In six short months, COVID-19 has transformed the way Canadians eat. First, dried beans flew off the shelves. Then, public health orders closed thousands of restaurants. Luxury takeout took off. Baking sourdough became a national pastime. Now sidewalk patios are springing up like mushrooms. Nobody knows what’s next for the food industry.
“We’re walking through a dark room with our hands out in front of us, trying to feel everything out until things settle down,” says restaurateur, businessman and Top Chef Canada judge Mark McEwan.
Few in the sector have as broad a perspective as McEwan, whose Toronto-based company, the McEwan Group, includes a catering business, manufacturing, high-end grocery stores and several fine-dining restaurants.
He’s concentrated on building an online shopping platform for groceries and pre-prepared meals, subsidizing half the cost of pickup and delivery in order to build customer loyalty.
“We try to make it memorable,” he says. “We send people a lot of free samples and try to be helpful on the phone.”
That exceptional experience includes stocking the best ingredients. McEwan believes importing high-quality European products has given his stores a leg up during challenging times.
“I think when people have a meal together now, it’s more of a special occasion that demands special ingredients,” he says.
“I carry a lot of European products in the retail stores. I’m very supportive of local ingredients, but I’m also supportive of imported European food because it’s produced to such an exceptional standard. My clients love it. I love it. I’ll never go totally local: It’s about finding a marriage of the two.”
Certain products have been smash hits in isolation. McEwan says his stores can’t import doppio zero flour, made from Italian durum wheat, fast enough. His clients have been exploring canned cuttlefish and anchovies from the Spanish region of Galicia. Belgian chocolate has proven popular as a socially distant snack.
And as consumers have more time to prepare their own meals, he’s been pleased to see more demand for ingredients like French vinegar, German redcurrant jelly, Italian olive oil and Portuguese chorizo that form the base of slow-cooked European classics like pot-au-feu, beef bourguignon, sauerbraten and paella.
“It’s great because when I’m looking for inspiration, I turn to the old cookbooks more than I do modern ones,” McEwan says. “They lean mainly on European products. You can pick up Julia Child and start recreating some French standards. You can do the same for Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Poland. There’s just such a rich history, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
The key appeal of food from the European Union (EU), says McEwan, is the consistency and quality. There’s a high level of government supervision of the food system, and buyers can look for blue and yellow European Union Geographical Indication labels that prove products are made in a certain place and to a certain standard.
“The fact that people are interested in European standards and quality levels is the most exciting trend,” he says. “It’s going to last. It’s a sign that we’ve matured as a society when it comes to food; we don’t get caught up in fads, it’s all about the ingredients and the backstory. That in itself is a European attitude.”
Interested in learning more about European foods? Please visit: www.morethanfood.ca
Delegation of the European Union to Canada: https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/canada_en
EU Chamber of Commerce in Canada: https://euccan.com/
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.