Our first conversation with Will Willemsen, co-owner with his wife Ingrid of Sunripe Farms, an iconic retail establishment that was birthed with one key goal in mind—bringing fresh fruit and vegetables to the local market—took place some 17 years ago.
It began with a “road trip” of sorts, as Will and his new journalist friend climbed in a tractor trailer and headed to the Ontario Food Terminal, the spot within sight of Lake Ontario where millions of pounds of food arrive daily and where wholesale buyers do their daily shopping as part of a supply chain that keeps grocery stores, large and small, humming along.
Willemsen would arrive in the sprawling parking lot in early evening, setting an alarm to wake up around 3 a.m., then, armed with a list of what he needed to supply what was then a single Sunripe store in Sarnia with enough fruits and vegetables to keep a steadily growing client base happy.
In many respects, the process is largely the same these many years later.
What has changed is that Willemsen and his staff have gone to scale, which is what happens when you have a winning concept, exemplified by a steadily growing demand.
But Will’s story begins much earlier, his first job being picking strawberries on a neighbourhood farm in Blenheim, Ontario, where he grew up.
Graduating from the University of Western Ontario (his degree is in mathematics),
Will returned to Blenheim to work as general manager at a cherry growers processing plant.
That two year period was the last time Will would be working for someone else.
He’d been looking for a place to establish a business and acknowledges today that London would have been his first choice, having gone to school there.
Windsor was also a possibility but then one day, driving through Sarnia, he found what became the original Sunripe location on the north side of Lakeshore Road, just west of Murphy.
Armed with $2,000 in cash, a 1978 Ford Econoline van and a $10,000 loan from a friend, Will was in business, quickly establishing a winning concept that has seen him steadily grow the business since its inception in 1982.
The concept is actually quite simple: go direct to the source of fruits and vegetables, pick the “best of the best,” and get them back to Sarnia as quickly as possible.
What that means practically is that the larger grocery operators typically get their truckloads sent to warehouses where the produce is sorted before going out to any number of retail locations.
That takes at least a few days longer to finally get the fruits and vegetables to the buying customer, certainly longer than what Willemsen can achieve by buying early in the morning and driving his tractor trailer to Sarnia, arriving in the early afternoon and getting the produce on the shelves of his store as early as the same day.
What’s occurred since that first story was written in 2002 is nothing short of phenomenal in a great many respects.
Even before then, however, Ingrid came on the scene, not long after she and Will met at a horticulture show in Dayton, Ohio.
They were married in 1990 and six years later, had their first children—twins Kyla (who today uses a degree from the Rochester (New York) Institute of Technology to manage social media for Sunripe) and Ryall, an apprentice buyer working under the tutelage of his Dad.
Mia, the third Willemsen child, who was born in 2001, is heading to Queen’s University where she expects to earn a business degree.
Along the way, the Willemsens finally opened their first store in London, thanks to the slow and steady acquisition of homes Will had been buying as rental properties over the years, starting when he was a student at Western.
Having made a deal with a senior resident at one of the properties that he wouldn’t ask him to leave “until he was ready,” that day eventually arrived and the Adelaide store was opened in 2005, strategically located on the side of the street where Londoners would be passing by on their way home.
In the meantime, awards flowed from organizations such as the Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce (where Sunripe first won an Outstanding Business Achievement Award in 1985), and the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (which has honoured Sunripe several times over the years in various categories).
In 2016, Sunripe’s third store took shape in London, in the Hyde Park district on Fanshawe Road.
So what are some of the highlights Will and Ingrid are most proud of in recent years?
“One of the biggest things that have transformed Sunripe are Sunday shopping, which has fundamentally changed the role of the independent grocer,” said Will.
The second trend has much to do with addressing a need that has steadily grown and for which Sunripe has effectively responded, bringing prepared meals to the market.
“It’s the same thing that started with the baked goods industry in the 1980s,” said Will. “It’s easier and faster to buy baked goods than it is to prepare at home and the entire food world is shifting in that direction. Today, if people are baking, it’s because it’s a hobby for them, not because they need to.”
Another trend which Sunripe has found success in following is the idea of making products from simple recipes that not only taste good but have just a few ingredients.
“People want to be able to read the label without having a dictionary handy,” notes Will.
From a buyer’s standpoint, Willemsen notes that there’s more and more choice available from places around the world that years ago might not have hit the Ontario Food Terminal.
“The quality is amazing,” he says. “And while it used to be that there were challenges from a seasonal standpoint, most of these products are available all year round.”
While Will is no longer the driver on these road trips to Toronto, Sunripe has two trailers along with a tractor that does a regular loop—perhaps three or more times a week—to all three stores.
The Sarnia operation is also gearing up for another big expansion, having a few years ago building a larger store across the street from the original Lakeshore location.
Now, plans are well underway for a significant build-out, the addition of another 12,000 square feet that will see a larger bakery and more.
“We’re busting at the seams now,” says Will, the result of 10-15% growth every year for the last three or four years.
He credits a substantial social media presence for much of that growth, with daughter Kaisa’s expertise in that realm being put to work.
One more notable “differentiator” at Sunripe is the mix of employees that work at each store.
“Around the third year we were in business, we started shifting our hiring practice, moving from part-time staff to the point where probably around 99% of the people who work here are full-time,” said Will.
“The product here is complicated and the learning curve is steep. When we have full-time people, they get to learn what we have and they also know they’re going to be around,” he added.
So why don’t other retailers do the same?
“It’s short-sighted not to do so,” said Will. “Supermarkets are under pressure to make the numbers but we’d rather play the long game.”
Clearly, it’s a strategy that is winning for the Willemsen family.