115 years of Sobeys: from small-town delivery service to national grocer

Posted on January 14, 2022 | By Alexander Chafe | 0 Comments

For many families in Atlantic Canada, Sobeys is the go-to spot on their weekly grocery run. It’s astonishing to think that this Nova Scotian-born national grocery chain started as a horse and buggy delivery service over 100 years ago. Now with stores from Canada’s east to west coast, Sobeys is a true Atlantic Canadian success story.

 

John William Sobey started the family business by delivering meats via a horse-drawn wagon (Photo credit: Sobeys)

 

How It Began

It all started in 1907 when John William (J.W.) Sobey began delivering meat via horse and buggy in Stellarton, Nova Scotia. Wanting to target foot traffic in the area too, he built the first Sobeys store in 1912 and added local produce, dairy, fish and other staples to his product offerings. The business officially became a family affair in 1924 when J.W. formed a partnership with his teenage son, Frank H. Sobey. Together they expanded their store to include a full line of groceries and imported goods.

Frank had high hopes for the family business. He opened the second Sobeys store in New Glascow just one year later and continued to expand throughout the province using their quality, local products as a point of differentiation. In 1946, the business officially incorporated as Sobeys Stores Limited.

 

Sobeys’ first store built in 1912 and located in Stellarton, Nova Scotia (Photo credit: Sobeys)

 

Growth & Succession

Sobeys grew steadily throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. The first expansion outside of its home province was to Saint John, N.B. in 1956; the first expansion outside of Atlantic Canada was to Quebec. By 1973, Sobeys had 64 locations.

Around the same time, the third generation began getting more involved in the family business. Everyone in the Sobeys family started working from the ground up; Frank’s sons David, Bill and Donald each had their first job sweeping floors and bagging potatoes at the store. After progressively gaining more responsibility, in 1971 they officially took over management.

By 1987, Sobeys had grown to 6,970 employees, expanded to Ontario and the brand achieved $1 billion in annual revenue for the first time.

 

A Sobeys ad from 1927, showcasing Sobeys’ promise of quality products and service (Photo credit: Sobeys)

 

Brand Acquisition

Growth continued over the years with new stores, additional banner brands and through acquisition. In 1998, a milestone occurred with the purchase of The Oshawa Group, an industry leader in Ontario. This move tripled the size of the business and officially made Sobeys a national brand. With locations from N.L. to B.C., Sobeys was the second largest Canadian food distributor.

Since then, Sobeys acquired Thrifty Foods in B.C., launched their FreshCo brand and purchased Safeway Canada to add another 213 stores to their roster.

 

A modern day Sobeys store with current branding (Photo credit: CBC)

 

Canadian Empire
Today, Sobeys’ HQ remains in its original home of Stellarton, N.S., with over 1,500 stores across Canada. The once-small family business has become a national empire and recently reported $25.1 billion in annual revenue. Sobeys employs over 120,000 people among their namesake stores and banners like Lawtons, Foodland, Farm Boy and IGA. The family business also continues to grow, with recent news of a potential deal to purchase majority ownership of Longo’s locations and their online delivery service.

And to think, it all started by delivering meat via horse and buggy.

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