Thursday October 15, 2015

Neechi Commons: Winnipeg grocery store bucks trend in core neighbourhood

Neechi Commons sales and marketing coordinator Kelly Edwards says the indigenous-owned supermarket is bringing healthy, affordable food - and jobs - to one of Winnipeg's poorest neighbourhoods.

Neechi Commons sales and marketing coordinator Kelly Edwards says the indigenous-owned supermarket is bringing healthy, affordable food - and jobs - to one of Winnipeg's poorest neighbourhoods. (Tim Fontaine)

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An indigenous-owned supermarket is succeeding in one of Winnipeg's poorest neighbourhoods, at a time when other businesses have long left for the suburbs.

Neechi Commons is an aboriginal worker co-op housed in a 35,000-square-foot converted brick warehouse located at 865 Main Street — a strip notorious for its run-down hotels.

"We have a supermarket that includes a bakery and produce section, meats and pretty much all of the groceries that you can find anywhere else," says Kelly Edwards, the store's sales and marketing coordinator.

"We also have a restaurant, we do catering, and we have an art store that features over 200 artisans."

Neechi Board

Neechi Foods in Winnipeg offers a range of traditional foods in its restaurant and grocery store. (Neechi Foods/Twitter)

While the price of meat skyrockets across the country, Neechi Commons has boldly slashed their prices by as much as 50 per cent. The move not only helps provide healthy, affordable food to an area known as a food desert — it's also providing jobs.

Reducing prices on meat is increasing sales and that has allowed the store to hire two more full-time employees. Edwards says around a dozen more might be hired as the meat department grows in the coming months.

"We have the potential to essentially double our staff at our mass capacity," says Edwards, pointing out that the building is designed to be expanded. 

Neechi Commons started over two decades ago as a small neighbourhood grocery store not far from its current location. Edwards says that in those early days, it was hard for them to stand out and compete with larger grocery chains.

Bannock at Neechi Commons

Loaves of bannock cool on the counter at Kokum's Bakery, one of several departments within Winnipeg's Neechi Commons. (Tim Fontaine)

"What we had to do was bring in specialty foods," Edwards says. "Since we're an aboriginal worker co-op, we brought in wild rice and bannock, blueberries and pickerel, bison and elk."

The strategy worked.

Neechi Commons now employs over 50 people, most of them aboriginal. It's also been able to help indigenous communities outside the city limits.

"When you buy something like pickerel, you're supporting local fishermen and when it comes to blueberries and wild rice, we buy them from First Nation communities," Edwards says. 

"These are areas that don't have a lot of economic development and a lot of job opportunities."

Bringing people to the neighbourhood 

Go to Neechi Commons on a weekend and the parking lot is often full, with people from more affluent areas such as River Heights rubbing shoulders with indigenous families from the surrounding neighbourhood.

One of the first things you see when you walk into Neechi Commons is the produce department, which is located in a bright, airy space called the Three Sisters Courtyard.

"Usually the first thing you see when you go into other grocery stores is that the produce, the meat, the bakery, they're all on the outside," says produce manager Iain Brynjolson.

"But [here] the first thing you see are these fruits and vegetable counters. They're really colourful and people have to walk through this to find anything else. That's the first key to the layout of this building."

Brynjolson says it's part of the store's strategy to introduce healthy, fresh food to the neighbourhood. 

Some of the fruits have been renamed to reflect the indigenous culture of the neighbourhood. For example, Granny Smith apples become Kokum Smith apples, "kokum" being the Ojibway word for granny.

Kokum Smith Apples

At Neechi Commons, Granny Smith apples become "Kokum Smith" apples - the Ojibway word for grandmother - to reflect the indigenous culture in the surrounding neighbourhood. (Tim Fontaine)

Across from the produce section is Kokum's Bakery, where on any day of the week you'll see indigenous bakers making stacks of bannock and filling cooling racks with fry-bread ready to be taken home.

Upstairs from the grocery store is Neechi Commons restaurant. It's already developed a local reputation for dishes like bannock French toast, but now they are pushing the cuisine to a new level.  

"We're redeveloping the restaurant menu and the catering menu and we're going to be including a lot of contemporary indigenous cuisine," Edward says. 

"The bison salisbury steak with wild rice pilaf is one of the specials we had yesterday, but we're bringing in new specials every day just to see how they go," she says, adding that chef Chantal Kejick recently experimented with making pickerel chowder "and now it's one of our most popular items."

There's not many places you can go and have pickerel chowder or bison on a bun," says Landon Gossfeld, the proud manager of Neechi Commons restaurant, who, like Kejick, is an indigenous Red Seal chef, which is a nationally recognized standard for professional chefs.

"I'm very proud to work for a company that feels so strongly in the values of the community, especially in the neighbourhood that we're in, in the core area of the city."