By Charlie Senack
After half a century in business and over three decades in Kitchissippi, Herb & Spice has served its last customers.
Branded as one of the first natural food stores in Ottawa, Herb & Spice first opened its doors on Somerset Street in 1973. In 1986, it moved to 1310 Wellington St. W.
The news was announced on a chalkboard outside the store in early June. Its last day open was July 14.
Owner Mike Steinberg told Kitchissippi Times the tough decision was made after finding it difficult to compete with bigger retailers in recent years. That paired with a pandemic, an evolving neighborhood, and changing retail habits made it impossible to stay afloat.
“Five of the last six years we have seen declining sales and increasing costs. The only year that was reasonably good was when everything else was closed during the lockdown,” he said. “Ever since the Farm Boy opened in Westboro, we lost a significant amount of our business and that really never came back. This year was even slower than before and costs were going up. I think it’s fantastic we kept it going for this long.”
Steinberg also said when the Westboro Farmers Market started, their Saturday sales went down by 15 per cent. Increased restaurants opening along Richmond Rd — six just across the street from his store — meant many customers were eating out instead of cooking. They reduced staff to try and cut costs, but it wasn’t enough.
Herb & Spice branded itself as “the place to find Ottawa’s finest selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, including locally grown, organic and conventional.” Fresh produce was sold from at least 15 local farms and greenhouses.
Herb & Spice wanted to change Ottawa’s grocery landscape when itthey first opened, allowing customers to buy fresh produce in bulk. Steinberg said he wasn’t interested in the business aspect of the venture; the “service concept” was based on European markets he and his friend encountered while traveling.
“We were definitely influenced by the old markets in our travels. We experienced the open air markets in Mexico, Guatemala, and other places,” he said. “It’s that feeling we brought to the store and it was embraced by the Kitchissippi community.”
After the announcement of its closure, non-profit Foodsharing Ottawa thanked the local grocer for their partnership since 2017.
“The shop has shown true leadership in diverting surplus food to help the community and the environment,” they wrote on Facebook. “To date they have helped us redirect tens of thousands of pounds of fresh surplus food within the city. We are so thankful for their ongoing support [and] for understanding the value of food.”
Looking back at their 50 years in the Kitchissippi community, Steinberg said he is proud of their achievements. Over 500 people have worked at Herb & Spice over the last half century — many were highschoolers and young teens who were starting their first job.
The local grocer also continued to sell locally grown produce year-round, including in the winter, which Steinberg said the bigger chains “don’t have the organization” for.
Steinberg said he will miss arranging the quality fruits and vegetables by texture and colour. While that can be replaced by other kinds of artistic hobbies, he said the connections with customers and staff will be irreplaceable.
“It’s a sad story in a sense but within that is the celebration of 50 years which in itself is wonderful,” Steinberg said. “I know for myself and my staff too, we are very grateful for the opportunity given to us to work with this community. It’s really been great.”