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Alex Johnson is a chef turned retailer who was so inspired by the local food movement that he opened his own business, Provenance. (Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail/Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail)
Alex Johnson is a chef turned retailer who was so inspired by the local food movement that he opened his own business, Provenance. (Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail/Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail)

Gourmet Grocers

Chefpreneurs hit the shelves Add to ...

For many people, Mark McEwan is best known as the chef of three high-end Toronto restaurants and for his behind-the-white-tablecloths television show, The Heat, currently in its second season on the Food Network. Next year, he will take on the role of head judge of Top Chef Canada.

But this summer he marked his first anniversary as a retailer: McEwan Foods, a 22,000-square-foot gourmet grocery in North Toronto, has become a destination for those who want to recreate elements of the McEwan dining experience at home. There's the smoked salmon he serves at North 44 and platters of roast beets and braised short ribs like the ones on the menu at One. All stand out with the distinctive white and plum label that bears his name.

"I tell you, it was daunting," says Mr. McEwan, who is now eyeing a downtown outpost. "It was the hardest thing I've ever orchestrated."

He may have the most square footage, but Mr. McEwan is far from the only Canadian chef adding to his already full plate. Marc Thuet has four Le Petit Thuet locations across Toronto, where artisanal breads and terrines are popular, and Vancouver's Vikram Vij sells packaged Indian meals from his Rangoli restaurant as well as at locations across Canada.

Mr. McEwan notes that restaurant-meal replacements represent his highest revenue category. "For me, it's about the freshness; I don't like typical grocery stores where there's aisle after aisle and the fresh component is ignored." But he points out that "freshness requires the highest maintenance and it's where you can potentially have the biggest loss."

According to Eric Pateman, a long-time food consultant and president of Edible British Columbia, a tour operator and retail store in Vancouver's Granville Island Public Market, one explanation was last year's business downturn. "The economy hasn't been overly favourable to the restaurant world," he says. "Many of the chefs are owners so they have that entrepreneurial spirit and I think they're looking for diversity. These different avenues allow them to grow their brand and diversify their revenue streams."

For Toronto's Eran Marom, it's not about brand but demand. This week, he is opening a counter at the front of his Toronto restaurant, Marron, where customers can buy kosher charcuterie during non-dining hours. The customer demand for his terrines, duck prosciutto and veal hams was too much to ignore. But he plans to grow small. "I'm not interested in big production; we're trying to slow down everything," he says, referring to the slow-food movement.

At most, he sees the products available in select "grandpa, grandma" shops and hopes to some day sell bread and mustard so people can get all their sandwich ingredients in one place.

But where Mr. Marom will continue to focus his efforts on the restaurant, some chefs are opting to enter into retail whole hog.

Four months ago, Alex Johnston opened Provenance Regional Cuisine, a boutique specializing in regional sustainable foods, after spending five years working with chef Jamie Kennedy.

"I just want to get great sustain, local, regional foods into people's homes," says Mr. Johnston, who started Provenance as a home-delivery service last year.

With twins on the way, he admits there are other reasons: switching to daytime hours from the night shifts that are so typical for chefs. "It's an incredibly demanding, taxing profession; I didn't feel I had it in me to go that route for the long haul."

Still, he says the process has been eye-opening. "I don't think it's any easier," he says. "The retail margins are just as tight on a grocery level. It's got its own challenges and that's been part of my learning curve."

On a recent week night, the flow of customers (filmmaker Don McKellar is a regular) appears steady. Some settle on bone-in Cornish hens; others choose pork steaks. A woman walks in and buys a whole rainbow trout from Lovell Springs Trout Farm in Southwestern Ontario.

Kia Waese, who owns R.A.D., an avant-garde clothing store a few blocks down, and her husband, Jerry, pop in occasionally for blue cheese from Quebec. For her, Mr. Johnston's chef background is a bonus. "You know that there is more of an expanded food knowledge and more dedication than at a grocery store," Ms. Waese says.

"If chefs have their name on it, consumers respect that; it gives [the consumers]brand assurance," Mr. Pateman says.

Garth Whyte, president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, says the entrepreneurial spirit of chefs contributes to the trend. "You see an opportunity and you go after it. It doesn't mean they won't go back. They love food and they will go with their strengths," he says. "People are looking for the gourmet experience - whether in the restaurant or off the shelves. I think there's a market and an interest."

As for whether people will stop dining out in favour of chef-created, ready-to-eat meals, Mr. Whyte says people want both experiences. "I see [the trend]as positive. I don't think it's dividing up the pie; I think it's making the pie bigger."

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