Fitzgerald family official owners of The Place Fine Foods

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After over four decades, ownership of The Place Fine Foods has been transferred to the Fitzgeralds who will take on the role of running a small, family-run grocery store with a longstanding reputation for friendly faces and fresh goods.

Trevor Fitzgerald officially received ownership of The Place Fine Foods located at 604 Stewart St, Fort Frances, on January 16, 2023.

Former owner Maria Sanders said she had begun speaking exclusively with Fitzgerald since the end of last October, about a month after she had begun conducting online interviews with many interested buyers, of whom Fitzgerald stood out the most.

Sanders said one particular trait that stood out to her was Fitzgerald’s passion for volunteerism and supporting the community, a trait that lined up with the life she and her husband Craig had built together.

She also appreciated Trevor’s ability to be “upfront,” his high-regard for Craig and the store, willingness to work together with her, and that he, too, had a family that would make a “nice little workforce.”

The decision was one that moved quickly since Sanders felt that many livelihoods were dependent on her after the sudden passing of her husband, Craig Sanders who had bought the business over 44 years ago and built The Place Fine Foods from the ground up.

Craig’s son Justin, their niece Kyla and two daughters Maddie and Abby have all worked at The Place in the past.

Craig was already planning to retire, Sanders said, and had spoken with accountants, friends, and family about putting the business up for sale. “I think he didn’t think anybody would either have the interest or the money to buy it, quite frankly. So yeah, I think he was a little bit hesitant, but he definitely was ready,” she said.

“I actually had an appraiser come from Winnipeg, and he had said, ‘What an impeccable reputation the store had in the community. And that’s Craig and the staff again,” Sanders said, tearing up. “We have wonderful customers that keep coming back. And it’s because of the nice atmosphere of the store. And that’s the staff who bring that and Craig.”

She said that Craig would have loved to work with Trevor and mentor him, and added that she does her best to pass on her knowledge of the business, thankful that Fitzgerald has “been a dream to work with.”

Fitzgerald knew from his experience being a shopper in the store that the staff were a “friendly bunch,” but that has been shown more than ever over the past five weeks as he learned the ins and outs of his new role as owner.

“The biggest thing is taking over from a lot of what Craig did, which was doing the books, doing payroll. And that is new to me, I’m sure there will be people like former colleagues at Gillon’s that would have a great big laugh at the thought of me trying to learn an accounting system,” he said.

Fitzgerald and his wife Corrina are the sole owners of The Place Fine Foods, he said, setting the record straight after hearing rumors that he was partnering with other business owners. The couple have four children—Emily, Mark, Andrew, and Will—and say they are excited to carry on with what the Sanders family has done.

When he was a student in high school, Fitzgerald worked at Einar’s Foods, a grocery store on the east end of town, under Bob Gustafson, Ron Deschamps, and Bruce Armstrong.

“Those were impressionable years for me and those guys taught me so much about hard work and responsibility. I find it hilarious how life can come full circle sometimes,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald was a partner at Gillons Insurance Brokers,which has since then become a part of Westland Insurance Group Ltd, but had taken 18 months off work around the summer of 2021 to spend time with family prior to his new venture at The Place.

His sabbatical leave was prompted when his wife Corrina, a former registered nurse who became a stay at home mother after their youngest son William was born, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“That was what prompted everything. So a couple surgeries and chemo and radiation all that stuff. And we were scared, or I was scared. So I took time off,” Fitzgerald said. “I was lucky I could do that.”

“So I sort of took that year sabbatical, didn’t work, just wanted to spend time with my family, focus on them,” he said.

Shortly after, once Corrina’s health improved, Fitzgerald was ready to return to work and officially acquired ownership of The Place Fine Foods on January 16, 2023.

“I didn’t know Craig or Maria personally, but Craig was a giant in the business community. He believes a lot of the same things we did at Gillons Insurance,” Fitzgerald said, explaining that both Craig and Sanders both cared for the community, built a strong relationship with many in town, and were big into sponsorships and donations.

Working closely with Sanders today, Fitzgerald expressed gratitude to be able to work with someone he “completely trusts.”

Sanders said she, too, has complete trust in Fitzgerald and his family. Two telltale signs had affirmed her thoughts during the decision-making process. One day a dime “flew” out of bookkeeper Jamie Holliday’s purse as she came into Sanders’ office, a strange occurrence since Holliday didn’t keep change in her purse, she said.

“That was, to me, like a sign from Craig,” said Sanders, explaining that dimes were said to be a message from those who have passed on and that it appeared during a time when she needed Craig’s help.

Prior to transferring ownership of the business, Sanders had to ensure that the staff would be taken care of, said Fitzgerald. He had heard that the staff were nervous to meet him at first, so he quickly assured them that he had full intentions of maintaining employees’ regular hours and jobs.

