In a business world dominated by online shopping and social media, Bon Ton Meat Market stands out for its lack of both. Instead, the market embodies the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There is clearly nothing broken at Bon Ton. For the past 100 years, Bon Ton has conducted business in the same way as did the founders: putting customers first. And that is something that Greg Keller credits for the success of Bon Ton over the past century.
“We haven’t changed our business model. Sure, different products are selling and the location has changed and some of the equipment has gotten more modern, but we’ve never changed,” Keller says.
And he will never deviate from the service-centric business model that helped establish Bon Ton as the landmark institution it is today. Ed Roberts started that institution in 1921 in a 900-square-foot storefront on 7th Avenue and Centre Street SE. He built the meat market into a trusted butcher as well as a Calgary lunch-time destination. At a time before fast food, Bon Ton Meat Market had people lined up down the block during their lunch break to grab a quick and delicious meat pie before heading back to work.
Jack and Norm Middleton bought Bon Ton from Roberts in 1940 and the two, along with partners like Bill Fodor and Martin Kuhn, ran the market until 1976 when they sold to their nephew John Middleton. John carried on the tradition of great quality meat delivered by friendly and knowledgeable staff, and the business grew. Bon Ton moved to Stadium Shopping Centre in 1994 and added Greg’s father, Fred, as a new partner. Fred’s extensive experience and expertise in the meat business made him a natural fit for the Bon Ton business model. After a few years, John knew Bon Ton was in good hands and sold the rest of his shares in the market to Fred and Ruby Keller in 1997.
“It’s humbling to think of all these guys before us. They built a business on quality products and personalized service. Nothing has changed,” says Greg Keller. “I’m grateful for all John and the others did before Dad because without all of them we wouldn’t have the store today.”
These previous owners guided Bon Ton through the Great Depression and several recessions, World War II, an ever-changing political landscape, economic booms, and the astronomical growth of Calgary. They evolved with the times but continued to sell only the highest quality products with the highest levels of service. Still today, customers are greeted by an employee who stays with them throughout their stay to ensure they are completely satisfied.
Greg, who started working alongside his father in Fred’s grocery store at the age of 13, had been working in management positions for a large chain supermarket but always dreamed of being self-employed and operating a business selling only the finest products combined with a family atmosphere and old-fashioned values. He joined his father at Bon Ton in 1996, working side-by-side to realize Fred’s dream of running a boutique meat market. When Fred retired in 2006, Greg assumed all the operational and management duties.
“I have been blessed to have four men I consider to be strong mentors in my life who have all had a deep impact on my life and career. First of all, my father, who taught me the trade and gave me this opportunity along with instilling a strong work ethic, a commitment to real customer service and as always doing things properly the first time,” says Greg.
“The second was a man named Fidel Stephenson who was a family friend as well as my boss during my corporate career. He was very grounded, highly respected and a great man. I saw his career end due to corporate politics which truly opened my eyes as to how big-business is often conducted and how fragile careers can be. Third was a man named Ken Crump who was also one of my bosses. Ken is the most honest, decent and well-respected man I have ever worked with. He spoke softly, always showed respect and compassion for everyone he dealt with and is a man of integrity. Lastly is “The Peach.” Ian Peachey was truly the best friend any man could ever hope to have. We lost him five years ago to cancer and there’s never a day I don’t think of him, his friendship and his legacy.”
The people in a business are critical, and those who came before Greg Keller shaped how he approached those who followed. He knows that great people are the key to success, and he surrounds himself with the best people every day. As most employees have been with Bon Ton for a long time, they have immense knowledge about the products and are happy to share all they know with customers, whether that is advising on the best cut of meat, cooking instructions or suggesting a new recipe. Employees are the number one asset at Bon Ton. The enthusiastic and dedicated team works hard every day to ensure they maintain and exceed the standards set by Keller and the owners before him.
This dedication to great service is what attracts customers to Bon Ton as well as retains suppliers. Harvest Meats has provided deli products to the market for 25 years and is still impressed by Bon Ton’s approach.
