HALIFAX, Nova Scotia – Spending an entire day looking at one retailer’s banners might seem like a lesson in repetition, but that’s hardly what you get from Pete’s Frootique.
One day at Pete’s is a retail tour in itself.
I met with Dwayne Buttler, director of produce operations, in downtown Halifax in late July, expecting a stop at the company’s newest store in Wolfville, and maybe lunch at founder Pete Luckett’s winery and farm nearby.
To get the full experience, I have to see them all, Buttler says.
Luckett opened his first store in 1981, the lone independent up against Canada’s two largest chains, Loblaws and Sobeys. While the two major chains continued to grow, independents did not.
“They wiped out any infrastructure to support independents,” Luckett says, “and for that reason there are no independents surviving in the Maritimes.”
Pete’s stays out of the world of commodity grocery, Luckett says.
“It forces our hand in a way to be what we are, and that’s totally unique, specialized, ethnic and unusual,” he says. “We have a different style of merchandising, a different look. It’s all about the atmosphere. We’ve won the hearts of many shoppers just by the level of delivery.”
Produce is key in Pete’s differentiation, Buttler says. Pete’s carried items no other retailer in Nova Scotia would stock, from rare and exotic tropicals and specialties to international favorites. You won’t find many mainline items at Pete’s.
“We started bringing in things like jumbo papayas and ataulfo mangoes — things you wouldn’t find anywhere in Nova Scotia,” Buttler says. “We were the first to have mangoes all year long.”
Pete’s found loyal customers in international and adventurous shoppers, Buttler says.
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Where many would worry about the shrink in bringing in something like jackfruit or rambutans, Pete’s pushed shoppers to try the unfamiliar. Staffers frequently offer samples.
“We try to catch the shopper in the moment,” Buttler says. “Pete believes in having a one-on-one, meaningful moment with a shopper, and that draws others in.”
Don’t confuse Pete’s with your typical gourmet shop, however.
“Nova Scotia is a small place. We are not in a deprived area, but we’re in a tougher zone of Canada as far as not having a lot of extra cash,” Luckett says. “Although we are a specialist store, we can’t just be a high-end specialist. White collar, blue collar…every level has to shop at Pete’s. We can’t just be a gourmet store.”
A taste of Pete’s
Our first stop was the newest Pete’s location, Wolfville, which opened in 2012. The remodeled apple warehouse is located right on the water, where fruit was loaded on ships destined for far off shores. The small format store has everything you’d expect in a trendy, upscale neighborhood in a sleepy college town about an hour from Halifax.
The store features Pete’s signature section of items sourced directly from the United Kingdom, specialties from Luckett’s home country that have become a staple in all three stores.
Produce is not confined to one area in the store, with small displays dispersed throughout.
Even in the small college town of about 4,200, the store carries exotic items such as mangosteens, fresh figs, rambutans and persimmons.
Local produce also factors prominently, Buttler says, and customers are savvy about it.
Not satisfied with simply “grown in Nova Scotia,” most customers consider produce to be local only if it’s grown in nearby farms. Local product typically is marked with the farm or city where it’s grown. In this store, beautifully packed strawberries are on special, packed in small decorative crates with cellophane overwraps.
The original warehouse was not a large space, so the produce department utilizes as much vertical space as possible, using tall displays for items such as citrus and apples. Produce specialist Geoff Lander says sets change weekly, depending on specials. Tables throughout the store are built using locally made barrels, harkening back to the location’s warehouse roots.
Large windows in the produce department show off a picturesque view of the water.
From the tranquil, rural store in Wolfville, we headed to the bustling Halifax suburb of Bedford for a stop at the original Pete’s Frootique. This store is what made Pete’s famous, with its flamboyant toodlee-doo welcoming customers into what looks like sprawling English street market.
This store is quite a bit bigger and carries just about anything you could imagine, including fresh-cut jackfruit.
The produce department sprawls through about half of the store, with an expanded selection of organic produce and much larger displays of locally grown items including tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes and berries.
Tables are piled high, with bright and colorful signage.
The store is crowded, even on a weekday afternoon, and I’m stopped frequently by shoppers who aren’t shy about telling me their favorite things about Pete’s.
That’s the funny thing about coming here. I’m not sure if it is because Halifax is such a small town or if it’s because everyone shops at Pete’s, but I’ve heard from all sorts of people — from the customs agent to the hotel concierge to the guy pouring my coffee at Tim Horton’s — that Pete’s is the place to shop because “they have everything.”
“I hear it all the time, ‘You’ve changed the face of food in Nova Scotia,’” Luckett says. “And I think we have in many ways. We’ve really been pioneers at introducing food to the consumer.”
Our last stop is in downtown Halifax, in a ground-floor store in an urban neighborhood. This store obviously caters to a different bunch, with an expanded assortment of grab-and-go items and a busy line for prepared foods.
While the product assortment is very similar to the Bedford store, the way it’s presented is compact and efficient, trying to get the most out of merchandising a smaller space.
Sets feel more clean and modern, even though the store does use some of the retailer’s orchard bins and custom barrels. Dry grocery and frozen foods take up only a small portion of the store.
Pete’s … winery?
Luckett pulled away from the day-to-day operations of the stores in the early 2000s, but his spirit of innovation hasn’t diminished. His initial attempts at exotic items such as Saskatoon berries weren’t very productive, but during the past few years he’s found a sweet spot in wine.
“I’ve been in the food business all my life,” Luckett says. “I was always intrigued by the agricultural component. One thing led to another, and I’ve got a winery.”
Luckett also grows apples, pears, plums, blueberries and cranberries for the stores and local foodservice operations. He’s also dabbling in figs and even has a few experimental olive trees.
“I’m always trying something new,” Luckett says.