The little market that could

Cobalt Designworks owners Jennifer Corio and Dave Frei
Oscar’s Market owner Ken Gaston
Oscar’s Market owner Ken Gaston said he enjoys operating a business along St. Johns Road in northeast Vancouver because it brings back fond memories of the community he grew up in. Photo: Buck Heidrick

Named after its original owner, Oscar’s was purchased by Ken Gaston back in 1990, after a friend told Gaston the business was for sale.

“I drove by a couple of times and it looked pretty nasty. I went and found out who owned it, talked to the landlord and ended up buying it,” he recalled. 

Oscar's Market produce aisle Gaston, who has managed several grocery stores in the past, now runs Oscar’s Market with his wife and eight employees.

So how does a small neighborhood market compete with large franchises?

“You don’t compete,” stated Gaston. “There are all kinds of competitive business out there, and what you have to do is find your little niche and you level with it. We classify ourselves as a little neighborhood market.”

Oscar’s has definitely found its own niche. Looking at the local demographics, Gaston said he is hoping to expand on some frozen meat products and meals.

“With the nearby Thriftway and the Walgreens moving out, we are just trying to be here to help the community out,” he said.

Oscar's MarketOscar's MarketSpeaking of community, Gaston has been working with Urban Abundance, a Vancouver nonprofit, to provide locally grown produce at the market through the “Backyard Bounty” program. The nonprofit program connects local farmers to area retailers, supporting the health of the local food system while providing healthy food options in a neighborhood that lacks them.

Gaston went on to say, “During the summer time, during the peak times, you have our suppliers who do buy local and distribute local, which is good.” 

Oscar’s market carries just about everything the larger grocery stores do. As for the rest, Gaston said, “You just try to do a better job with what you have.” 

When asked what has kept his business afloat during the tough economy, Gaston said at the end of the day it comes down to providing excellent customer service.

“Everybody is going back to the old way – from the 50’s and 60’s where it was all customer service,” he said. “You can see it in your banks, you can see it everywhere. 

“You get to know your customer. You get to know them by name,” Gaston added. “Then before you know it, you know when they are going on vacation and what their kids are doing, and you go from there.”

Having grown up in the area, Gaston said Oscar’s St. Johns location could not have worked out better. He said he still has many fond dreams of Bernie’s drive in, city shops, his local high school buddies and the people of the area in general.

“A lot of people who were born and raised here come back. It’s a nice area,” he said.