Life / Food

How Bulk Barn went from lame to hipster fame

Every two weeks or so, Melissa Baker hauls home bags filled with healthy staples, such as dried beans, chickpea flour, spices, steel-cut oats and shredded coconut. She’s short on storage space in the small condo she shares with her sister, so she pours her bi-weekly take into mason jars.

You might assume the type of person who puts their food in mason jars shops at Whole Foods Market, or if they really want to one-up the hipster down the street, the local independent health-food store. You’d be wrong. Baker, along with an increasing number of condo-dwelling millennials, frequently shops at Bulk Barn.

“Back in 2012 or 2013, Prince George (about eight hours north of Vancouver) got a Bulk Barn, and everyone was saying, ‘A Bulk Barn is coming! A Bulk Barn is coming!,’” recalls the 26-year-old master’s student, who now lives in downtown Toronto and studies nutrition at Ryerson University.

That’s right: the suburban chain with the garish yellow-and-red signs is suddenly hip.

From suburban to urban

Bulk Barn, which Carl Ofield first opened in a Toronto suburb in 1982, has recently revamped its dowdy suburban image for a sleek new downtown look.

The chain reportedly hired ad agency Leo Burnett in late 2014 in a bid to lure more young urbanites and update its once deeply uncool vibe. The franchised chain is aggressively expanding nationally, having opened more than 100 stores in the last five years. The stores can now be mainly found in big-box plazas in the suburbs and smaller standalone locations downtown.

Two of the six new Bulk Barns that have opened in the past six months are in downtown Toronto.

Gone are the garish signs at its new downtown locations, replaced with sleek red and metal, announcing to Canadians: this is no longer your mom’s Bulk Barn. Recently, the chain updated its kitschy flyers for a more modern look, which garnered kudos on social media.

Bulk Barn is smart to follow Canadians downtown, says Anthony Stokan, partner at retail consultancy Anthony Russell Inc. While rent is more expensive in the core, the chain does not have to pay for mall amenities with standalone stores.

Also, franchisees can capitalize on the condo boom. With millennials moving from the suburbs to downtown, the new urban Bulk Barn locations offer a mix of nostalgia and practicality.

Millennials like Baker have no room for giant boxes of food from places like Costco in their cramped condos. And besides, like many condo-dwellers, she doesn’t have a car to get to box plazas.

The scoop on the bulk-food strategy

The new strategy is clearly working.

“I tend to go on Wednesdays because there’s a student discount that day,” said Baker. “It’s usually very, very busy when I go.”

There are now more than 200 Bulk Barns, with stores in every province. And while you can still load up on gummy worms and chocolate for a steal, the stores also have a variety of health foods that young people love.

“In terms of changes, the biggest is probably product selection. We’re all about offering our customers variety, whether it’s having staples like oats or something more unusual, like Non-GMO chia seeds,” said Sherryl Woodward, senior director of marketing at Bulk Barn Foods Limited in an e-mail interview.

This mix of healthy staples and not-so-healthy snacks is key to Bulk Barn’s success, says retail consultant Ed Strapagiel.

“What are they?” asks Stra-pagiel. “They’re not a health food store, they’re not a convenience store; they’re sort of a mix.”

Being “sort of a mix” is not always a good thing. But in this case it works. Most grocers such as Loblaws and Whole Foods do offer some bulk food, but it’s not their main focus, says Strapagiel. While kids may love regional bulk-candy shop chains like Sugar Mountain, there’s not much for health-conscious adults there. Many independent health-food stores can be a bit dingy by modern standards, he notes.

Changing with the times

The chain has done a decent job of “cleaning up” and streamlining its stores and image, says Maureen Atkinson, senior partner at retail consultancy J.C. Williams Group. It’s no longer seen as just a bargain brand but a place where health nuts like Baker can grind their own nut butters. The chain certainly has not reached a saturation point yet, says Atkinson, so expect to see more updated, dare we say trendy, stores in the future.

While many other mall staples, from Eaton’s to Target to Jacob to Zellers have failed, Bulk Barn continues to succeed. The Canadian chain has pulled off a feat many retailers have found impossible: it has kept its kitschy core, while changing with the times. What could be cooler than that?

Family-run chain

Bulk Barn Foods Limited is still run by the Ofield family, and CEO Craig Ofield is praised on the website by a franchisee. But you’d be forgiven for never having heard of the bulk-food dynasty, as the Ofields tend to shun the spotlight.

Three things that changed about Bulk Barn

Signs of the times

While you’ll still find the red-and-yellow signs out in the suburbs, many of the downtown locations now have toned-down signs with sleek silver backgrounds.

Healthy items

Don’t worry, you can still buy a massive amount of gummy worms for $5, but the stores also have on- trend healthy items like quinoa and a station to grind your own nut butters.

Streamlined flyers

They recently updated their flyers for a more clean, streamlined look.

Three things that didn't

Rental cake pans

The stores still rent cake pans — there’s everything from the trendy Hello Kitty to the classic Mickey Mouse pans.

Wacky names

Many of the items still have wacky names, from Dino Sours candies to Clownin’ Around snack mix.

The scoop

You still generally scoop your food out of a big utilitarian bin and pour it into a clear plastic bag, with red font on it.

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