On their first date together, Brad Walker told his to-be wife that he was going to own a Four Square. It was a bold proclamation, and it wasn’t going to be a smooth ride, but Brad doesn’t see challenges – he only sees opportunities.
Brad had always been business minded and dreamed of owning his own business. After a lengthy stint in commercial banking, he took the plunge and signed up for the Foodstuffs owner/operator programme.
“In the corporate world you get sucked into a cycle of promotions and pay rises,” he said. “It’s quite difficult to say ‘enough’s enough’ and move away, but eventually I did.”
It was the perfect time – their two kids were a good age, Foodstuffs was obliging and Brad spent time in different stores across the country. One of those stores was Four Square in Ohope and when the opportunity arose to buy it he did, despite Claire never having laid eyes on the place.
“Claire was super supportive,” explained Brad. “When I came home and told her about Ohope it was probably a bit of a surprise, but it worked out!”
This was set to become something of a pattern – Brad also made the choice to buy the Matakana store without Claire seeing it.
The Walkers still live in Auckland and make the 40-minute drive every day. Their two children are heavily involved in swimming and with facilities lacking in Matakana, Brad and Claire would have been facing a commute wherever they chose to base themselves.
“We’ve talked to so many people and they all say we’re doing the commute the right way,” said Claire. “Long-term we’d like to move up but right now if the kids are happy, we’re happy.”
Since taking over the store in October last year, the highlight for Brad and Claire has been the community. Matakana itself is small – a population of around 300 according to census data – but the town is a service hub for surrounding centres like Leigh.
“They’ve been great,” said Brad. “We really get the sense that they want us to succeed. We’ve been made to feel really welcome ever since we arrived and we want to repay their faith in us. We want to become a destination store, where people come for the experience, not necessarily just for a weekly shop.”
Also important is the team they inherited. While the Walkers did bring some employees with them, the majority of workers are from the area. In summer when the population of Matakana swells, the Four Square employs a few extra workers, mainly from the local high schools.
“We’ve got a team of great workers and decision makers who have bought into our vision and what we want to do with the store,” said Brad. “We want to be remarkable.”
“We thank our lucky stars,” said Claire. “You hear about stores that have trouble with their staff and have quite a high turnover but we haven’t had that at all. They love the community love the customers – they’re basically family.”
The fact that Matakana Four Square stocks so many local producers gives the residents a connection to the store and builds customer loyalty. Local brands include Daily Organics kombucha, Matakana Smokehouse salmon, oob organic, Matakana Bacon Company and many others. Customers can find food made by their neighbour in amongst the Watties and Maggi, or buy bacon that they could previously only get at the local farmers market, held every Saturday just across the road from the Four Square.
“The kombucha is made a few doors down from us,” said Brad. “If we run out we can give them a call and they’ll just walk some over.”
Not only is the customer experience key to Brad and Claire’s business ethos, but their feedback also drives the direction of the store. A small core of regular customers means that relationships are easy to build, and the Walkers genuinely care about their opinions.
“We like to talk to them, we know what they like and what they don’t like, and they tell us what new things they’d like to see,” said Brad. “We’re quite courageous about trying new things.”
The Walkers heard from the community that they wanted more food-to-go options, so they responded by first starting an industrial bakery, then increasing the capacity when customers put in requests for hot chickens. The bakery, as most things are in Matakana, is “just around the corner.” Now that the hot chickens and fresh bread are well established, the Walkers are moving on to their next challenge – sushi.
“It’s been a challenge, especially getting it consistent,” admitted Brad. “We’ve had some Japanese chefs in to show the team how it’s done, but we’re still not quite ready to launch it yet.”
Now that the larger supermarkets have started grocery delivery to the Matakana area, the Four Square could come under threat from the convenience of online ordering. However, the Walkers aren’t too fazed.
“We often have people shopping who don’t need anything, but they just want to come to the Four Square for an outing and a chat,” said Claire. “Continuing that is something we’re really intent on doing.”
“People don’t shop the same way anymore,” said Brad. “They’ll make three or four trips to the supermarket a week rather than one big one, so as long as we’re keeping the customer happy in-store, I think we’ll keep them coming back.”
Sustainability is also a key focus for the Walkers, and Four Square Matakana was part of the Foodstuffs pilot programme around removing single-use plastic bags. However, the response was so overwhelmingly positive that within six weeks the Walkers had decided that regardless of the overall outcome, Four Square Matakana would no longer use single-use plastics bags. A large sign reminds shoppers at the door of the new status quo, but Matakana is not immune to the issues that have affected other stores around the country.
“We’ll have customers coming in who leave their bags in the boot of their car, so they just end up buying new bags, which sort of defeats the purpose,” explained Brad. “What we’re looking at doing is making an app so whenever someone comes within range of the store they’ll receive a reminder to bring in their reusable bags. Hopefully that will help people and we can become truly plastic-bag free.”
The move away from plastic bags was underway in Matakana in the months before the Walkers arrived, with local initiative Boomerang Bags introducing its reusable bags made from recycled cloth. The intention is for customers to take a bag, use it and wash it before returning it for someone else to use. However, Claire and Brad have found that the bags are so appealing that no one wants to return them.
“They’re very proud of their Boomerang Bag and they’ll always show us that they’re still using it,” said Brad. “It isn’t really the point, but at least they’re not using plastic.”
With a soft-plastics recycling bin already in-store, the next things on the sustainability agenda is produce packaging.
“We have people ask about that, how we can be plastic free but still sell produce in plastic. We’re looking at options at the moment.”
For the Walkers, it’s important to give back to the community which has given so much to them. They support local fundraising initiatives and local schools, and staff members are given paid volunteer days when they can give back to the people they see from behind the checkout.
Brad and Claire have a bold vision for their store and the role it will play in the community.
“We want to be known for everything, whether it be customer service, as employers, what we do in the community or just what food we offer,” said Brad. “It’s not going to be easy – if it were it wouldn’t be a vision – but that’s what we want to achieve.”
- Footprint: 200m2
- Selling Area: 180m2
- Checkouts: 2
- 14 Staff
- 6000 SKUs
- Opened: 2012
- Owner-operators: Brad and Claire Walker, October 2017