Gordon and Julie Dean outside their warehouse in Ottawa. Courtesy Photo
CHESTERVILLE – Remarkable people and industries are hidden everywhere in the Canadian business landscape.
One such business is Mike Dean Local Grocer with locations in Chesterville, Bourget and Sharbot Lake.
For the past year, Mike Dean Local Grocer has been a member of a partnership that services the Nunavut community in Canada’s far north.
Nunavut includes a major portion of Northern Canada and most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and has a population of around 40,000 people. It is located 2,833 km from Chesterville: a long drive for a loaf of bread and peanut butter.
Bringing food and necessary items to this part of Canada is a challenge.
Taking up the challenge are three groups working together in an unusual partnership.
An online retail service called Arctic Fresh takes food orders for the grocery stores in Nunavut. That grocery list is filled out by Mike Dean’s organization in Ottawa and the resulting pallets of food are flown up to Nunavut by Canadian North Airline.
Gordon Dean said he is happy to be involved in the process of feeding fellow Canadians in such a remote part of the country.
The Chesterville grocery store has been working with our northern neighbours for just over a year.
“Our first shipments were Dec. 19, so 14 months ago,” said Dean.
“Basically we were in the right place at the right time.”
Arctic Fresh was headquartered in Ottawa, so Dean took over their operation and became the third part of the northern partnership.
Across Canada there are quite a few grocery chains, but few like Mike Dean Local Grocer.
“There are not too many people that would have the inventory, plus the equipment plus the ability and interest in it,” said Dean.
With a population of 3,243, Inuvik is the hub of the Arctic.
In the entire territory of Nunavik there is more people that live in the city of Cornwall.
It is spread across a territory two-thirds the size of Ontario.
Working in the far north, even as a member of a group arranging, procuring and delivering food to the north is a challenge.
Apart from the sheer challenge of the distances and weather conditions involved, trust and accountability are also an important factor.
Dean said, “If you are not from up there you will not have a clue of how complicated and how much our version of normal does not exist.”
He said gaining the trust of community members is all part of doing business in the north.
Dean takes little of the credit for how well his grocery chain is doing looking after communities in Nunavut.
“We were lucky. The company that has been doing it for the past three years did a fantastic job, so we were able to take their best practices and continued their operation,” he said.
“A couple of their staff worked with us for a while.”
They handle all of the logistics in the north.
Dean believes the arrangement is a good match.
“We specialize in food and they specialize in getting it there.”
The biggest change was moving the Ottawa operation into the Mike Dean Local Grocer warehouse on Industrial drive.
During the summer months when many of the communities served are accessible by sea, the food is loaded into sea containers and delivered to the port in Montreal. From there, it makes its way north to those small communities that do not have regular air service.
Even the sea portion of the process is difficult.
Dean said, “The big difference with this part of our operation is the packaging and the preparation.
Putting two skids into a sea container and you have to worry about how it is going to be received six weeks later after it has bounced around on the ocean.”
There are many lessons to be learned from this venture. Its not just the logistics that have to be worked out, it is also the frame of mind the drivers of a commercial venture have to accept.
“It is a different mentality than here or what we are used to in business,” he said.
“Up there everybody does something very well and they do it in multiple places and they are not afraid to partner. I think it is cultural that way.
You need to support each other. When things go wrong there is no one else coming to help you.”
Dean said he is enjoying the experience.
“It is interesting and fun. It is very enjoyable to do something that has become a meaningful part of our business very quickly. It is rewarding to do.
We are not fighting over how cheap we can sell milk and how cheap we can sell bread.
We are doing something on a big scale that makes a heck of a difference.
It’s unique and that is part of the reason we like it,” said Dean.