Local Health Heroes: Herb and Spice
July 29, 2022
Local farms need local stores. In Ottawa, retailer Herb and Spice has been connecting local producers with consumers for nearly 50 years.
Headlining health and wellness at its two stores -- on Bank Street and in Westborough - the legendary operation has seen generations of owners. Throughout its history, food-lovers, vegans, organic food devotees and health-food and specialty diet followers have made Herb and Spice their healthy-eating touchstone.
Current owner Jerome Duquette and his partner Jacques Amsellem took charge at Herb and Spice 16 years ago, when the previous owners retired. Duquette recalls that buying the iconic stores seemed like natural move.
“I was running an organic bakery and we were Herb and Spice suppliers,” he explains. “I knew the owners, knew the staff and I knew the market. And the timing was right.”
Competition in the grocery business is notoriously fierce.
Even with a towering word-of-mouth reputation, keeping a small operation ahead of the giant supermarket chains is a constant challenge.
“Being small gives us the advantage of making decisions quickly,” says Jerome. “We listen to our customers and stock new and niche products people want. Then, when the big chains notice, they jump in. Sometimes it feels like they use us as their guinea pigs.”
Quality is at the core of Herb and Spice’s competitive edge.
“Some people might think ‘it’s a health food store so things will cost more than the supermarket.’ ” Jerome says. “In reality, our prices are essentially the same. What our customers get is superior quality and freshness.”
People really can taste the difference between jet-lagged ‘global supply chain’ supermarket offerings and food harvested hours ago at a local farm. And keeping freshness front and centre is a big part of the buyer’s role at Herb and Spice.
“We’re out at local organic farms like Juniper several times a week” says Duquette.
Building trusted one-on-one relationships with farmers lets us source the best products and deliver trust to our customers too -- for example, by confirming our farmers’ organic certification.
Jerome also stresses the power of customer service.
“We're a family-owned business with friendly long-time staff and our customers definitely benefit from the good atmosphere. Staff are incredibly knowledgeable too. They offer a level of service and advice that only comes from a passionate engagement with our health and wellness mission”.
There’s a familiar feel to Herb and Spice regulars. “Our market includes everyone, from teens going vegan and asking for advice on what to eat, to chefs, bakers, food-loving families and older people with special diets.” Even so, Duquette and his partner are always updating Herb and Spice, diversifying to meet emerging trends.
The Bank Street store added a Wellness Shop featuring unique hard-to-find supplements, homeopathics and flower remedies, bulk medicinal herbs, natural cosmetics and much more. They’re products the market wants and the big chains don’t carry. And they open the door to increased e-commerce sales –always a challenge in the grocery business.
With downtown Covid 19 office closures and the rise of “work from home” today’s Herb and Spice is adapting to a tsunami of ‘never before’ changes. “Eighty percent of our market live in the area” says Duquette.
“But 20% have always been office workers commuting to work downtown. That’s a big percentage.”
On the ground it means tighter margins and rigorous inventory control, plus evolving a fresh take on marketing and e-commerce.