I love bok choy, but hate Chinese supermarkets. They stink. They have icky, wet floors. The staff is rude. The customers are worse. They push, shove and cut in line.
Still, if I wanted bok choy, there was no choice. Then I discovered T&T Supermarkets, the Pusateri's of the Chinese world -- without the cramped aisles and bloated prices. This week, T&T opened its third Toronto store in three years, at 5661 Steeles Ave. E. (at Middlefield). At 65,600 square feet, the size of a Loblaws, it's the biggest Asian supermarket in Canada. And there are more on the way: The chain, based in Richmond, B.C., plans to have 10 stores here in the next five years.
The arrival of stress-free Chinese grocery shopping marks a turning point in Toronto's history. In a sense, it's also a coming-of-age story. Back in the 19th century, clientele at Chinese grocery stores consisted of people like my grandfather, coolies shipped from rural China in 1881 to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Back then, my grandfather and others probably had bigger problems to worry about than icky floors.
Now, many Asians are educated and affluent. T&T sells mangosteens and dragon fruit in a pristine environment. Instead of a hundred cheeses like Whole Foods offers, T&T has a staggering array of bean curd and even more varieties of rice.
They take credit cards. The service staff mostly speaks English. Signs are bilingual -- and sometimes rather solicitous. Over the teriyaki grilled fish: "Please be aware of small fish bones."
The aisles are 45 per cent wider than the industry average. The butcher section offers numbers so you're served in order. And, hallelujah, elastic queue barriers at the take-out food section prevent people from cutting in line.
"Some Asian customers feel like they're back in their home country, like they have to fight for something," says Kam Choi, T&T's executive vice-president and eastern region CEO. "We like the concept of first come, first served."
T&T is more than just a clean, orderly Asian grocery store. There's an in-house bakery with real cream cakes, a barbecue counter with glistening chickens and ducks, an Asian deli and a sushi bar. T&T also sells bagels, cranberry sauce, Perrier and bottles of Starbucks Frappuccino.
If you're famished, you can nosh on bargain-priced dim sum, sparkling fresh sushi, deep-fried shrimp as big as hot dogs, scallion-oil chicken and rice, spicy conch salad, all washed down with a mango slushy or peach iced tea.
There's no tipping. You pay, then carry your food to a dining area. And the washrooms are sparkling.
T&T's prices are 5 to 10 per cent higher than its stinky counterparts, but still 10 to 25 per cent cheaper than mainstream stores such as Dominion or Loblaws.
At the grand opening on Wednesday, two Chinese silk lions -- brought to life by teams of kung fu experts -- pranced and leaped down the aisles. Cindy Lee, T&T's CEO, "fed" the lions fresh lettuce, a symbol of prosperity. When they "spat" it back, Mrs. Lee laughed at the auspiciousness of it all, even as she flicked pieces of lettuce off her silver-sequined blouse and sparkly white suit.
"Our Toronto business will be 50 to 100 per cent bigger than Vancouver," said Mrs. Lee, 54, who flew in from Vancouver for the opening.
Born in Taiwan, she immigrated to Canada at 21, had three children and worked in the wholesale food business. Her husband, Jack Lee, was developing Asian malls. "He needed a supermarket as an anchor, but no one was willing to take the risk, so he assigned me," she said.
In 1993, Mrs. Lee assembled three partners: a small group of Chinese-Canadian investors; a California-based Asian grocery chain named Tawa Supermarket Inc.; and Uni-President Enterprises Corp., a publicly listed company her husband worked for and one of Taiwan's 10 biggest conglomerates. (T&T stands for the Chinese names of the two foreign partners.)
Despite putting in 18-hour days, Mrs. Lee nearly went bust. "The first year, I lost two-thirds of my capital. I really panicked. I almost quit," she said.
Today, T&T has 12 stores in Canada, including seven in British Columbia, one in Calgary and one in the West Edmonton Mall. It is eyeing Montreal and Ottawa, plus non-Asian neighbourhoods in Toronto, including midtown. "We will try to introduce a taste of Asia to Main Street," Mrs. Lee said.
Main Street was initially skeptical, especially in Toronto. Developers heard three words -- Chinese grocery store -- and ran the other way. "The biggest challenge was to convince the landlord," Mr. Choi said. "There's a stereotype. Most mainstream people do not have a good impression of Asian grocery stores."
Landlords also fretted about demographics. "Will the mall be overwhelmed by Asian people? Will the existing customer base go away?" said Mr. Choi, 48, repeating the concerns. Instead, he noted, a quarter of T&T's customers at its first store, in the Promenade Mall at Bathurst and Centre Streets, are Canadians of Jewish, Russian and Italian heritage.
T&T's landlords now include developers such as Cadillac Fairview, Ivanhoe Cambridge and Norstar Group, the newest. "We approached them," said Norstar's Sidney Valo.
The latest site had been vacant for seven years. Nearby are one Sikh and two Hindu temples, an Ismaili mosque and two churches, Polish Catholic and Chinese Protestant. The irony, of course, is that Asians are now turning up their noses at mainstream stores. "They couldn't carry the products and they couldn't attract the community," said Bas Balkissoon, the area's city councillor.
Derek Lee, MP for Rouge River-Scarborough (white and no relation to Mrs. Lee), said mainstream grocery stores such as Loblaws and Dominion have been moving out.
Shoppers Drug Mart is part of the new Middlefield/Steeles mall. "We would embrace the opportunity to do many stores with T&T," said Cheryl Benson, who works in the drugstore chain's real-estate division.
It has already partnered with T&T at its second location, at Steeles and Warden. Mike Dickinson, 34, was there this week buying bargain-priced lobsters ($8.99 a pound) and steak for a surf-and-turf birthday feast for his fiancée.
At the Middlefield/Steeles grand opening, I bought Mrs. Field's Cookies, Chinese pomelos and yes, bok choy. I also splurged on live shrimp -- swimming up a storm and all but unattainable this time of year -- spending $23.66 for a pound and a half. And because I spent more than $48, I got a free 10-pound bag of jasmine rice. With the Chinese New Year of the Rooster just three weeks away, that's something to crow about.