Best of the Bunch

This was my last Faces & Places column, which ran in the Moss Rock Review in the July/August 2007 issue. I forgot to post it here.

Some months ago I was visiting a friend’s new retail store when he shared with me some news. “I’ve been graped!” he said, laughing at my confused look. He went on to explain that a large group of well-wishers had burst into his store one day, declaring him “the best of the bunch.” These happy ‘grapers’ had presented him with a large bouquet of, not surprisingly, dark purple balloons and welcomed his business to the city. Delighted by the idea, I just had to learn more about these unique visitors. Who were they and what were they all about? Thankfully they had left their small, square calling card behind.

The card led me to wegrape.com, the website of Victoria’s Grapevine. It was founded by five small-business women in 2004, and operates under a most benign mission: to support and recognize new retail businesses in the community. Each month a group of approximately fifteen to thirty Grapevine members visits a deserving business and gives them “recognition galore.” I learned that ‘grapings’ are meant to be a feel-good experience for all. It didn’t take me long to sign up for their free mailing list online to be notified of future events.

In due time my first Grapevine invitation came over email, giving me details for the next graping. The meeting place – not the actual business, but a location near it – was divulged and, sure enough, when I found the group on the actual day the large cluster of purple balloons was unmistakable. After a prize draw, we strode to the secret business location – Klassy Divas in Admirals Walk – surprising co-owner Sherri Kask on the phone. Needless to say, she was delighted that we had come to wish her luck and shop in her new store … once we told her who we all were of course!

Later I sat down with Sarala Godine and Barbara McDonell, two of the Grapevine’s founding members, to learn how this networking and recognition group started. They told me their intention was to lend support to their fellow entrepreneurs and recognized that retail stores – high overhead businesses – were in particular need. After months of brainstorming, the Grapevine idea emerged. “We had a little vision of how this might go, but it’s all gone way, way beyond that from the first graping,” noted Barbara.

Victoria’s Grapevine is run on a volunteer basis and the founders ask for nothing in return. They secret shop each business in advance of picking it for a monthly graping and are effusive in their praise of the businesses they’ve recognized. Their goal is to make sure that everybody wins: the participants get a chance to have fun and socialize, and the businesses get that extra needed boost. Barbara admits that she loves it when the owners cry because “then it makes me realize we’ve picked the right place. They really needed us. These are people who really understand the concept of passing the word down the grapevine and appreciate the fact that they are being honoured.”

The group’s momentum has been exciting for the founders and they consistently get requests for information on how to start up Grapevines in other cities. (They haven’t had confirmation on another group yet, but feel it’s just a matter of time.) Will grapings continue into the foreseeable future? Both Sarala and Barbara haven’t considered not doing it and it’s likely that the other founders – Debbie Yorke and Sandra Tennent – feel the same. “It just keeps growing,” Sarala told me, to which Barbara quickly chimed in: “Like grapes should.”

Visit Victoria’s Grapevine at wegrape.com. This Saturday, June 7 at 11am is the last graping before their summer hiatus.

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