Country Cupboard celebrates 40 years in Fenelon Falls

A business voice for social and environmental change

By Roderick Benns

Julia Taylor, owner, and Carson Keeler, former owner and still employee at Country Cupboard in Fenelon Falls. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

If Julia Taylor had her way, one of the best-loved stores in Fenelon Falls would simply be called “Jars.”

After all, getting so many people to give up their plastic habit in favour of reusable glass jars is one of her favourite accomplishments since she took over as owner of Country Cupboard in early 2018.

But then, as she points out, “I knew if I changed the name everybody would still call it Country Cupboard.”

No wonder. The little store at 9 May Street has a long history, celebrating its 40th anniversary this month – and the words “country cupboard” were used from the beginning.

The original owner, Barb Torry, called it Country Cupboard Whole Foods ‘n’ Things. Her husband Fred joined her after retiring from Hydro One. They owned the store for 30 years. Then it became Val’s Country Cupboard, owned by Valerie Hunter, and then the more alliterative Carson’s Country Cupboard, when Carson Keeler took things over.

Keeler still works part time for Taylor, after passing the torch to her more than three years ago.

But did Country Cupboard always have the same business focus?

“It started off as a specialty food store with bulk foods, a deli counter, some supplements and natural products, as well as kitchen and wicker wares. Frozen yogurt started the second year, in 1982,” Keeler recalls.

It was in the last 10 years that the store “morphed more into a health food store with mostly supplements and bulk foods,” he tells the Advocate.

In fact, when Keeler bought it, he called it a health food store, let go of the non-organic products, increased the healthy bulk food products, and brought in new fridges and freezers that allowed him to carry a greater variety of foods .

“Of course, the frozen yogurt is still here and now has a plant-based option to serve our diverse customers better,” he says.

That’s one of Keeler’s favourite memories, serving frozen yogurt through four generations, “watching kids grow up year after year.”

Taylor had shopped at Country Cupboard weekly for years. When Keeler mentioned that he wanted to sell, she was immediately interested.

“He thought I was a good fit and I started coming in weekly to transition the ownership,” she says.

Given that Keeler has almost 30 years experience in the health food industry, “Everything I know about supplements comes from him. He also taught me how to do almost every aspect of running Country Cupboard as I had no retail or ordering experience,” Taylor says.

The owner takes pride in the changes she has overseen at the store, including using up those last plastic bags, plastic spoons and Styrofoam cups and replacing them with paper bags, free jars, and compostable spoons and cups.

“I remember when a farmer brought in their old Players tobacco cans to fill up with oats. I really knew (then) I had done what I came to do — make an impact in our community’s overall waste.”

A couple of years ago, Taylor was second-guessing her decision to get the store online, wondering if it was worth all the effort. She spent a year inputting all of the products and data — and then came COVID-19.

“The pandemic hit and we were ready for online sales. That was a real grateful moment, and I knew that I could trust my big decisions,” says Taylor.

Another shift from previous owners is Taylor’s conscious decision to use her business’s voice to advocate for social and environmental change.

Country Cupboard was not involved with the local chamber of commerce or community events until Taylor took over. She is a board member on the chamber and the business participates in most community events and makes regular donations to the local food bank. It supports Kawartha Lakes Pride and other community groups. She is also an active member of the Fenelon Landfill Committee.

Taylor approached the Fenelon Falls Rotary Club and successfully lobbied for a water bottle refill station at the new beach washrooms. She also bought two recycle bins for the beach and got Rotary to donate two more, all of which are managed with some volunteer help.

As for what comes next for the little store that seems to punch above its weight in the community, Taylor has her eye on setting up a commercial kitchen to create plant-based foods.

“This will continue to fulfill our role to serve the community healthy food options and reduce even more waste,” she says.

As for Jars,  the hypothetical business name that will probably never be, Taylor points to Country Cupboard’s graphic which she redid when she took over.

“At least I snuck a jar into the logo.”

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