If you see an ‘82 GMC transit bus shuttling down the road, you might want to follow along to see where it stops. This is where Mike Sharpe houses his business, “Cash’n’Carry,” a traveling grocery store selling non-perishable food items to customers across the South Slave at what he believes are fair prices.
“Doing the research, I found it outrageous some of the prices up there,” said Sharpe, a resident of Hay River. “I thought we’d do better with a mobile store, especially for communities that don’t even have stores.”
Sharpe’s efforts are like that of a modern-day Robin Hood. Every 10 days or so he drives south, picks up a busload of food items and sells them to customers just above their actual cost, which is often lower than in their local grocery stores.
He even takes requests for specific items.
“It’s been slow but steady,” Sharpe said of his blossoming business. “We’re getting a continued growth in customers and we’re just working out our schedule, and as it really becomes solid then business is going to go quite well.”
When Sharpe started his business with his wife Joy over the summer, it was with their goods tightly packed away in a truck and trailer. They decided to invest in the bus to carry greater loads, an easy task with the modifications Sharpe has done to the old Strathcona, Alta. transit vehicle. Instead of rows of seating, the bus walls are lined with plywood shelves and, hopefully soon, several freezers filled with meat just in time to bring Christmas turkeys to the South Slave.
The irony is that Cash’n’Carry isn’t allowed to operate in Sharpe’s town of Hay River. According to a local bylaw, the business counts as peddling or hawking, something only non-residents are allowed to do within the town limits. Sharpe said he isn’t worried at this point, and is happy selling his goods on the road until a time comes when he can open his own store.
Higher latitude, higher prices
Sharpe realizes that he is not serving the most “needy” communities in the North, like the isolated communities where groceries can have a painfully high cost.
“In Tulita, it can cost $58 to buy a case of water,” Sharpe said. “That’s crazy!”
Though he doesn’t have the capital to reach those communities now, Sharpe said he plans to begin distribution for towns as far north as Norman Wells within the next few years. Until then, Sharpe hopes to start sending goods through the mail sometime next spring and will be taking requests from customers in those remote areas.
Nutrition North ‘not working’
Sharpe doesn’t qualify for Nutrition North, a subsidy program that gives funds to grocery retailers in the hopes that they pass on savings to their customers. He said that his non-perishables do not qualify for the program, though as his stock expands he hopes to apply for it in the future.
“When I do do that, I will honestly pass that savings on to the customer,” Sharpe said. “I don’t think it’s happening now. I think they’re taking the subsidies and they’re lowering the prices a bit but I think we can do better.”
The subsidy program is currently being examined by the Auditor General after receiving widespread backlash regarding its inefficiency. According to the auditor’s communications office, the review of the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada program is part of the Fall 2014 Auditor General of Canada Report and will likely be tabled in November, though an official release date has not been confirmed.