Wednesday, September 30, 2009

a little luckett

i've lately started working for the business magazine progress, and it's lots of fun. i've mostly been interviewing entrepreneurs - wandering around their energetic, creative minds is a treat.

a few weeks ago, i drove out to the valley to sit down with pete luckett at his sprawling farm for a profile. you can see it in the latest edition, here, or below. pete was as charming as you would expect, if you've ever been to his frootique. after a two-hour chat and tour of the farm, i left smiling, and not just because of the crate of juicy blueberries he had given me.

Back to The Land.

Nine years ago, famed green-grocer Pete Luckett bought the farm of his dreams. It took him three decades, three continents, and countless business ventures to gain a new perspective on life in the slow-food lane
by Jon Tattrie

When Pete Luckett renovated his Gaspereau Valley, N.S., farmhouse, he considered building a balcony off the bedroom so he and his wife, Sue, could enjoy a leisurely cup of tea to start the day. He ruled it out as pointless.

“I start working as soon as I wake up. I love scratching and scrapping and building something from nothing. That’s what turns my crank and keeps me going. It’s a disease, mate,” says Luckett, laughing. The man who created Pete’s Frootique is sitting in a dusty old barn on his sprawling farm. Perched on a battered sofa, Luckett is surrounded by giant stainless-steel vats.

He’s grinning. His eyes sparkle and he can’t sit still.
He’s got a plan for the vats.
He’s got a plan for everything.
But it didn’t start that way.

Pete Luckett stumbled onto his lifelong passion at age 16. Atlantic Canada’s “Mr. Britain” learned his trade from Mr. Briton—Pat Briton, who had a fruit-and-vegetable stall in Nottingham, England.

“He taught me how to chat up the customers, how to make them smile, how to merchandize and display, how to create an atmosphere, an experience. All that stuff I learned right at the grassroots level,” the 56-year-old says of life at Victoria Market.

That was his “university,” he says. An old photo of a Halifax school destroyed in the explosion of 1917 hangs on the barn wall. “That’s where I went to school, mate. That’s what it was like; it was tough in them days.”

In 1975 Luckett opened his first Pete’s Frootique in England. He was 21 and fighting for his commercial life. “It was a dog-eat-dog world,” he says, with 22 fruit-and-veg stalls slugging it out. “I still apply a lot of those basic techniques of survival. It’s working the magic. When people ask me what business I’m in, I don’t tell them I’m in the food business, I say I’m in the feeling-good business.”

Luckett built a strong clientele but, in a pattern he would repeat for the rest of his life, he got restless. He sold the Frootique in 1979 and took off on a two-year world tour, landing in Belize. He stayed a while, imagining this was the land he’d live off. He was on the cusp of settling in Central America when his papers came through for Canada. So he packed his bags and moved again, settling this time in St. Antoine, N.B., on a 200-acre farm.

“I got myself a couple of cows. I was scratching out a living making organic yogurt and selling it to health-food stores in Moncton,” he says. It was a big change from the intense life at Victoria Market. “I was on the granola path. It never worked out. I never had the hair to be a real hippie,” he says, rubbing his bald head.

The property wound up in religious hands as a work farm for the homeless. Luckett ended up broke and back on the road. He decided to return to what he knew: selling fruit and veg. With his last $300 in his pocket, he hitched a ride to Saint John and got a stall in the city’s market.

“I remember my first day at the market. It was April 1982, and I’d got $200 worth of inventory that I’d bought, and I’d sold $280 on my first day, and I’d got fruit and vegetables left over,” recalls Luckett. “My quick mathematical brain knew I was ahead of the game.”

The Frootique expanded and started supplying food to local restaurants. His brother, sister, and brother-in-law arrived from England to help grow the bustling business. Life was good.

And then? He left.

“I got itchy feet,” says Luckett. He dealt the business to his family and wandered down the road to Nova Scotia. In 1992 he opened a new Frootique in Bedford’s Sunnyside Mall. It was so tiny you had to turn sideways to walk through the aisles. “I had stuff encroached at every square inch,” says Luckett. “‘Piled high and watch ‘em fly’ was the philosophy.”

The green-grocer approach appealed to a burgeoning market of grown-up hippies and foodies who wanted a deeper connection to their cooking and dining, and the business flourished. Television spots on CBC and ATV made Luckett a household name, and he travelled to 22 countries for a show on The Food Network. He wrote books and started a career as a public speaker that has taken him across Canada and beyond. Recently, he was flown to the Middle East to address 350 employees of a major oil company, a sign of his growing international reputation.

“I’m selling fruits and vegetables, but whether you’re selling washing machines, Cadillacs, or an oil and gas company selling to the world, you can take out the kumquats and Brussels sprouts, insert another commodity, and you can make it work because it all gets down to a style of doing business.” That style is about connecting with the customer and recruiting employees who can “live that vision.” His most cherished compliments aren’t about how fresh his bananas are but how good his staff are.

Luckett had sworn to never have more than one “stall” again, but in 2004 an irresistible opportunity came up in downtown Halifax, and he opened another Frootique, this time right in the centre of the East Coast’s biggest city.

It was a huge success.
Life was good.
But his feet started itching again.

The farm was supposed to be Luckett’s chance to take it easy. After building a team of people who love the business almost as much as he does, he stepped back from the day-to-day operations of the Frootiques. He appointed 20-year staffer Diane Hamilton as chief operating officer and retreated to the country.

“It’s a big change for me,” says Luckett. “I’ve always been a very hands-on guy, not just with the product but with the staff too. Probably the biggest change for me is I can’t be a director any more,” he says. “Normally I’m in there saying, ‘Hey! Get that box over there!’ I’m not allowed to do that any more in my new scheme of leadership. I have to button my lip and only interact with the customer and say hi to the staff.”

It was time to be less Public Pete, more Farmer Pete. He and Sue, whom he describes as “integral” to all his endeavours, renovated the old farmhouse. The 1850s’ editions of the English Colonialist newspaper lining the walls revealed the building’s true age, and they restored the original charm while adding sleek modern touches.

The lifestyle change amazed Luckett’s friends. “People ask, ‘Pete, is it a tough transition for you, coming out of that fast-paced life?’ ” he says. “I’ve always been an active energized guy, working the crowd, working the floor, so is it a tough transition to this more melancholy life? And it is melancholy, but I’m still internally very active.”

Luckett, who raced high-performance motorcycles for 20 years, hasn’t slowed down, just changed gears. Farming has given him a longer perspective on life. The poplars he planted as a scenery break between his home and the others will “only” last 25 years. He has pines coming up behind the poplars to take over in two and a half decades. He has to invest a lot of time and money up front in products that can take years to make it to market.

“That took quite a bit of doing, getting myself in that mindset,” Luckett admits. “I’ve always been instantaneous, impulsive—do it now and get the results now. You can build a fantastic display in produce, the customers buy it, the cash is in the bank, and it’s all happening. You’ve seen the results. Here, it’s very different. That’s a big mindset to get into.”

It helps that Luckett loves the slow-paced country lifestyle “There’s a little garage in Grand Pré that’s the last frontier; the guy is a dab hand at everything,” he says. “He’ll weld, he does electrical, he’ll do wheel balancing. They’re just not there in the city anymore.”

The Luckett summer party has become a mainstay on the Gaspereau Valley social calendar. He throws the get-together on his farm to catch up with his neighbours and to pick their brains for farming advice. He says Sue can’t stand driving with him in the country because he dawdles along at 30 kilometres an hour so he can check out how the other farms work.

Out of nowhere, gunshots ring out behind the barn. Luckett is unfazed; it’s a propane gun firing blanks to scare the birds that plague his crops, he explains. He has tinfoil and balloons tied to the branches, fake owls, and a bird screecher. “They’re just brutal, the birds,” he says.

Talking about life on the farm, Luckett can barely sit still. He finally hops up and gets into his big pickup truck for a tour of the property. He has a full-time farm manager along with six seasonal employees, but he does much of the work himself.

Luckett started by experimenting to see what would grow on his hilly north-facing fields. Squash, sunflowers, and melons came first. “Very labour-intensive crops,” he says. “We slowly developed ideas as to what I could do with the farm.”

Blueberries came next, followed by pears, apples, plums, peaches, and artichokes. Visualizing the end product sitting seductively on the Frootique shelf gives him an edge over other farmers, who are well-versed in growing food but not so much in marketing it. He’s especially proud of his “dead sexy” cherries, but it’s the newest crop that has Luckett really pumped: thousands of grapes growing on orderly rows of trellises.

Luckett has also entered the wine-making business. With Canadian wine-trade veteran Todd Cristall, he’s a partner in Cristall & Luckett Wine Merchants, an independent Nova Scotian wine retailer. And the first batch of Pete Luckett’s Vineyard Leon Millot will hit shelves later this year, under the auspices of Grand Pré Wines. He’s planning to sell it from his farm within four years, but the shop front will be far enough away from home to keep space for both Farmer Pete and Public Pete.

“It’s been a giant learning curve with oodles of mistakes,” says Luckett, stopping the truck in the empty field where he plans to build the shop. “When I bought the farm, I didn’t have a vision for a winery. It was more of a lifestyle change. Like most things I do in life, it turned into a business venture.”

Luckett is joining good company, with Grand Pré, Benjamin Bridge, Gaspereau, and L’Acadie vineyards all producing top vintages right in his very own neighbourhood. “I’m really excited and revved up about the challenge of putting a label on the bottle and putting a product out there that I think is all right.” The thought of “putting on a showman’s cap and working the crowd” when his new venture opens around 2013 thrills him.

Luckett has a cunning plan to ensure that customers will love his wine. The road to the vineyards will wind away from the valley, so visitors will only catch the stunning view of Cape Blomidon when they step out onto the deck. While they’re wowed, Luckett will slip a glass into their hand. “I mean, however it tastes, imagine looking out at this view with a glass of wine. You’ll go, ‘Oh! It’s beautiful!’ ” he says, laughing. “I love it here. If I pop my clogs tomorrow, and if they’d legally let me, I’d be buried at the top of the hill right here.”
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