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(May 24, 2001, Gazette)

Belbin family named top entrepreneurs
Innovating with the times

(L-R) Elizabeth and Chris, Dr. Blake, Fraser and Gertrude, Robert and Elizabeth, and Shirley and EdgarPhoto by Chris Hammond

A note of success: Dean Bill Blake of the Business faculty joins several generations of Belbins around the piano. (L-R) Elizabeth and Chris, Dr. Blake, Fraser and Gertrude, Robert and Elizabeth, and Shirley and Edgar. (Edgar and Fraser are sons of the store founder, Robert Belbin Sr.)

By Susen Johnson

Belbin’s Grocery in St. John’s is an industry anomaly. A St. John’s institution for more than 50 years, the store’s modest façade is old-fashioned — quaint, even — and inside, the shelves are lined with just a few of each of the country’s major brands, and many of the province’s longtime favourites. It’s clean, neat, but strikingly small, and you certainly won’t find a barcode scanner at the checkout. And yet, this tiny market is a grocery powerhouse, boasting one of the highest sales ratios in the country in an industry known for bulk buying and warehouse shopping.

So just how does this little guy survive – and thrive?

Honoured as Entrepreneurs of the Year at the Faculty of Business Administration’s annual Partners Dinner, held in the Fairmont Newfoundland Hotel on May 17, the popular grocery store’s current owners Robert, Peter, and Chris Belbin were recognized for remaining true to the founder, their grandfather’s, original vision of providing customers with a hassle-free shopping experience.

Begun in 1943 in the family living room by Robert George Belbin and his sons, Edgar, Fraser, and Douglas, Belbin’s Grocery profitted from the start by consistently offering a good selection of quality products, as well as helpful services such as charge accounts and free delivery. In the notoriously competitive and low-margin food trade, the brothers developed a special expertise in customer service, carving out a secure niche of loyal customers.

Included in this group is Janet Gardiner, who, in introducing the award recipients at the event, spoke of her own experience with the store and the family behind it. “I opened my Belbin’s account right after my wedding, 40 years ago,” she said. “In fact, it was Edgar’s wife Shirley who taught me how to cook.”

Although they did not start the business themselves, the Belbins’ status as entrepreneurs stems from their innovations: the first online grocery in Newfoundland, Belbin’s enables customers to phone, fax, or e-mail a grocery order and have it delivered right to their door. Most recently, they branched successfully into catering and launched a wildly successful “Dinner’s Ready” line of prepackaged fresh and frozen entrees, which Ms. Gardiner personally endorsed.

“My dad, who celebrated his 92nd birthday today, can’t see past the lasagna,” she said, “but my favourite is the salmon florentine.”

Speaking for the Faculty of Business, Dean Bill Blake summarized the merit of the winners.

“At a time when most companies view rapid expansion as their only mode of progress, Belbin’s provides a superb example of the success that’s possible from a more tailored approach to the market,” he said. “That’s what makes them such an exciting choice for this award: they’re an older, established name in the business community, but they haven’t stagnated — they keep their commitment to customer service fresh through a strategic use of innovation, without changing who they are as a brand.”

Robert Belbin gave special credit to his wife and the wives of his brothers for the success of the entreprise, and noted that the family’s success comes from taking pride in every last detail of the work. He added, “A prestigious award like this drives you on to keep improving.”

Belbin’s Grocery is located at 85 Quidi Vidi Road in St. John’s.

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