When Chris and Robert Belbin took over the family grocery store on Quidi Vidi Road from their parents in 1986, Robert’s father Edgar took him aside to offer some advice.
“He said, ‘my son, there’s no reason you can’t do OK for yourself, but there’s a few things you’ve got to remember. First thing, you’ve got to work hard. Second thing, treat your customers and your staff right. And the third thing is don’t be greedy,’” recounts Robert.
“Then he tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘who knows, at the end of the day maybe the likes of Coleman’s will come knocking on your door.’”
Edgar Belbin must have been something of a soothsayer because 32 years following that conversation the Belbin cousins have decided to sell the 75-year-old family owned and operated business to the Coleman Group of Companies.
As for why they’re parting with the operation now, Robert says the timing was right and the opportunity to place it in the capable hands of another Newfoundland-based family owned grocery was something they couldn’t pass up.
“You’re not going to stay here forever. What else could have happened? It could have been bought out by somebody who didn’t have the same interest or resources and we would have watched the business crumble from the sidelines.”
As part of the sale, Robert and Chris will stay on with the company until November to help ease the transition.
“And after that it’s just going to be relaxation for a little while,” says Chris, whose father Doug, along with uncles Edgar and Fraser, ran the business originally started by their father Robert George Belbin in 1943.
“Breathe a little and not have to worry about the business because the business will be in good hands.”
What they’ll miss most when the day comes to say goodbye, Chris says, is the interaction and relationship with staff and customers.
“We’re very close with our customers, we’re very close with our staff. That’s going to be hard,” he says. “But we’re not moving away, we’re going to be around here. This is where we’ll be getting our groceries.”
When they do, they won’t find a different kind of grocery store.
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Colemans, for its part, won’t be making wholesale changes to the neighborhood supermarket.
“It’s a brand that is very culturally rich and it’s deep-rooted and we don’t see a value in disrupting that or coming in with cheap changes that interrupt that trust and the brand relationship that’s been developed,” explains Aidan Coleman, the Coleman Group’s director of business development.
“For us it’s really important that this is seamless and that the brand continues in the identity that’s been built over 75 years. That’s a delicate thing to try to do, but we’re open to the challenge.”
As such, all 27 staff are being retained, as is home delivery, catering and the very popular Dinner’s Ready selection of fully-cooked soups, entrees and desserts.
“Where we don’t want to go with this is trying to turn this into what we do and what we know,” says Coleman. “We’re trying to learn from Robert and Chris about their culture, their traditions and that’s what we want to focus on.”
Both sides acknowledge there will be some changes here and there, but only in such a way that allows the store to remain competitive and drive further growth down the road.
The move is Colemans’ second significant salvo in the metro grocery market in as many years. Last fall, the Corner Brook-based chain opened a franchise in the former Dominion on Newfoundland Drive, just it’s third in the metro region joining Merrymeeting Road in St. John’s and Centennial Square in Mount Pearl. (The chain has nine other locations throughout the province.)
Coleman said the company is looking to continue growing its footprint in eastern Newfoundland, but wouldn’t divulge any future expansion plans.
Customers support sale
Online reaction to the sale has been mostly positive and it was no different outside Belbin’s on Friday morning where customers seemed optimistic about the takeover.
“A Newfoundland company is buying, which makes me happy,” says Allan Hawco, who shops there almost every day and, having grown up working at Bidgood’s Supermarket, has an appreciation for the local, family owned grocer.
“If it was sold to another company, a multinational or something, that would be a drag. I’m happy for them.”
Heather Elliot of St. John’s has been shopping at Belbin’s since her kids were little, largely because the Dinner’s Ready line offered a great selection of healthy vegetarian dishes.
“It’s less expensive, it’s higher quality, it’s fresh, it’s tasty,” she says. “If we buy two quiches, soup and a macaroni and cheese on a Friday, it’s there all weekend, people can eat it, there’s not a lot of leftovers. It’s just so efficient.”
Elliot was heartened to know that Colemans won’t be tinkering too much with the Belbin’s brand and its value.
“If they manage to keep the brands a little bit separate so that Belbin’s maintains the integrity of its customer base, they may be able to transfer back and forth a little.
“I think it’s really important, too, that they’re able to be competitive. If this is what helps them be competitive and still bring this product to market, then I say go for it.”