Health food store closure marks the end of an era

Matt Gardner
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For 65 years, Philippe Gaudet’s family has been a fixture along Central Avenue.

The owner of Sunlite Health Foods since it opened in 1994, Gaudet recounts how his uncle opened a dentistry practice on Central in 1949 and operated it until his death in 1997. His father, meanwhile, ran a jewelry store on the same street in the 1950s and ’60s.

Now, in 2014, the Gaudet family’s presence on Central Avenue is coming to an end.

After two decades in business, Philippe and his wife Denise have announcing that Sunlite Health Foods will close its doors this year after selling off its remaining inventory.

“With us closing, that’ll be the end of a Gaudet era on Central Avenue … unless another one wants to come and buy me out and open up,” Philippe said with a chuckle.

He noted that business has never been a problem for the health food store, with a steady stream of customers since it first opened on May 9, 1994.

Similarly, Philippe had nothing but good things to say about the location of the store.

“If I was to do it over again, I would do it in the exact same location,” he said.

“Our closing has nothing to do with the downtown. Downtown is a great place to do business, is a great place to shop. It’s just a great place to be.”

Rather, the Gaudets pointed to the heavy workload associated with running a small business.

“Our kids are grown and left home, and we just felt it was time for us to slow down and quit working between 50 and 60 hours a week,” Philippe said.

He added, “We sat down the other night and I think we figured it out (that) in 20 years, we’ve taken about three weeks of holidays.”

While the couple was excited about the chance to slow down and relax, Denise acknowledged that the feeling was also “bittersweet.”

“We’ve been at it for so long, we’ve got used to our customers,” she said.

“They’ve been good to us -- they’ve been with us since the day we opened.”

The decision to start up their own business was a bold one for the Gaudets when they first identified the potential for a local health food store in the early 1990s.

Born and raised in Prince Albert, Philippe was working in the insurance industry at the time and had no previous business experience.

“My father actually owned this building at the time and it just happened to be empty,” he recalled.

“He kind of planted the seed in my brain to open up my own business and we had an interest in the health food business back then. So we just decided, ‘What the heck, we’ll go for it,’ and it’s been 20 great years.”

Despite developments in the health food industry such as increased government regulation and more advanced products, Sunlite has always specialized in nutritional supplements, bulk foods, tea, cosmetics and cleaning supplies.

It began selling Birkenstock footwear in 1998 after Philippe bought a pair from a friend’s store and was so impressed he began stocking the shoes at his own establishment.

We just want to thank the people of P.A. and surrounding area for supporting us for 20 years. Philippe Gaudet

From the beginning, the Gaudets found support in the form of the Canadian Health Food Association, which they joined early on.

“They gave us a list of all the different suppliers in Canada and we just started calling them,” Philippe said.

“We went (and) visited several different health food stores to see what they were selling at the time, and that kind of gave us a basis of what to grow on.”

Despite their initial lack of business experience, the couple quickly learned how to manage the many aspects of a business including money, staff, inventory and personal time.

But according to Philippe, the most important part of being a small business owner is building a sense of trust with customers, who look to the storeowner as an authority on the products they sell.

“In business, it’s not so much the customer’s coming back for your product,” Philippe said.

“To me, the customer is coming back for you -- for the good customer service and product knowledge and the selection.”

While Sunlite has employed additional staff members throughout its history, in recent years it has become more difficult to fill available positions.

Workload and staffing issues aside, the decision to close Sunlite at this point reflects the view of its owners that the time is right -- as well as a pledge Philippe made to himself at the outset of their journey.

“I had put in my mind back at the beginning that ‘If I can do 20 years in this business, I’ll be happy.’

“We’ve done that successfully and it’s just time for us to, like I said, slow down a bit and start to enjoy life a little more.”

Sunlite is currently having a store clearout sale to get rid of its inventory.

Discounts on food and supplements range from 30 to 60 per cent off, while Birkenstocks have dropped in price by 30 per cent.

The sale began on Jan. 2 and items have been selling even faster than the couple anticipated. Philippe anticipated that the store could clear its inventory by February -- “the sooner, the better.”

At the same time, he added, “We are in no rush to close. We own the building, we own the property, and so once our inventory is cleared off, then we will close our doors.”

He is also hoping to sell or lease the property once the store is closed.

The Gaudets’ future plans are still hazy -- but one thing that is clear to them is the close friendships they have developed with many of their customers over the years.

“We just want to thank the people of P.A. and surrounding area for supporting us for 20 years,” Philippe said.

“We greatly appreciate it … Like I said earlier, we will really, really miss all our customers … I hope they miss us as much, too.”

Organizations: Sunlite, Canadian Health Food Association

Geographic location: Central Avenue, Prince Albert, Canada P.A.

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