Albertina Ramos and Salvatore Frino brought their great minds together over six years ago to open C’est La Vie.
By Kavita Sabharwal/Photography by Adriano Ciampoli
Albertina Ramos and Salvatore Frino really love fresh, healthy food, which is why the pair decided to open their own retail location in May 2008 after working together for 20 years on a recurring basis. Ramos started out as a sales associate at Optimum Natural Foods in downtown Montreal, working her way up to wellness department manager over time, while Frino joined Optimum years later to help manage the grocery department.
Together they came up with the plan to venture out on their own using Ramos’ background and knowledge of the industry and Frino’s love of food. Everything came together when Frino found a location perfect for their vision, allowing them the space to offer people what they love.
“It’s our passion. We live the lifestyle. It’s something that we’ve practiced for a long, long time, and having experienced the industry myself, we just saw an opportunity,” says Ramos. “That’s how this venture got started.”
Six years later, Ramos and Frino have three locations across Montreal: their premiere 2,200 square-foot shop on avenue du Laurier Est, the 3,800 square-foot avenue du Parc location and the newly-renovated 1,600 square-foot store on avenue du Parc Lafontaine.
A community space
One of the reasons C’est La Vie is a success, according to Ramos, is its Grab and Go section and the extensive organic kitchen managed by Frino that supplies Grab and Go for each location.
“That’s Salvatore’s strength. I handle the buying right now for all the supplements and cosmetics,” says Ramos. “Salvatore handles our kitchen, which is very extensive, and he handles all the operations. He’s a visionary!”
“We also have an amazing team,” says Frino. “It’s certainly not just Albertina and myself. Though we may be the visionaries, if we didn’t have this great team we would not be able to do anything that we’re doing.”
The company employs 24 people across all three locations. The small-format stores focus on organics, fresh produce and bulk, for the most part, in addition to the prepared foods and juice bars that are a cornerstone of the business.
C’est La Vie re-opened it’s recently-renovated Parc Lafontaine location in early January, which also started an extensive rebranding of the entire company, including a new logo and a Facebook page for the location.
Ramos and Frino have no plans for further expansion in 2015, however the year after holds promise. “Right now, we’ve just undertaken an extensive reorganization of the business because we needed to get ourselves up to speed on everything,” says Frino. “That will take us about 12 months. In 2016, we’ll look at doing more.”
The owners picked their avenue du Parc and Parc Lafontaine locations because of their neighbourhoods. “We felt there was a need to develop something in the area with the same feel. We focus on areas where we know people will just walk over,” says Frino. “I think that’s where we’re heading: small, local community markets that are organic-focused.”
“The neighbourhoods are very residential,” adds Ramos. “We’re in the heart of Montreal. There’s a really beautiful energy surrounding everything. Our customers range from the young and hip to families. There are some beautiful parks around our stores, lots of yoga going on. A fairly large percentage of our customer base is already geared toward the organic food lifestyle.”
The owners say their customers are a mix of young adults who come in for smoothies and prepared foods to older customers doing their grocery shopping for the week. These customers are all professionals, according to Frino.
“We actually happen to be in an area where there are a lot of university professors, lots of local artists and restaurant owners,” he says. “There is a lot going on in the area in terms of food culture, cafes and theatre, so those people that either own and operate or work within those segments happen to live within that area. They’re all fairly well educated.”
The partners say that the new store on avenue du Parc has some competition in the area, though Ramos believes there is space for everyone. “I think what sets us apart is our kitchen, our Grab and Go, our prepared foods and our juice counters,” she says.
“You have to decide what you’re going to be to whom and then build your business accordingly,” adds Frino. “We’ve found what works for C’est La Vie, and we have to focus on that and build on it.”
As for what C’est La Vie offers customers, Frino says, “We’re a place people can walk to, get what they need and it can be a point of reference for a small community. Our Parc Avenue location is in the Mile End area, so it’s very hip. It’s local. We have a beautiful terrace where people can hang out, have a smoothie, talk or get online. It’s that type of environment.”
A social experience
The retailer has hired an in-house marketing professional with an understanding and knowledge of the health food industry who will be assisted by an outside firm. They will be working in conjunction on a new marketing strategy to be carried out this year featuring promotions, in-store events, branding and a social media presence.
Ramos says she and Frino are both being trained on social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter, among others. In addition, all of C’est La Vie’s employees are permitted to post on the company’s Facebook page to help promote in-store events, such as a makeup application for female clients or a cooking demo on gluten free products.
“For 2015, we’re going to be more aggressive with in-store events because I think it’s a great way to interact at the community level with your customers,” says Frino. “It’s not about selling products. In the summertime, we have farmers’ markets that are set up outside stores. It creates a great sense of what we’re all about. We’re all about supporting local, organic farms.”
