by Bob Groeneveld/Special to the Langley Advance
Otter Co-op exploded onto the Langley scene nearly a century ago… almost literally.
Farmers in the area needed dynamite to clear stumps from their land, and they banded together as the Otter Farmers District Institute to shave their costs by buying in bulk.
A few years later, they expanded their bulk purchasing power to animal feed.
By 1979, they had reconstituted as an official co-operative that provided gas and other necessities.
Otter Farm & Home Co-operative undertook expansion on a massive scale, opening a 50,000-square-foot retail centre next to its old feed mill and store – at the corner of Fraser Highway and Otter Road (248th Street).
Today, there are big changes afoot again at the Otter Co-op.
Four months into a major renovation project, there’s about a month of work left, said CEO Jack Nicholson.
“We’ll be about a month behind schedule.” said Nicholson. “When you’re digging up lines from 1980, there are things you find that you weren’t expecting to find. But overall, it’s pretty much right on track.”
He said the project is staying close to its $5-million budget.
“A significant portion of that is the refrigeration,” he said, explaining that practically all the refrigeration units in the store – for meats, dairy, vegetables, frozen goods and all – date back to the original 1980 construction.
“Just like not too many people have refrigerators or stoves in their house from 1980,” he said, “that stuff was at the end of life, and it was costing us a significant amount in repairs and maintenance all the time. So we would have had to spend that [money] even without the renovations.”
The total available retail space is not really changing. But reorganization of the space, along with other efficiencies, is allowing expanded offerings in some areas, as well as some new service.
The Otter Co-op’s popular deli section, for instance, is getting more than just a facelift.
And a whole new sushi section is being added; “Customers have been asking for that for the last four or five years,” Nicholson said.
The bakery is getting a whole new look that Nicholson believes will be more inviting to the public by giving shoppers a better view of what’s going on.
“We had so many people come in to the Otter Co-op and not realize that we bake from scratch, or that we even had a bakery,” he said. “They thought it all got trucked in from somewhere else, just because the walls covered the bakery and you had no idea that we actually have bakers on staff.”
Similarly, the meat department is getting an upgrade, with a full-serve counter in addition to the meat cases that are part of the refrigeration upgrade.
Flooring that dates back to the original 1980 building is being replaced throughout, and the bathrooms have also “reached end of life,” said Nicholson.
“And then, of course, we’ve upgraded to more energy-efficient lighting,” he explained.
Efficiency for customers is being improved by adding two more checkout clerks and another four self-serve checkout counters.
Nicholson admitted that “upwards of a dozen people” expressed concern about the self-serve checkouts and what they might mean for the Co-op’s employees.
But he assures them: “No one has lost their job, and the intent was definitely not to take away positions from anyone. It’s just for customer who have just one or two and they want go through that self-serve just to get in and get out. And we added two additional regular checkouts on top of that. And we’ve added positions throughout the retail as well, not just at the front end.”
On the other side of the store, hardware is most of the way into its new look. There isn’t more space, but it has been reorganized to “make more sense.”
“We had aisles going in every which direction,” Nicholson said, “and there were actually areas in the store where people never went… unless you were looking for an equine item or a chemical product for your garden – it just wasn’t comfortable to go in there, the aisles didn’t flow well.”
The change has been “amazing,” he said.
“In the last couple of weeks we’ve had people come in and say, ‘Wow! You sell paint now. That’s fantastic.’ But we’ve sold paint for 20 or 30 years. It’s just some people have never seen it before.”
Another project that has been in the works for about three years, but isn’t directly a part of the renovations, will expand the Otter Co-op into a new area altogether.
A stand-alone liquor store is being built on the gravel lot out front, to the left of the retail centre.
“We’re putting in a full liquor store,” said Nicholson. “We’re also putting in a tasting room with a kitchen to showcase local restaurants and local chefs and BC wines, so that we can do meal and wine pairings and offer education for people who would like to know more about BC wines.”
Further, with the expansions Otter Co-op has outgrown its administration space, so that’s going into the new building, as well.
The old administration space within the retail centre will remain, but it will be taken over by offices for the bakery, meat, deli, and produce department, which will free up space previously used in those areas.
“Those offices were taken out so that we could put in more equipment for them, or as in the case of the deli, we can have a larger preparation area, and a larger prep area for the bakery,” said Nicholson.
“Local” has been a watchword throughout the renovations and expansion, said Nicholson.
“We definitely want to support local. That’s who we are.”
Even the renovations have employed local people where possible, especially dealing with local firms that have been taking care of those precious refrigeration equipment all these years: “They know our systems, and we want to be able to continue that relationship in the future,” said Nicholson.
“We need those people that are here locally, not somebody that’s out of province or even out of the Lower Mainland.”
Nicholson expects to be able to send out word that the renovations are complete in about a month.
“We will be putting out a notice once we’re all complete,” he said. “We didn’t close, but we do want to have a grand re-opening or grand re-introduction, so that people can check us out.
“And for those people who are staying away because they want to wait until the renovations are done, we want to make sure we give them the message that we welcome them to come back to the Co-op.”
Otter Co-op is located at 248th Street, near Fraser Highway, next to the feed mill. For more information, visit their website.