Staffen’s Food Market: The Store with the Red Pencil

By Stewart Grant

One of the very first advertisements in 1971 by the newly-opened Staffen’s Food Market demonstrated that something was uniquely intelligent about this independent grocer. The 8-slide comic, playing out a typical family conversation about a new store in town, brilliantly engaged readers into understanding Staffen’s competitive advantage: letting the customer do a little bit of work to save costs, and then pass those savings along to the customer.       

This was the first of many business lessons learned at Staffen’s by employees and customers alike, under the vision of company founder Earl Staffen and later by his son Rob.

As a boy in the 1980s I remember going to Staffen’s regularly on family grocery trips (the free suckers were a great treat!) and reading another Staffen’s mantra:

Rule #1 – The customer is always right.

Rule #2 – If the customer is ever wrong, please re-read Rule #1

Earl Staffen began working for the grocery chain A&P in his late teens, and stayed with the company until age 39 when he was downsized from his job as store manager in Kitchener. Getting back on his feet, he ended up working for a fledgling grocery store with two locations: one in Woodstock and one in St. Marys operating as BIG 4 Supermarkets. Shortly thereafter, the bank called the loan on his employer, and Staffen saw an opportunity to start his own shop in St. Marys. After convincing his father-in-law to lend the initial $10,000 and negotiating the remainder with the bank, Staffen’s Food Market opened up on Queen Street East in August 1971.

Earl’s time with a big chain grocery store taught him plenty about business and also allowed him to learn from their mistakes when it came to managing people and always giving back to the community. In contrast, Staffen’s would be more of a family atmosphere: a place with a culture of “treating people the way that you want to be treated.” Rob Staffen told me this week that “there’s still a group called ‘Earl’s Girls’ that regularly meet at Jennie’s for coffee, continuing friendships that began years ago at the store.”

One final lesson learned from Staffen’s is to know when the right time is to sell. By the end of the 20th century, the grocery store was at its peak, but storms brewed on the horizon in the form of big box retailers which loomed over small-town independents of all types. The Staffens carefully prepared the business for sale and ultimately struck a deal with Loblaws effective November 2000, completing a prosperous 30-year journey for the store with the red pencil. Rob Staffen reflects, “The thing our family is most proud about is the incredible co-workers that helped build our business; including our many high school students who learned skills on work ethic and how to treat people.”   

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