneuve de l’Ouest purchases either store-made ready-to-eat foods or M&M Food Market Express items.

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Many of those same people also pick up and/or use the many other products and services the store has to offer, including Shell-branded gas from six pumps, propane, craft beer, lottery tickets, hundreds of sundry items and even a registry for game animals during the hunting season.

“Our thinking when we planned the store was to offer as many things as possible in order to attract the greatest number of people,” says Villeneuve. “But foodservice is so important I can’t imagine what the business would be like without it.” 

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In addition to its vast offering, Villeneuve credits the store’s location at the western edge of Amqui on Route 132 (the provincial highway that leads into and out of the Lower St. Lawrence region) for its rapid and ongoing success.  

As the only food store and gas station in the area, it serves a growing suburban neighbourhood, which is home to many residents who do shift work in local factories. It is also easily accessible for visiting tourists and free from the traffic that clogs downtown Amqui in the summer months.

“There’s also a campground nearby and we have a huge yard, which makes it easy for truckers and people towing trailers to maneuver,” adds Villeneuve.

Serendipity, together with her father’s desire to own and operate a business with his two daughters, also played big roles in the selection of the store’s prime location. Jean-Marie Villeneuve and his son, Guy, operate several businesses in the east-end of Amqui, including car and snowmobile dealerships and a garage, as well as a car wash and Dépanneur Chez Laurie, a c-store with a gas station that operates under the Shell banner. 

In 2015, Jean-Marie Villeneuve decided to relocate his Ford dealership to the town’s undeveloped west side. In addition, he asked his daughters to partner with him to open a new store nearby. “Dad always dreamed about doing a project with his girls,” says Villeneuve, who has also taught English as a second language in a local high school for more than 30 years. 

Having worked part-time at Chez Laurie since 2005 (and on the lookout for a new challenge) she agreed to the project. She also convinced her sister Suzanne, a teacher in Jasper, Alta., to join the business and help out whenever she is in town.

After a first site was refused over fears it was too close to the town’s water supply (a process that involved public hearings and left bitter feelings) Dépanneur JLS Villeneuve de l’Ouest opened in June 2017. 

Screen Shot 2021-01-12 at 12.03.48 PMIn addition to the c-store, gas, propane and game registry (which issued a whopping 1,300 tags in 2019), the business rented out part of its space, including a 35-chair seating area, to the operator of a short-lived fast-food restaurant outlet. Villeneuve is currently using the vacated space to promote a regional educational project to train chefs.

For Villeneuve, who lives close to the store and goes in most nights to prepare ready-to-eat foods (a task sister, Suzanne, takes on during the summer months) the new business has been both a challenge and a pleasure.  

“It’s a lot of work that requires constant responsibility and sacrifices,” she says. “And like with any business you have to watch costs, reduce waste and be there to train or help your employees.” 

Though she carries the lion’s share of the store workload, Villeneuve is helped and supported by her husband, René, and her dad, as well as her mother, who comes in most mornings to do deposits.

“What I love most is seeing and working with my family every day,” says Villeneuve.  “For me that’s priceless.”

 

 

  


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Ure’s Country Kitchen: Rural charm with important ‘links’ to its community

U2Harrow is a typical, small Ontario town, with just 3,000 residents. It’s less than a 10-minute drive to the north shore of Lake Erie in the southwest part of the province. In summer, birdwatchers, cottagers and fishermen flock to the area. In the midst of it all is Ure’s Country Kitchen—a convenience store/restaurant/ice cream parlour/gas station with a newly opened mini-golf course. Its owners, husband and wife Laurie and Randy Ure, have operated the business for more than 32 years. Despite “being in the middle of nowhere,” as they say, they have had consistent sales of over one million dollars annually. 

It hasn’t been easy, but the couple has done well because of their ability to pivot frequently. “We are always reinventing ourselves,” says Laurie, who mainly takes care of the restaurant and bookkeeping duties. “We’re independents so we can make changes without having to ask permission.” 

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That has become essential in remaining a viable business in an increasingly competitive environment. “We are always looking for new ways to diversify our revenue stream,” explains Randy, “because the margins on things like tobacco, gas and lottery tickets have gotten smaller and smaller.”

Ure’s Mini Golf debuted in June 2020. Designed and built by Harris Miniature Golf, the course features trick shots, a waterfall, two streams, four ponds with breaking greens, five fountains and more. It’s open seven days a week from dawn to dusk (weather permitting).

Designed and built by Harris Miniature Golf, the course features trick shots, a waterfall, two streams, four ponds with breaking greens, five fountains and more.

Adding a mini-putt golf course to the mix made sense. They did plenty of research first on design, building, maintenance and labour costs before they moved ahead, opening in June 2020. They expect it to pay for itself in just a few years. In the meantime, it is already paying off in unexpected ways. Ice cream sales have almost tripled; gas, snack and restaurant sales have leapt, too. 

The novelty of the new mini-golf offering deserves some credit, but so does COVID in a strange way. Sales (as of November 2020) are up from what they were a year ago. Despite big-box competitors nearby, customers have been shunning those in favour of Ure’s Kitchen. “They don’t wait to be stuck in long line-ups, especially now,” says Laurie. “Our clientele know they can come here and get their gas, chips and pop, or withdraw money from our ATM, without the hassle. We even pump their gas and bring the debit machine to them. They don’t have to get out of their cars.” 

U5The restaurant, newly remodelled and expanded with more seating space and a patio, has done well, too. Though it represents just 8% of total sales, its profit margins are impressive—about 350%. For comparison, gas sales offer a 7% profit margin. The eatery has built a reputation for its breakfast menu, featuring high-quality ingredients and homemade staples like homemade eggs Benedict, home fries, omelettes and blueberry pancakes—all made from scratch. 

In the c-store space, groceries haven’t been great sellers. They stock a few pantry basics, but they’ve trimmed down their selection in recent years. Instead, Randy and Laurie offer an impressive selection of soda pop (more than 200), including retro favourites like Faygo and Tahiti Treat. Its 16-ft. candy aisle, placed strategically next to the ice cream freezer, delights kids and grownups with U.S. imports, including Baby Ruth chocolate bars, that customers won’t find easily anywhere else.

“This place is hopping on the weekends,” says Randy. “It’s a destination where neighbours can meet and hang out. We like being a destination for them and visitors to our community.” 

 

U 4FOODSERVICE SNAPSHOT

  • Ure’s Country Kitchen opened in 1988.
  • The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Items are available for eat-in or take-out.
  • The three-page menu features breakfast classics, specialty sandwiches and an array of items hot off the grill.
  • The newly remodelled restaurant was expanded to accommodate more seating and a patio. Though it represents just 8% of total sales, the restaurant’s profit margins are about 350%.

 

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This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of Convenience Store News Canada. 


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Dépanneur Peluso carries 1,100 kinds of craft beers

 

Screen Shot 2020-03-09 at 4.59.01 PMTony Peluso, owner of two specialized convenience stores in downtown Montreal (with a third store in the works) believes the key to his success is keeping up with the times.

“If you don’t follow and adapt to changes in your customers’ tastes and expectations you’re falling behind—simple as that,” he says from the office above Dépanneur Peluso, his original store in Montreal’s trendy Le Plateau district.  

“Same thing with retail practices.  When you walk into a Walmart you really get an idea on how to operate.”

It’s a lesson Peluso learned the hard way in the early years of a c-store career that spans four decades.

Born and raised in Montreal’s north end, where his parents settled after immigrating to Canada from Italy, Peluso grew up wanting to be a writer.

Instead, in 1979, with financial backing from their father, he and younger brother, Mario, opened a bakery in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal.

Three years later, the brothers closed the business and opened a convenience store in one of the two adjoining buildings their father owned on nearby Rachel Street.

“It was my idea,” recalls Peluso.  “In those days dépanneurs were going into baking bread, which helped to kill our bakery business.  So we opened our own c-store and set up a bakery and deli section in it.”

Screen Shot 2020-03-09 at 4.58.48 PMAffiliated from the get-go with Quebec’s Boni-Soir banner, which supplied groceries, beer and other c-store products, the 2,400-sq.-ft. store struggled to survive in an area replete with grocery stores, specialty food stores, cafés, coffee shops and rival dépanneurs.

Peluso’s brother exited after a year, leaving him and a lone employee to operate the store every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

“The business was not doing well and I was advised to go bankrupt,” says Peluso.  “But, I said no, I was determined to make it work.”

In addition to negotiating deferred payments from suppliers of up to 90 days, Peluso got deals from the two brewery behemoths of the day—Labatt and Molson—on 12- and 24-bottle cases of beer.

“That really helped because this is a residential area with lots of young renters,” says Peluso.  “And I’m one of the only stores in Le Plateau with a parking lot. That’s a big advantage.”

As sales picked up, Pelusso started hiring more staff.  He also found time to get married and have a daughter, Julia, now 17.

Screen Shot 2020-03-09 at 4.59.44 PMBusiness really started booming when Peluso followed the advice of an employee, who was convinced craft beer was poised to be the next big thing.  

“I started contacting all the microbrewers in Quebec and adding their products,” said Peluso.

He also spent months visiting government-run liquor stores to see how they merchandised wine.  “I did the same thing here with beer,” says Peluso. “That really opened my eyes on how to run a business (and) helped get me out of my slump.”

Craft beer sales proved so popular that Peluso expanded into the adjoining building—adding another 2,400 sq. ft.—and made it into a beer store.

Today the store carries 1,100 kinds of craft beers from 100-plus Quebec microbreweries (including non-alcoholic brands, which Peluso says are becoming increasingly popular), plus full lines of domestic beer and some imported ones.  

“I’m very proud of that,” says Peluso, who plugs his vast craft beer selection with regular updates on social media.  “It’s our trademark.”

Screen Shot 2020-03-09 at 4.59.22 PMPeluso is equally enthused by the success of a second store he opened on Beaubien Street in Montreal’s Little Italy district in 2016.

The aptly named Péluso Beaubien is as much a small specialty grocery store as it is a c-store, selling fine meats, cheeses and charcuterie, in addition to Quebec-made beers, wine and cider.

The store also has a kitchen, a sit-down counter and a chef, who creates a weekly menu that features hot and cold food items. 

“I knew the area was going to be important for me because the Italians there were getting older and were moving out and millennials were moving in,” says Peluso, whose stores employ 36 people and are managed by Pierre-Luc Gagnon.

Peluso is now planning to open a 6,000-sq.-ft. store in Le Plateau, where he can add Quebec ciders and wines, which he says are becoming increasingly popular.

“I don’t have the space at the old store to add them,” says 59-year-old Peluso, adding the new store will be his last project. “I’m going to own it but not operate it. I’ll leave that to others.”

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