Chantal … Organic Growth

In 1979 teacher Maureen Ward Alexander and chartered accountant Peter Alexander returned from their Big OE to Hawke’s Bay. Maureen was a farmer’s daughter from a place on the Taihape Road. Peter hailed from a small town south of Auckland called Pukekawa made infamous just a few years earlier by the Crewe murders.

Both became vegetarian while living in Dunedin. Returning to Hawke’s Bay the couple found it hard to buy the whole foods, such as lentils, that were easily obtained when they lived in London. Luckily there was a local vegetarian co-op called Chantal offering access to the foods they sought.

Over time, the co-op grew. Eventually there was enough momentum and business potential that Peter and Maureen, together with Carol and Alan Burke opened a small shop – also called Chantal – in Napier’s Hastings Street. It was 1983.

Forty years later Chantal is still on Hastings Street, albeit a few metres away from the original store and with a much bigger footprint. In that time it has become a trusted focal point for the vegetarian and organic communities.

Every step in the Chantal story has been organic. Original partners Peter and Maureen and Carol and Alan did not start their enterprise with the goal of creating a multi-million dollar business. At its peak under Ward Alexander ownership Chantal grew, and grew, and grew to become a vertically integrated operation incorporating a store and café, organic gardens, and a wholesale business carrying around 1,000 stock lines and supplying other organic shops all around the country, with a total workforce of around 80.

It wasn’t intentional per se, it just happened. A case of seeing opportunities and taking them.

Maureen talks about how the Chantal range expanded into supplements in the early 80s. “A woman with a supplement shop in the mall was closing down. We weren’t going to have supplements, but she wanted to ensure ongoing supply for her customers and asked if we would take the products on.”

Going wholesale

The wholesale business had a similar low key beginning, founded on a surplus of carrots, explains Peter.

“One of our growers had more carrots than we could sell. So I rang up some of the Auckland shops and said, do you want some organic carrots? And they all said yes. So that was how we actually started.”

The wholesale organic range expanded into dry goods from an experience Peter had with a raisin supplier, after comparing prices and estimated margins.

“I considered he was making too much, so we started selling raisins and made a fair profit.”

Chantal Wholesale – supplying other organic stores – was run from the back of the shop, until it got too big, says Maureen.

“In 1999 we moved the wholesale business to North Street.”

Chantal has always been about community. At its heart it’s about nourishing families. It’s a business that holds true to its original principles and ethos, and is the life’s work of Peter and Maureen. Over the years their daughters, Tess and Marla, and many cousins have worked at Chantal. And today, as adults with their own young families.

Tess and her partner Tim, and Marla and her husband Ben are all associated with the business. Tess and Tim run the Chantal store as part owners, and Marla and Ben operate Petit Jardin, a small market garden run on organic principles that supplies Chantal with seedlings and vegetables.

In truth, all of the developments in Chantal wholesale over the years have stemmed from the retail store. “The driving point was to wholesale anything that we could sell in our own shop. That was the test,” Peter says.

“And it kept mushrooming.” Soon Chantal was wholesaling products from all over the world.

“When we first started it was really hard to get any organic product, and we had no concept of what the potential opportunities were,” says Peter.

Peter and Maureen travelled widely and researched to find new products for Chantal. They kept an eye on trends, and sourced what people asked for – in the days before the internet.


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First published by BayBuzz. Click here to read the full article.