“Whatever perks and autonomy they have in their jobs would continue. We would not be taking anything away from them,” he said.

He added that he will honor any prior deals made with customers in the past.

“And the same goes for our loyal customers, we are keeping our loyalty program, our ‘RC Points,’ and whatever deals Craig and Maria had in place with our customers would be honored and continue on. These were all things that were important to Maria before she settled on us as the buyer.”

Fitzgerald thanked those who have helped him transition into the new job and whose contributions continue to be invaluable to the daily operations of The Place.

“Most people in town know Mike Yuill runs the best meat department in town because the meat is cut fresh every day by our experienced meat cutters. What you may not know is Brian Byma’s team does fresh fruit and veggie trays and has hot lunches and sandwiches made every day, ready to go. You can count on Joy Luoma’s hard-working team to keep the grocery aisles stocked, and they have some unique offerings in the frozen food section too,” he said.

He also thanked bookkeeper Jamie Holliday for her continued help.

“She’s got a full time job, but taking time out of her life helping me learn bookkeeping, accounting systems, and how to do payroll. I’d be completely lost without her,” Fitzgerald said.

“Right now it’s taking me, you know, 60 hours to do something that would take Craig or Maria 10 hours to do. And that’s been a big part of it, to be honest with you, I feel like I’m hiding away in my back office here too much,” he said. “[The staff] are gonna be the ones teaching me right, I’m not the boss coming in showing you how to do it. Because it’s all new to me. So I’m looking forward to those times.”

Fitzgerald said he was amazed by the number of charge accounts with local businesses, First Nation communities, and organizations and charities.

“Corrina and I were amazed at the number of charge accounts we have with local businesses, First Nation communities, and other organizations and charities. It’s highly convenient for them and we appreciate that business and would love to grow it,” he said.

He was also surprised to see the number of high school students that visited during their lunch break and were glad for the “youthful energy” they brought into the store.

The decision to run The Place was a big financial decision for his family. Fitzgerald said he relied on the support of locals Jon Evans and Mike Canfield at BDO Fort Frances, as well as the commercial lending team at TD bank. “All of those professionals were incredibly helpful,” he said.

Regarding any future changes at The Place, Fitzgerald said to “stay tuned.” He has some ideas, such as the addition of a social media page, but believes it more important to hear the ideas of staff, customers, and friends first. Fitzgerald said he plans to “sit on his hands” and simply observe how things are run for the next three months.

“Again, the store was so well run and Craig and Maria set things up for a reason,” he said, adding that he would not make any sudden broad changes.

“Will there be changes? Yes. I look forward to speaking to each staff member on ideas to improve it, just like Craig and Maria did. If they changed things and improved over time, we’ll do the same thing,” he said.

To this day, many staff still find it difficult to talk about the monumental impact Craig has left on their lives.

Some described Craig as “a big brother who always had your back,” others said he was like a “father figure.”

Mike Yuill, meat department manager, said Craig called him around 40 years ago when he was in “the meat cutting school” to come work for him.

“He was always more of a friend than a boss to all of us. Very fair and nice fella to work for. And [he’ll] be truly missed,” Yuill said.

Brian Byma, produce bakery deli manager who has worked at The Place for over 10 years, said that Craig was “the best boss he’s ever had” and a guy who taught him lots.

He recalled a time when the two collided in a trailer-truck accident that put two big dents on the side of the truck. “It was kind of my fault,” Byma said, adding that Craig had just laughed it off, and then returned a week later with the same two dents on the other side of the truck.

Byma said Craig was also there for him during a difficult time in his life, telling everyone in the store to look out for him. “He was just always there for me more than just a boss,” he said.

Since the new change in ownership, Byma said things have been going well and noted that he could see Fitzgerald was working hard to keep everyone happy.

“It’s going good,” he said. “He’s just trying to keep everything as is, you know, it’s hard to keep staff and we have good staff. So pretty much just wants to keep everybody happy,” he said. “Great guy and I’ve known him from before.”

“We know we made the right choice with Trevor and his family. He has been wonderful to work with,” said Sanders.

For now, she said she will take things one day at a time. She thanks the continuous support of those who have helped her through the most difficult months.

“We have wonderful friends who’ve taken us under their wing to help us get through it,” she said.

“Even customers, I love their little Craig stories,” Sanders said through tears. “I’d just like to thank everyone, they’ve really rallied around us and keep shopping at The Place.

Above, the new owners of The Place Fine Foods, the Fitzgerald family, stand in front of the local business. The Fitzgeralds took over ownership of the local grocery store after the untimely passing of former owner Craig Sanders (below, centre). Trevor, far left, and his wife Corrina, far right, are the official owners of the store, and Trevor said it was important to the Sanders family that the business would continue on as it always had. – Submitted photos