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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 ...

What the store needs now is babies with overflowing buggies. In the early days, at least, it's been busy on weekends but quiet at key times during the week; on a recent Friday afternoon, when the store's target demographic should have been swinging by to load up on martini olives and all those high-margin double-stuffed potatoes before the trip to Muskoka, the two valet attendants stood idly outside in the sun. (The valet contingent has since been reduced to one.) Though there were customers, just a handful of them were pushing shopping carts, and not a single cart had more than five or six items inside. Is there as much of a market for high-end takeout as McEwan is betting? Was it early-days doldrums or a sign of trouble to come?

McEwan says he's seeing plenty of full grocery carts. The number, he says, is growing every day. They sold 500 of those $14 truffled mac and cheeses in the store's first week, says executive chef Ivana Raca. And the $8 baked potatoes? They ran out almost right away.

He made sure to price key grocery staples competitively, says McEwan, and his produce department, though it isn't cheap, is still priced well below some of the city's other high-end shops. Meanwhile, they continue to work out the pricing in the HMR department; much of it is still determined, he says, by “sticking a thumb in the air.”

But how modest is $10.99 for a single leg of duck confit? “Go make your own,” McEwan answers. “The moment you go shopping to create one of these dinners at home you realize how much you actually spend. I can get you dinner for two and the principal protein costs 20 bucks.”

The numbers, McEwan says, don't give him any cause for concern. The chef expects to sell between $25-million and $35-million of product in his first year. “I can be profitable here at $15-million, so I'm not concerned about the money.”

McEwan, after all, has never gone broke overestimating the consumption habits of the city's moneyed class – he is famous for introducing a $38 hamburger at Bymark (it was scorned at first, and then copied by other chefs), and for being one of the first restaurateurs in the city to break the $40 entree barrier.

And McEwan isn't new to recessions. When he opened North 44{ring} nearly 20 years ago now, his renovation of the restaurant ran way over budget at $1.7-million–an almost unheard-of sum in those days – and then the Bob Rae recession hit. “I survived it, never missed a payment, never screwed anybody, lived up to all my obligations,” McEwan says. He learns from his mistakes, too: Bymark opened under budget, McEwan says, and now operates debt-free. “I'm comfortable with food and I'm comfortable with retail and I'm comfortable with clients. Business is nothing but formulas. It either makes sense or it doesn't make sense. And if you don't know, you find out.”

He's already got his sights on another location – the second of five stores he intends to open in the next five years.

Retailing, McEwan says, is easy if you're smart, and you pick the right spots and you're willing to get away from the herd. “I had many, many nights where I'd sit up and think, What have I forgotten? What am I not thinking of? What's going to hit me? Because something always hits you. You always have one of those holy shit moments at the end where you think, why did that not occur to me.

“What has surprised me most about retail is that I've not really been surprised.”

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