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Mark McEwan, who recently opened McEwan, his 22,000-square-foot luxury food store in North Toronto’s Shops at Don Mills. (seed9/© copyright seed9 2009)
Mark McEwan, who recently opened McEwan, his 22,000-square-foot luxury food store in North Toronto’s Shops at Don Mills. (seed9/© copyright seed9 2009)

Retailing

The outlier Add to ...

McEwan's massive commissary is bigger and better-equipped than most restaurant kitchens around the city. It has its own executive chef, a North 44{ring} alumna, and it runs two, 10-person shifts every day. They keep the store's shelves and refrigerator cases stocked with 180 in-house products, and many of the raw ingredients come directly from the retail floor downstairs. They use fish from the store's own counter and meat from its butcher, so “there's a constant cycle of profit going out the door,” explains McEwan. Anything the store's fresh departments can't sell or send up to the commissary right away is sent out to McEwan's restaurants.

McEwan also sells signature products from across his restaurant empire (the chef calls his restaurants “little mini-factories”). There are the Parmesan bread sticks and cocoa juniper rub from North 44{ring}, cured salmon from Bymark and house-made blue cheese and hazelnut sausages from One.

But McEwan's great trick is that his store is in many ways a restaurant. This is the case even beyond all the prepared foods. The lighting is soft and generous, and it doesn't buzz or flicker, and the music washing over the aisles is distinctly post-Esperantist, caipirinhas on the beach.

And the staff? Well, that's another retailing rule he's gone and spurned. Cheryl Cartwright, who supervised the hiring of most of the store's 140 employees, has been a manager at all three of McEwan's restaurants, but she has never worked in retail before. Geoff Lang, who runs the HMR department, was a waiter at several city restaurants before coming over to McEwan. So far, they say, the switch to shopkeeping hasn't been much of a leap.

The staff tasted products, toured other stores and learned a lot of the business on the job. Above all else, they've worked to bring that restaurant feeling to McEwan's store. “When you go into a restaurant, it's a particular experience,” Cartwright says. “It's an adventure. And Mark wanted that same feeling. He wanted this to be a food experience. The way people here talk about food and the way they understand food is the same romance you get in a restaurant.”

There's another benefit, McEwan says. “When you have a restaurant like One, or North 44{ring} or Bymark, people come in and they have expectations. Everybody arrives fancy and at the same time. And they park themselves and they start telling you what they want. It's an animal to deal with,” he says. “The restaurant people I have here are so used to chaos that even when it's busy here, it's not like restaurant pressure.”

For what it's worth, he did hire plenty of experienced people: McEwan engaged Perennial Inc., the Toronto retail consulting firm, to advise him on the project very nearly from the start, and on Perennial's advice, he hired Peter Turcot, a former vice-president from Loblaws, to be his grocery guru. He also raided Bruno's Fine Foods, the five-store Toronto mini-chain, for its meat and produce managers. But for every one of them, there's someone like McEwan's deli manager (and Cheryl Cartwright's younger brother), David Cartwright. David is a former chef, but at McEwan he is, above all else, a gastro-concierge helping customers fill their baskets with the sort of can't-help-myself foodie enthusiasm that often winds up as stomach staples and a 66-inch waist – “You've got bread, you've got meat, and now we need some cheese, desperately!” he's been known to say.

Demand is there, chef says

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