The little co-operative that could

Friendly’s Grocery in Inglis, Man., provides residents and tourists with local products and looks to expand services

INGLIS, Man. — Sixty-eight people pitched in $1,000 each with no foreseeable return on their investment to ensure their community had a grocery store.

They created Friendly’s Grocery Co-op Inc. in Inglis after consulting with the western Manitoba community of 150 people and researching co-operatives.

Ian Menzies, chair of the seven member co-op board, said it was a tough sell.

“We got lots of support for the idea but when it comes to $1,000, that was a pretty big number for most families,” he said. “The payback is long term, if at all.”

No dividends have been yet dispensed since the store opened last year, but sales and support have exceeded expectations, he said.

Menzies said the initial investment paid for renovations on the 80-year-old building, buying inventory and keeping the store running with a healthy bank balance. He said those that balked at first are now among the store’s many customers, which come from the local community and include visitors to a nearby lake, ski hill, provincial park and historic grain elevators.

The co-op concept made the best business sense in rural Manitoba.

“For a sole proprietor to start a business like this, it’s almost impossible,” Menzies said.

“That’s what people are faced with in rural communities, the outlay to get a business going.”

They received a boost from the local rural municipality and realtor, who negotiated a good price on the building.

In addition, volunteer labour kept costs down by helping renovate the building that had been vacant for a few years. The co-op board would eventually like to add more local and regional products.

“We will look for ways to perk it up more and keep people coming and keep people interested,” Menzies said.

This morning, the store is never empty for long. Pam Nernberg from Yorkton, Sask., pops in for supplies while camping at the Lake of the Prairies.

“It’s handy to have a place nearby,” she said.

Later, Nathan Ferg, who works at a body shop in town, comes in to graze for lunch fixings.

Store manager Jane Prokopetz said Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. are their busiest, just after the store has been freshly stocked. They remain open six days a week until 7 p.m. and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

Fresh produce, dairy, meat and deli move well in the store along with locally made products that include soap, teas, sausage and honey.

Her strategy is to provide what people are asking for and find ways to draw them in, pointing to a coffee stand, liquor sales and book exchange. Lottery tickets may eventually be sold as well.

Precepts said there is good support for the business, which provides employment for a full-time manager and four other part-time workers drawn from the area. Inglis School also sells gift cards for the store as a fundraiser.

“Being community owned … I think the pride is still there,” said Prokopetz.

Friendly’s tries to keep prices competitive with nearby Russell, Man., to keep people from shopping elsewhere and to help the many seniors who are not able to drive.

“They will call us and we will drop off their groceries on our way home,” said Prokopetz.

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