Marla Styles and her daughter Layla come through the door of The Mighty Oak with big smiles.
“A latte today,” she says to the man behind the marble countertop. “Say hi to John, Layla.” Ms. Styles, who’s taking four-year-old Layla to a mid-morning gymnastics class nearby, spends a couple of minutes talking to owner John McClelland about what she is making later that day – broccoli soup – and which loaf of bread she should buy.
On the sidewalk patio just outside, a couple of women are having coffee at an outdoor table in the bright sunshine. A dad with a toddler in tow on a plastic wagon lines up for his caffeine hit.
All sort of normal for a Vancouver morning. Except that this particular coffee shop/grocery sits by itself among the leafy streets and elegant houses between Cambie and Main streets.
The Mighty Oak is one of an emerging wave of nouveau grocery-cafés that are taking over spaces left behind from Vancouver’s quirky history – the small convenience stores set amid houses that used to populate the older city.
“I watched too much Sesame Street and I always liked Mr. Hooper. I like that concept of having a place in the neighbourhood,” said Mr. McClelland, a former carpenter who bought the store and the house behind it several years ago, and opened the café-grocery last summer. (He had rented it previously to an organic grocery.)
In the days before zoning laws rigorously separated stores from homes, small grocery stores were regular fixtures on the corners of residential blocks. Often run by immigrant families working long hours, they attracted local kids and their parents who would buy everything from penny candy to the makings of dinner. The ethnic clusters of the day could find Italian or Portuguese specialties.
Now, places like Marche St. Georges near The Mighty Oak, Finch’s and the Wilder Snail in Strathcona, and the Cardero Bottega in the West End are upscale editions of that old idea. They are the latest version of places like Benny’s or the Union Market near Chinatown, which slowly added coffee, pizza and sandwiches to their regular grocery offerings.
They are also drawing dedicated fans.
“We love this place,” says Ms. Styles, who drops by a couple of times a week. “It’s like a little hidden gem.”
For architect Bruce Haden in Strathcona, who admires the pedal-powered bar stool for charging cellphones at the Snail across from his house, the nouveau grocers act as “social hubs” for their neighbourhoods.
City historian John Atkin says they have become centres of the community.
“If I head down to the Union Market for a coffee and sit outside, within the space of an hour, I’ve seen everybody.”
Former Vancouver director of planning Brent Toderian likes the way they draw mainly from people within walking and cycling distance, rather than car commuters, so they create a truly local meeting place.
But all three say the city’s zoning laws make it difficult to encourage those kinds of spaces.
The neighbourhood grocery stores in residential zones – which still exist in about three dozen sites in Vancouver’s older neighbourhoods – came into being at a time with no zoning regulations.
(In the early days of the city, planners tried to create small retail hubs at some intersections inside residential swaths – the remnants of those can be seen, for example, at 33rd Avenue and Mackenzie Street, in the heart of Dunbar, and at Nanaimo and Charles, on the east side.)
But in the 1950s and 1960s, two forces worked against the little neighbourhood stores.
Cars and malls encouraged people to do bigger shopping trips outside their immediate surroundings. And planners, believing it was their role to separate different activities and thinking that the small neighbourhood stores were dying, created zoning schedules that pushed all businesses onto main streets. Vancouver, with its British heritage, was even more inclined than other cities to favour the idea of the high street for all retail, said Andrew Yan, a demographer with Bing Thom Architects.
Little neighbourhood stores became “non-conforming uses.” As long as they continued operating, they were allowed to stay. But if one closed and nothing replaced it within six months, the right to run a business there was lost.
The city has dozens of odd buildings that used to be stores attached to houses behind or beside in which the shop is now residential space.
The city’s general manager of planning, Brian Jackson, says the city would like to encourage the neighbourhood stores.
“We’re all for it.”
But he also sees challenges.
“It’s more and more difficult to sustain them. When Vancouver neighbourhoods were much denser, when there were five, six, eight people in every house, then they could support this kind of store.”
And, he says, some residents are not charmed by them and do not like the smell of coffee wafting over their backyards.
But to others, that’s a misread of what is possible.
Mr. Toderian says the city is being repopulated to former densities, with laneway houses and basement suites adding new people to neighbourhoods. And, if the city puts in the right conditions for those businesses – such as no parking, so they will not draw a big, annoying commuter crowd – they can be real local assets.
“It’s just a choice that cities have. You can make sure it plays the role you think it should play.”
Mr. McClelland says businesses, not the city, should decide if they can make it.
He doubts that he could succeed with groceries alone, but the combination of café and grocery works. He had hoped for a 50/50 split. In reality, about 60 per cent of his revenue comes from the café, and the rest from sales of the limited selection of specialty pastas, sauces, cheeses and ice creams in his tastefully designed shop.
Mr. McClelland also says he has not heard a word of complaint from anyone.
“We tried to design in as many elements as possible in the store to allow people to connect. I’ve had nothing but great feedback.”