By Deb Draper
Freson Bros. is the largest family-owned independent grocery chain in Alberta with 16 thriving locations across the province. The first store opened in the fall of 1955 as a small butcher shop serving the rural community of Hinton, AB, and much of today’s success has come from unwavering commitment to the traditional values of those humble beginnings.
The Freson Bros. brand is based upon the core values of good food, family and human connections, and true customer service. Selling only fresh Alberta beef, pork, chicken, and lamb, Freson Bros. have brought back the “old-fashioned” butcher, cutting and selling meat directly to their customers for the best in quality and craftsmanship. Butchering is a difficult and long-honored skill, almost lost in today’s huge grocery chains looking to cut labour costs, offering pre-cut, pre-packaged meats to a disconnected community.
But they are an important cog in the Freson Bros. wheel, and one particular butcher has come to embody everything that the company stands for.
Anna Lemieux has worked as a butcher for more than 40 years in Stony Plain, AB, 13 as part of the Freson Bros. team. This year, her fellow workers celebrated her 75th birthday in the store because after all, it was a working day, and for Anna, the store and her customers always come first.
“I would say Anna is one of the hardest-working, most honest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” said Kerry Waldo, store manager, Stony Plain Freson Bros. “We took over another small store in Stony Plain in 2008, and Anna was already there in the meat department. As a butcher myself, I could see her passion for the work. She’s a role model for our next generation of meat cutters.”
Starting out in the grocery business as a meat clerk in the 1960s, Anna had no training as a butcher. In fact, there were few if any women in the profession in those days, so it was completely by chance that she found her lifelong passion for the craft.
“I was a meat wrapper when one of the guys got sick,” said Anna. “We didn’t have a replacement, so I started cutting meat to help out. There was no certification then; I just learned from watching and asking questions. Right away, I really liked butchering, so when the position stayed open, the boss said I might as well become a butcher. And that’s what I did.”
Over the years, Anna continued improving her skills, eventually completing the certification that Freson initiated after the company took over the store and teaching others as they came into the system.
“The meat department is a massive component of what we do,” said Brian Petty, director, meat & fish, Freson Bros. “Our meat cutters are Master Butchers, and we have our own internal training program. Anna has trained a number of young people, high school students working in the meat department who went on to become department managers and store managers.”
Two of these future meat-cutters are the grandsons of founder Frank Lovsin. “I would go into the store as a 14-year old kid,” said Paul Lovsin, store manager in the Hinton Hill Freson Bros. “Anna taught me a lot, basically everything I know about meat-cutting. She is a natural mentor, a humble leader is how I would describe her. Butchering requires a high degree of skill and knowledge; Anna has all the requisite skills but also she has a passion for it. She taught me discipline and maturity in a workplace environment.
Markus Lovsin, store manager in Fairview shared the same experiences when he started out in the family grocery business as a young teenager and Anna was the meat manager in Stony Plain. “She taught me how to be a butcher, an integral part of learning the ropes when it comes to what Freson Bros. is all about.
“What can I say about Anna? Well, to start, she is a very unique person. Looking back on the different experiences I had working with her, from a teacher-pupil relationship, to a peer relationship, eventually a supervisor relationship, I learned what real dedication looks like. She’s an understanding person, especially working with youth. You always wanted to do well for her, to make her proud, and she’s been a major influence on me and my career.”
As Anna explains it, “I help with a lot of the young fellows I work with, showing them how to cut meat, get ready to take a test and get their certificate. The upcoming young people are enthusiastic, eager to learn.”
The top three lessons Anna teaches these future meat-cutters are: “Quality in what you’re cutting, service, and cleanliness. And don’t put out anything that you wouldn’t want your mother to buy.”
When asked what have been the proudest moments of her career with Freson Bros., Anna said, “One was when I was named employee of the year. The other was when the two Lovsin boys become meat managers and I had trained them – they must have learned something! They bettered themselves, and now they’re store managers.”
But Anna’s influence hasn’t been limited to the meat department. Paul Lovsin explained, “Anna is true team player; she comes in, puts her head down and gets to work. She might be 75 but would never tell you to do anything that she wouldn’t do. That’s the type of lady she is, the type of leader she is.”
Anna’s skills, work ethic and connection with her customers have earned the respect of the entire Freson Bros. team and the community she serves. For Anna, it’s simple. “I love my work, doing what I’m doing, visiting with my customers, I have really good people to work with. Everybody says, ‘You’re still working!’ but I feel good and I enjoy it, so why wouldn’t I?”
Many years ago, Freson Bros. recognized that they needed to take a different road if they were going to be able to compete with the larger stores. The answer was team work, pride and personal involvement in the store and the customers. And that is the legacy that Anna Lemieux is helping build.