Alberta farm family succeeds in high-end retail business

When customers walk into Sunterra Market in downtown Calgary the first thing they may see is a slide show featuring farm scenes from the Price family of Acme, Alta.

The Price family opened their first Sunterra market in 1990 and now have eight food stores in Calgary and Edmonton. The family has developed an integrated business that includes cropland, a major hog operation, cattle and processing facilities.

They did not have experience in the retail grocer side but knew there was an opportunity to offer service and food enjoyment.

After traveling extensively throughout Europe they were impressed with food stores where presentation and freshness were emphasized.

They also wanted to do everything themselves. In the early 1990s, big corporate stores were eliminating service departments, in-store bakeries and butchers. Keeping prices low was standard policy.

“The Sunterra approach, mainly because we come off the farming side, is we want to try and manage everything ourselves. We feel if we control it ourselves, produce it ourselves, it will be better quality in the end,” said Glen Price, who manages the retail side of the family business.

“So much of what we do is common sense. We try to think about what the customer wants and what does the customer think.”

They try to buy local and deal directly with farmer-suppliers whenever possible.

About five percent of the pork they handle at their Trochu meat plant comes to the stores while a large share is exported to China and Japan, often under the Sunterra brand.

They also deal directly with select fruit growers in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to get the freshest cherries and soft fruits like peaches and plums.

They also went into partnership with an Italian family and set up another plant near Acme. Branded Soleterra d’Italia, they offer a range of processed meats like salami and specialty hams at the meat counter.

All the food from pasta to pastries, salads and take-home meal, is cooked in their own kitchens to control ingredients and to ensure fresh products are used.

Six stores are in Calgary and two are in Edmonton with another planned for Red Deer.

The suburban stores are full range grocery stores with the Sunterra flair. The layout of the stores is customer friendly and does not tend to follow the traditional retail outlet of aisles and stacks of goods on the shelves.

Most recently the store located in the office tower Bankers Hall in downtown Calgary was renovated and doubled in size to 7,200 sq. feet.

There is an expanded deli with a wider selection of cheeses and cured meats, a long salad bar and ready-to-eat meals, including pizzas cooked in less than three minutes in Italian ovens.

The lunch time trade is busy, where white-collar workers and construction crews sit shoulder to shoulder in a sunny dining area enjoying fresh food from the counters.

“We get them all because we are very affordable and everybody likes to eat good food,” he said.

They also offer online orders, home delivery or people can pick up grocery orders.

At the end of the day, the crowds are thronging in to pick up supper that includes all the vegetables and a large selection of marinated cooked and raw meats to make a complete dinner.

“Everybody is time constrained so if we can deliver better quality that is healthier in a convenient way, it makes a lot of sense,” he said.

The concept started because they had high quality pork to sell because of the way the animals were raised and processed.

“As most farmers would say, we didn’t think we got paid what we felt the product was worth,” he said.

They did not want to accept commodity pricing so started to look at marketing alternatives. Most of their pork goes to China and Japan as a branded product.

Sunterra Farms was started in 1970.

In total, Sunterra employs 750 people at the retail side and 250 in the meat-processing and farming operations.

There are six brothers and a sister, as well as children involved in some capacity.

Ray Price is the chief executive officer headquartered at Acme, about an hour north of Calgary.

Four brothers are involved in the operating board and some of the next generation are joining.

“We don’t have a specific succession plan other than having the best people, whether they are related to us or not in the right spots,” he said.

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