“It’s a great time to be C’est La Vie right now, because we had the opportunity to restructure so we’re getting everything we wanted for the business,” says Ramos. “It’s very exciting. Everyone is implicated on one level or another, so it’s really fun right now.”
The owners are also discussing an e-commerce site, though they are focusing on their bricks-and-mortar stores first and foremost. For now, they have recently acquired their own web address, and are in the process of building a website.
The business aspect
The store’s merchandise is about the same at each location, stocking shelves with 40 per cent grocery items, 15 per cent fresh produce, 15 per cent prepared foods including the juice and smoothie bar, five per cent bulk items and the remaining 25 per cent is taken up by vitamins, supplements and health and beauty aids.
Frino says the grocery department has seen the largest growth since C’est La Vie opened. The prepared foods department has also seen growing sales, especially at the avenue du Parc location.
Product regulations can pose a problem for customers that do research prior to looking for products in person, as they may be looking for products that do not have an NPN number, or products that contain higher dosages than are permitted in Canadian products. For the most part, the problem that affects the store is bilingual labeling, which they are very careful about. Ramos has a method in place if this happens.
“We educate them. We tell them what is available, what they can take it for, and we take it from there,” she says. “We’re very fortunate because a lot of our companies were already geared up. This goes back a long time, and all the companies we’re on board with already have NPN numbers so it didn’t really affect us. We were ready for this.”
C’est La Vie uses a POS system to track when items come in and when they’re purchased. However, the chain is upgrading their systems at the moment to integrate all three stores. The new purchase order system from SMS Solutions that will give the owners an easy way to make and send out purchase orders. It also has an accounting feature, a loyalty program option and a time management feature where all employees clock in and out.
When hiring store associates, Frino says it is ideal if they have an understanding of the health industry or live the lifestyle. “Naturally, they’re going to be more in tune to what we’re talking about or doing. We’ve also been very lucky by hiring people that didn’t necessarily have an understanding of the industry, yet they turned out to be amazing at what they did and we’re thrilled to have them,” he says. “Hiring people that are passionate about what they do and in the business, we look for that first and foremost. If we can find that, whether they come from other stores or worked at an organic farm, that helps in our hiring decision.”
The owners have recently put the finishing touches on an operations manual for training purposes and are implementing those procedures with the staff. Everyone on staff is also invited to product training from beauty and supplement companies.
“It’s actually encouraged, even for the food department. All of our sales representatives have access to the store staff, and everyone that wants to learn is welcome,” says Ramos. “With products, the more they know about it, the better informed the clients are. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Ramos says sales slow down during construction weekends, two weeks in July where Quebecers take vacations, as well as after the Christmas holidays, though that isn’t an issue with the store’s Grab and Go section.
“For people who aren’t necessarily buying a certain category, we’ve got quiches and fresh juices so there’s always activity in the store. When something slows down, we’re selling other things,” she says.
In order to create community, the owners ensure staff goes out of their way to help clients. “We know most of our clients in the neighbourhood by name; we know where they live,” says Ramos. “We take part in community events. Whether it’s a barbeque we do in the summer, or working with a gym next door, promoting healthy juices after a workout. Whatever we can promote locally, we do.”
The store also contributes to schools by providing gift bags and gift certificates for fundraising auctions. However, what the owners believe sets them apart from other stores in the community is the prepared foods they offer.
“It’s the kitchen that sets us apart from everyone else. A lot of clients you’ll see in the winter consuming a soup while doing their grocery shopping,” says Ramos. “It’s our prepared foods counter that really sets us apart.”
The owners have faced some challenges over the years, namely staffing. “Making sure you have the right staffing is always important,” says Frino. “Financial, definitely, is always a challenge. It’s a matter of finding balance with everything.”
“We’re smaller format. How do you offer your client one stop if you don’t have the shelf space to offer everything they could want? We’ve adjusted to that over the years,” adds Ramos.
It’s not all bittersweet, however. Ramos says her favourite part of the business is her relationship with her clients and team. “The love of people and this industry. The fact that we all share this passion makes it worthwhile to me and it’s always been that way,” she says.
“There’s not just one thing,” adds Frino. “I love the business; I love what I do. I love what we’re building.”
It’s that positive attitude and love of the business that makes C’est La Vie a modern community-oriented store for the ages, thanks to the visionaries behind its success.
At a Glance:
Name: C’est La Vie
Owners: Albertina Ramos and Salvatore Frino
Location: Montreal, Que.
Store Size: From 1,600 to 3,800 sq. ft.
Top Selling Products:
Food: Fresh produce, Pain des Fleurs Gluten Free Crisp Bread, Rise Kombucha
Vitamins/Supplements: New Roots Spirulina, New Chapter Whole Mega, New Chapter Men’s and Women’s Multi, Garden of Life Protein
Personal Care: myChelle Facial Care, Oneka Hair Care
Miscellaneous: Centiva cleaning products, OH bulk cleaning products