Neighbourhood grocer focuses on community and local food
Sunnyside has always had a great community feel – situated within walking distance from the city’s core, but isolated from downtown by its location on the North side of the Bow River, the neighbourhood has that magical combination of inner-city cool tempered by an almost small-town chilled-out vibe. Encapsulating that community spirit is the Sunnyside Natural Market, a bustling little grocery that not only feeds the residents of Sunnyside, but provides health-conscious patrons with a friendly neighbourhood hang-out spot. Newcomers to Calgary often complain that our city is lacking in the decent corner grocery stores that you’d more commonly find in Montreal or Toronto, but that’s certainly not the scene in Sunnyside.
The store has been operating as a market since 1997 (before that the owners operated an Eco Store in the same location) but current owners Pat Guyn and Patty Nowlin have only owned the shop since 2005. The couple were longtime customers and only became interested in the grocery business when the original owners announced that they’d decided to move on. Not wanting to lose their favourite food store to new owners who may not keep with the standards that they’d grown to love, Guyn and Nowlan decided that they’d take on new careers and become their own friendly neighbourhood grocers.
“The previous owners knew we would keep with their philosophy, which we’ve pretty much done,” Guyn says. “And it was a good transition for me because after 21 years of being a computer science programmer working downtown, I was ready for a different path. I had no experience in retail at all – I don’t think I’d ever worked a retail job!”
That general philosophy is fairly simple: Guyn, Nowlan, and the rest of the team stock the store with as many organic products as possible and buy from local farmers and producers whenever it is feasible. Guyn isn’t just concerned about providing the healthiest food available to his customers, but he also is a big believer in supporting food producers who do their best to behave ethically in every way they can. Guyn makes sure he pays his staff a living wage and tries to work with farmers who treat their employees with a similar sense of fairness while also taking proper care of animals and creating safe, chemical-free food.
“We love going out and visiting the farms,” he says. “It’s just really great being around the people growing your food and knowing how they grow it. You just have a higher level of confidence in how food is being produced, which is especially important for our meat. All of our meat comes from Alberta — it’s not all organic, but we’re really good about following up and seeing how the animals are being treated to make sure it’s as ethical as it should be.”
And Calgarians seem to agree. Although many people still flock to larger supermarkets to get their food on the cheap, business at Sunnyside has been strong enough that the store doubled its space earlier this year and partnered with the ever-popular Sidewalk Citizen Bakery to create a bakery deli counter complete with a pizza oven, fresh pastries, sandwiches, bread, and organic salads.
For Guyn, bringing in Sidewalk Citizen and expanding the size of the store goes back to his commitment to providing his local community with a place to congregate and buy great food. In addition to supporting farmers by buying their wares, the market regularly participates in community-building efforts in both Sunnyside and the local farming community at large by holding fundraisers for farmers who have been hit by bad weather, supporting local schools, and helping with various community gardens. During the flooding that hit Sunnyside this summer, Guyn and Nowlan were pleased to be able to deliver food within the community and provide a place for patrons to come and share their stories about what was happening with their own homes.
“Our store is a really comfortable place for a lot of our customers to come and hang out,” Guyn says. “There’s a lot of socializing that goes on and it feels a little bit like a hub for the people that shop here. It does make it harder to work because people always want to talk to you — but it’s a good thing!”
Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel