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Store’s golden anniversary emphasizes generational changes

Owners, customers and products evolving

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

BURLINGTON, Ontario - Continuing a Dutch imports and delicatessen store beyond generational ‘time’ zones has for many families in the business been a significant challenge, often turning out to be ’a bridge too far.’ Retired entrepreneur Bert Vlaanderen and his wife Anita, who opened The Dutch Shop in Burlington 50 years ago, not only saw their son Brian take it over 21 years ago, they recently saw their granddaughter Jessica successfully digitalize the store’s inventory system. Jessica and her sister Bethany can regularly be seen at work in the store.

Quite a few Dutch immigrants tried their hand at selling imported Dutch products after they settled in their new Canadian environment. In the early 1950s hardly anyone sold such articles as Scheepjeswol, BK braadpannen, Dutch style underwear, Gouda cheese, boerenkool, besluit and roggebrood. If Dutch immigrants wanted such familiar items, they were out of luck… unless a fellow countryman dropped by on his door-to-door route.

In 1956, Bert Vlaanderen, then still a bachelor, already started peddling Dutch products from the back of his station wagon. Maintaining six routes, during the week he spent two days in Toronto, and one day each in Oakville, Galt and Burlington.

It may be surprising now, but the push to open a store came from an unexpected source: supplier Van’s Import which felt that Burlington needed a retail store for the area’s fast growing Dutch immigrant community and that Vlaanderen was best suited to fill that void. The relationship with Van’s, which changed ownership a few times, remained close until it merged into a much larger, broader focused national entity.

The initial 1,000 sq.ft. store, initially run by Bert’s fiancé Agnieta Geesbeek, was located across the road from where The Dutch Shop currently is located. The business expanded to a nearby location but then returned to its current address where it has undergone more changes and expansion. It now covers about 5,000 sq.ft. and includes an instore bakery.

Brian and his wife Kimberly have operated the store since 1986 when its founders retired. When pioneer suppliers such as Van’s, Holtzheuser and Top’s broadened their focus to include supermarket chains, Brian and Kimberly started importing their product lines directly, first in a joint effort with other stores, but for years now on their own.

The brand names and the product line have evolved too. Gone are many well-known names, although DE for one is more popular and offers a wider variety than ever. Many products were added to the store because customer wanted them after seeing and using or tasting them while vacationing in the Netherlands. The Senseo coffee pads, now a very popular item, is perhaps the store’s best example.

The Vlaanderens are convinced that their business has successfully made the generational changeover. His father Bert serviced the first generation from his station wagon, and then from the store. The second generation of the customer base was not all that far behind and today it increasingly consists of the grandchildren of the 1950s customers as well as later arrivals. “We regularly ship orders to people who have moved away to the USA and other parts of Canada,” remarks Brian.

The Vlaanderens, three generations together at the Burlington store: Bert and Anita Vlaanderen, Brian and Kimberly, and their children (oldest to youngest): Jessica, Bethanie, and Lauryn.