Canada's cultural diversity is one of its defining features, with a rich tapestry woven from various ethnic backgrounds. While the Canadian market is flooded with global influences, there's always room for niche businesses that bring a unique flavor to the multicultural landscape. In this spirit, starting a small South African boutique store/deli in Canada can be a rewarding venture.
It took me 3 years to open the doors to my little store. I always had a dream of opening a typical South African style ‘padstal’ that caters to the sentimental shopper. Many business plans, many bank appointments and denied loan applications, had me quite negative and ready to throw in the towel. How could they not see my vision the way I had? Did no one believe me when I said we were large ever growing South African communities right here under their noses? Not even the formal market research and statistics could do the trick. Many consultants insisted that I open my business plan to serve a larger demographic and appeal to the general Canadian shopper. Not only was this constantly discouraging me, making me consider that my vision was just an empty pipe dream that would never succeed, it also eventually made me more determined to do it without any help from formal lenders. This wasn’t just my dream anymore; it became my prerogative! I wasn’t going to adjust my plan to fit their advice, wouldn’t that defy the point of having a dream?
Let the creative juices flow! How do you start without financial means? Where do you start? I reached out to tons of other South African businesses in Canada and asked for advice and guidance, whilst developing a game plan and a website to sell stuff I didn’t have! At least I could teach myself to build a website and get that box ticked off the list too. Second challenge was finding inventory to sell. I reached out to entrepreneurs, artists and small businesses in South Africa and sold them my dream. Since I couldn’t buy anything from any of these contacts, I had to convince them to believe in me, and trust me with their brands. Baobab started as a ‘on demand’ service, I made items available to purchase online, but it had to still make its way from South Africa. My shoppers knew that they had to wait weeks for their order, and the concept eventually took flight. With every box of orders that made it's way here, I would add an extra couple of items to it so I could build on hand inventory for my store. Every cent that came in from an order went directly back into inventory and shipping. I still remember the first box that arrived, it felt like Christmas. Once I unpacked it, I prepared my first orders to make its way to the customers. I remember the feeling trying to figure out how I was going to package/wrap them so that each customer would enjoy opening their box just as much as I was enjoying preparing it! This exercise went on for 3 years, with the progress going from ‘on demand’, to having a few items available immediately, to phasing out the ‘on demand’ service completely.
I operated out of our spare room, and eventually moved into the basement since I had so much inventory! But this still wasn’t enough, it wasn’t the vision. All that time I kept applying for business loans to get that store I dream of. Working full time and running my online business on the side really took a toll. It felt like I was in 20 different occupations of which most of those I had no formal training for: website designer, digital marketer, bookkeeper, importer, full time employee, mother, wife, and a pipe dreamer.
There were plenty of days I was seriously considering stopping, but then I would hear my mother’s voice in my head telling me how she always reads inspirational stories where people started from nothing. The great secret and final advice would always be to just keep going. So, I would tell myself that, just keep going, don’t give up. I still do!
I eventually convinced myself to just take the final step and do it! I have a credit card, lots of inventory, hands that can work, a creative mind that can transform anything into something, it must be enough to open this damn store! I found a bargain space, negotiated, and signed the offer. Oh dear, if I thought the last 3 years was though, boy it then got worse!
I had to ensure that my business complies with Canadian regulations and licensing requirements. This includes obtaining the necessary permits for selling food products, adhering to health and safety standards, and meeting local zoning regulations for my store. Familiarize myself with Canadian import regulations to bring in South African groceries. With each of these, came unforeseen costs, like plumbing, ventilation and electrical. My budget went from enough to ‘oh boy’. Yet again, I wasn’t going to back down. Recycled wood for shelving, using furniture from my home, utilizing contacts which helped me purchase equipment for donations, and then the biggest help of all was my husband and kids. They were with me every step of the way!
October 27th 2023, Baobab opened the doors! I arrived with my business license at 10:05 am, 5 minutes after my husband opened the doors. The store was buzzing with souls pretty much right away! The vibe was an instant hit, and each person that walked into the store met a new face and struck up a conversation. Afrikaans sokkie music played on the TV, the smell of boerewors rolle filled all noses, and the colorful decor and gifts finished the look. Every day since then, customers let me know that this store was long overdue. Having access to groceries and all Baobab offers is amazing to them, and me! Baobab still does online shopping and we still ship all over Canada and USA, we just have a awesome store to do it from now!
I love the conversations we have daily with customers, and I am extremely grateful for the turnout and support. My greatest fear is failing, having to close the doors like many start up businesses does in their 1st year. But like my husband always tells me, if it fails, it won’t be because of me. So, I will keep being in 20 different occupations, as long as they are all for my dream.