Health food store relies on word of mouth

At both Capers stores - in the West Vancouver and Kitsilano areas of Vancouver - the blond wooden beams featured in the cafes and groceteria exteriors were imported from the Nelson, b.c. organic farm of company owner Russell Precious.It is a...

At both Capers stores – in the West Vancouver and Kitsilano areas of Vancouver – the blond wooden beams featured in the cafes and groceteria exteriors were imported from the Nelson, b.c. organic farm of company owner Russell Precious.

It is a tiny detail that goes unnoticed by most of the customers milling about the pastorally decorated stores, sniffing and squeezing organically grown plantains and Jerusalem artichokes.

Yet, it is a detail that speaks volumes about the company’s commitment to the Earth, simplicity, honesty, and roots, as well as its need to relay all of that to new and loyal customers alike.

‘We’re dependent on them,’ says Marketing Director JoAnn Issenman of the customers at Capers Whole Foods Market & Restaurants.

‘It’s what we teach our staff,’ Issenman says. ‘And it’s written in our handbook that customers are not an interruption to our day.’

If that sounds kind of simple and obvious, it is. But the philosophy contributes to the folksy, grassroots communal appeal of Capers.

‘It’s part of our nature,’ Issenman says.

It is also part of business.

Since Capers began in 1985 in an old iga grocery store in the Dundarave area of West Vancouver, Capers has harvested a niche market, serving the nutritional needs of enlightened West Coast epicurists.

Purity of mind and soul motivate the business plan, and traditional marketing, as it turns out, has been minimal.

Only last year did the company begin a concentrated advertising campaign.

It is so far limited to print ads in publications such as The Vancouver Sun daily newspaper, The North Shore News, Chinese-language Sing Tao, and French-language Le Soleil de colombie.

Two eight-page flyers, circulated to 115,000 each, were distributed in March and May and featured stories about products and the oft-times small-scale, organic suppliers to Capers.

But word-of-mouth promotion, and customer satisfaction are still the primary strategies to keep the business coming back in a retail era dominated by superstores and discount warehouses.

Competition from the big boys does not turn Issenman’s head.

‘Our biggest competition is ourselves,’ she says. ‘That’s motivation enough to do better.’

‘We pay extraordinary attention to what we sell. We read the labels, question our suppliers. .

‘Customers are leaving a lot of decision-making to us. There’s some sense that if Capers carries it, we’ve checked it out. We don’t do everything right, but we try.’

Issenman says Capers staff tend to be better educated and more motivated because they believe in what they do.

‘I’m not sure at a conventional supermarket, you’ll find the same level of motivation,’ she says. ‘Staff here believe in organic farming, environmental matters, and enjoy the sense of community.’

A prominently displayed feedback board invites customers to tack up suggestions and complaints, and various managers respond to the concerns.

‘We take that very seriously,’ Issenman says. ‘A lot of people feel a part of Capers.

Capers has a no-risk guarantee, which means that customers can try new, and odd, foods, and if they are unsatisfied, the product will be replaced or refunded.

Consequently, cashiers, managers and anyone on the floor are empowered to exchange product.

‘No one has to look for the boss,’ Issenman says.

The company is also extremely information-oriented, a characteristic that means the typically well-educated, well-heeled crowd that shops at Capers has lots to read when browsing through the bins.

The expansion to Kitsilano in late November was helped by the excitement around the new complex in which the store is housed.

Built by Salt Like Projects, the complex is heated and cooled geothermally and features other energy-saving, environmentally appealing aspects consistent with the Capers philosophy.

The genesis of the company goes back to the late 1970s, when Precious – who, today, still commutes to Nelson, spending about one week per month on the farm – would truck organic fruits from the Okanagan Valley to the Gulf Islands.

When he started Capers in 1985 in West Van, word began to spread, popularity grew, and, eventually, the cafe, bakery and prepared foods sections began to grow.

Issenman says the company, which now employs 200, up from 15 when it began, got a reputation for being a funky place with a country store atmosphere.

She says sales at the West Van store grew 25% over fiscal 1992-93, and, with the expansion, overall company sales should top 65% growth in the current fiscal year.

‘The store was built from the inside out and continues to change,’ Issenman says.

And it is the pulsating, organic feel to Capers that continues to draw business today.