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Mid-Week Mugging: Continental Specialties and Imports

A touch of Dutch and more for everyone
Jeff Van Niekerk 2*
Jeff Van Niekerk is president of Continental Specialties and Imports, a family business in Barrie for 50 years. Sue Sgambati/BarrieToday

Jeff Van Niekerk sells 13,000 chocolate letters every year at his store and currently features more than a dozen flavours of real chocolate Easter eggs imported from Holland.

He's the third generation to own and operate Continental Specialties and Imports, a family business on Dunlop St. West that's been in Barrie for 50 years.

It is commonly referred to as The Dutch Store.

The shop has groceries from Holland and an old school deli counter where customers line up for cold cuts and cheese or a sandwich to enjoy in the cozy tea room.

"It's really good stuff in here. The ham here is so good. I'm not just saying that because I own the store," said Van Niekerk, 38. 

"We make really, really good sandwiches. We slice our meats very thin here and we have really good bread from Fox's Bakery."

And his prices are more reasonable than large grocery chains.

The young, energetic businessman was born just up the street from the store at the former hospital on Ross St.

His tea room has big windows that look out onto Barrie Central Collegiate where Van Niekerk's mom attended high school.

"The reason why I keep this store is because I'm continuing on my grandfather's legacy. No one's ever going get rich off these stores," he said.

His grandfather came to Barrie in 1953 after being encouraged to move by a brother who told glowing stories of Canada's opportunities. 

After selling his grocery store in Holland, he arrived with another brother who had sold a farm. 

"They couldn't find any work anywhere. It really wasn't what they promised. The only job that you could get was cleaning Base Borden.  So all these Dutch immigrants would clean Base Borden. My grandfather's brother started a farm so my grandfather bought a van and would drive Dutch people back and forth to the Base and sell his brother's farm goods."

It evolved into his grandfather delivering Dutch food to people's homes and that's how the business got started.

The first store opened on Mary St. in 1964, moved to Maple St. in 1972 and then to its current Dunlop St. West location in 1995, a white house with a bright red roof, perched on a slight elevation that overlooks the street. 

Van Niekerk has a university degree in business and runs both the Barrie shop and another store in Strathroy, with a wholesale business to boot.

He now lives in Ingersoll.

"I drive 1,500 kms a week for the wholesale business.  I supply 14 No Frills across Ontario and there's more to come. I'm one day a week in Strathroy, one day a week in Barrie and then on the road in between."

The Barrie shop has a core of long-time, loyal customers but Van Niekerk wants his generation, people in their mid-thirties, to discover his neighbourhood gem.

"We still get people coming in and saying 'I've lived in Barrie for 25 years and I didn't know this place was here.'  So it's just reaching out to those people," he said.

"I firmly believe this store cannot be about the products on its shelf. It has to be about the experience when you come in here. Everybody has to come in here feeling better when they leave than they did when they walked in here."

The Dutch store on Dunlop St. is a charming destination that will likely take you down memory lane. 

But it's a business in transition and Van Niekerk sees it as an opportunity to re-brand beyond its traditions.

"We used to be the home of the seven Omas but most of them have all retired. I don't think there was anybody working here that was under the age of 55. Two were 76 when they retired. It was great. They made you feel like going home.  It was really cute."

The store that sells "'everything Dutch - anything and everything" has 50 different kinds of black liquorice, chocolate bars, soup mixes, gouda cheese and many different kinds of meats and cheese. 

Tea room sales dropped 35 percent with Barrie Central closing and a new development is planned for the site but is at least a couple of years away.

Van Niekerk is inviting new customers to discover his labour of love and a Barrie tradition of five decades. 

"I want my generation, mid thirties, to come in here and say this place reminds me of my Oma's house. The experience that I want people to have when they come in the store - third generation Canadians who are very proud of their Dutch heritage."

Continental Specialties and Imports is located at 126 Dunlop St. West.