Balderson, Ont. store sees pandemic success by going online, providing local items

With some businesses struggling to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are success stories, like at the Balderson Country Cheese Store north of Perth, Ont.

While it has been a community staple for more than 100 years, when the pandemic started in early 2020, owner Greg Black knew he would have to act quickly to stay afloat.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, just like everyone else, we thought we were doomed,” Black told CTV News Ottawa on Thursday. “(We) took every single product we have in this store, which is over 5-and-a-half thousand SKUs, took it all online with a Shopify platform.”

Black says that now their reach has grown exponentially, shipping products like their famous cheese, now made in Winchester and celebrating 140 years in production to every corner of the country.

“We are shipping from west coast, Victoria Island, Iqaluit, Nunavut, the east coast on a daily basis,” Black said. “It kind of happened a little bit faster than we thought it would.”

It was so successful, the store doubled their staff, hiring two part-time and one full-time employee, and also looked into offering more local products.

“We sell an awful lot of honey and syrups and things like that and they are made right here in Balderson,” Black added. “If we can’t get it locally in the Perth area, a lot of our suppliers are within 20 miles from here; we try and see what’s available in Ontario.”

“A lot of our jams are Niagara-on-the-Lake region, a lot of our mustards and things, they are made in Stittsville,” he added.

“We try and find, support local, because people have been so great in supporting us through this, that we support them as well,” Black said.

People like Samantha Brown from Toronto, who just relocated to the area three weeks ago.

“We’ve been eating Balderson cheese for about, almost 20 years,” she said, happy to support a business that offers local items.

“If you want a vibrant community, you have to shop local. You have to support your local suppliers because if you don’t, the community just fades away to nothing,” Brown said.

Black says the next step in the store is to start offering more local home decor products, a sector of the store that benefitted with the online exposure, getting away from those items made overseas.

“I’ve been going to a few craft shows at Christmas time and here and there, and I’ve been astounded at the talent that’s out there locally,” Black said. “From retired police officers, retired military guys, active military guys, who just do this in their spare time now.”

“So we’re swapping a lot of our product out for a more locally made. I mean the raw materials are made here, the talent is here and people love that,” he added.

His staff, like general manager Mandy McLean, ready to see another successful year when people start heading to their cottages in the spring.

“We’re in discussions right now of what we can do to better the business so when the locals start to come out, it’s kind of like a one-stop destination,” McLean said.

“We have been bringing in new local products in the last two-and-a-half years,” she added. “We’ve got a good staff here, we got a good source going, it’s like a small family.”

While the store is experiencing some supply chain issues at the moment, it’s not as severe as it could be according to Black.

“The good news for us is, because we’re all made in Ontario, I would say 80 per cent of the items in our store are made in Ontario. We can get the stuff here a little bit quicker than if it all came from south of the border or another country, that type of thing,” he said.

Black’s advice to other businesses is to start selling online if you can.

“You’re leaving money on the table if you’re not online,” he said. “There is a market for everything people sell, you just have to figure out your niche, know where it is, build a website, just through a thing with the Shopify, it’s very easy to do, you don’t need to be a technical guru to go online and start doing this stuff.”

“It will expand your revenue, you’re not constrained by geographical boundaries anymore so go online,” he added.

Another avenue is to spark up a conversation with your suppliers to help cut costs.

“One thing I found in the last two years is how much your suppliers will work with you,” Black said. “To reduce shipping costs, your packaging costs, anything you need they will work with you for supporting them. They want your business too.”

While Black said it hasn’t been easy keeping up with changing health guidelines and capacity limits, he tries to stay positive.

“To me it’s not about getting over the hurdle, it’s about pivoting and just learning how to just navigate something different and that’s what we’ve done through all the lockdowns and everything,” Black said. “We just became great a finding a way of navigating through it.”

“People are happy, and the business is growing,” he added.

The Balderson Village Cheese Store is online.