“It’s the way they do business: one-on-one individual service. It’s the way things used to be,” says Peter VanderMeulen, key account manager at Harvest Meats.
This service level paired with the best products available led to Bon Ton’s significant growth and success over the years, going from a small downtown shop with a few employees to a 7,000-square-foot shop in Crowfoot Centre run by 30 fantastic staff. While it has changed with the times, Bon Ton still uses the same 70-year-old cast iron meat pie machine. The feel is that of a time gone by, and this is by design. Keller resists the push to go online and embrace social media; he would rather invest in his staff and the lost art of personalized customer service.
“We’re not just selling meat here. We’re selling an experience. You’re getting looked after from start to finish, with smiling faces. I learned a long time ago that I am nothing without my staff. They are truly valued, appreciated and a part of my family. I’m very humbled and blessed for their dedication. It isn’t ever taken for granted,” he says.
Customers have a lot to smile about, too. There is very little that Bon Ton Meat Market doesn’t have in stock. The boutique market stocks high quality local products that rival the meat in the best restaurants in town.
“You wouldn’t be able to buy the beef that you buy at Bon Ton at any other store in Calgary. Greg is very specific about what his beef has to be. He doesn’t just buy AAA beef, he buys a grade within a grade. He buys the very top-end of AAA beef and then he ensures it is aged to perfection,” says Barry Reimer of Stonebrook Foods.
Stonebrook has provided Bon Ton with quality beef for decades and is proud of their relationship. The counter showcases the most popular cuts of meat, but it is in no way all that’s on offer. Bon Ton will custom package any meat products. With the rise of TV cooking and barbeque shows along with the increasingly multicultural population, Bon Ton is the first stop for many Calgary foodies looking for quality cuts of meat to test out the new smoker, attempt a celebrity chef’s recipe, or cook a dish from across the world. Tastes and habits have evolved and Bon Ton evolved with them, keeping up with what customers want. And it will always treat the more than 2,000 customers it serves each week like part of the Bon Ton family.
Bon Ton’s suppliers are just as much a part of the family as employees and customers, and Keller has strong relationships with many local Alberta suppliers.
“Every business owner has gone through good as well as difficult times. I learned a long time ago that you are nothing without your employees and suppliers. Trust and loyalty are everything and they deserve to be treated with honesty, fairness, respect and integrity,” he says.
The market features decadent cheesecakes and cakes from Alberta’s WOW Factor desserts, naturally raised pork products from Bear and the Flower Farms, and the unbeatable sausages, lasagnas and cannelloni from Spolumbo’s Fine Foods & Deli.
“They are one of those great local companies that you find in Calgary. They are incredibly grounded, have the best quality, and community is everything to them. They are unbelievable to the community and the partners they help to promote in the city,” says Tony Spoletini of Spolumbo’s, who has enjoyed a relationship with Bon Ton for 20 years.
Bon Ton enlists partners to support a variety of community and charity initiatives including Ronald McDonald House, Alberta Children’s Hospital, a number of cancer fundraisers, and children’s sports. It’s important to Greg that Bon Ton is a good corporate citizen and gives back to the community that gave him so much. By both sponsoring public events and quietly supporting those in need, giving back is an important element in the Bon Ton story.
Bon Ton’s unique business approach makes suppliers proud to be associated with the market. Jonathan Kielstra of Mountain View Poultry has provided Bon Ton with its chicken products for more than 30 years and attributes the market’s success to that model.
“They are straight-up, honest and the customer always comes first. That’s what I know about Greg and Fred before him. They are straight shooters. The customer is always number one,” says Kielstra.
Bon Ton’s customer focus has served it well over the past 100 years and Greg Keller, who has led for 25 of those years, doesn’t intend to mess with a winning strategy. He will build onto his predecessor’s foundation to continue the store’s success into the future. It’s a responsibility to carry on the Bon Ton Meat Market legacy and it is one he will proudly carry into its second century.