When T & T Supermarket Inc. moved into the old Knob Hill Farms location on Cherry Street two months ago, the opening of the 41,000-square-foot Asian grocery store caused a sharp intake of breath on Gerrard Street and Spadina Avenue.
Chinatown shoppers began lobbing postings back and forth on the Chowhound website, debating the store's pros and cons. Some were pleased to have a nearby source for marinated pork ears; others suggested it was the final nail in the coffin for the city's downtown Chinatown, already suffering from the Asian community's exodus to the suburbs.
Downtowners like to knock the suburbs for their charmless strip malls and sprawling parking lots, but recently the 'burbs have done a much better job of catering to ethnic appetites. Markham's J-Town offers sushi of every fish imaginable. Farther east, Pacific Mall is a paradise for Chinese food lovers.
In the city centre, Asian options are generally limited to store-hopping along Spadina or Gerrard to cobble together a meal's worth of vegetables and seafood that will perish if not used within a day or two of purchase. That's fine when you have the time to shop daily, but for better or worse, most of us don't have time to scour the city before each meal.
"For most Asian stores in Toronto, there's no spare space," says Jack Li, president of six markets in the GTA. "It would be very difficult to add prepared foods to our inventory."
Toronto has for a long time been a multicultural city, yet one-stop shopping is still shockingly white-bread.
Ethnic foods are one of the fastest-growing markets in many parts of the Western world. And while Loblaws may have traded its bottles of Memories of Jaipur sauce for packaged naan, its grocery selections have generally shrunk since the 1980s.
T &T's formula is simple: It offers all the same obscure specialty items you might find on along Spadina or Gerrard, from dried shrimp and fermented black beans to kecap manis, but in a fully loaded Westernized shopping environment.
It also offers a diet-busting selection of prepared foods, from dim sum to freshly made sushi, something most Chinatown shops can't do.
Mr. Li says the new T & T has affected his business, especially at Hua Sheng and Oriental Harvest, two of the largest grocery stores at Dundas and Spadina. "Downtown, business has been slow over the last few years. A lot of Chinatown customers are moving out to Scarborough," says Mr. Li, who has been commiserating with friends who own shops on Gerrard. "We lost 10 per cent of our sales as soon as T & T opened on Cherry Street." Mr. Li had hoped to recoup some of that loss, but so far sales remain slow.
Dubbed the Loblaws of Asian supermarkets, T & T arrived in the GTA five years ago with a 45,000-square-foot shop in Thornhill and quickly followed up with three 905 shops. The Cherry Street location represents the chain's first foray into downtown Toronto. Though its influence is now being felt in Chinatown, the real competition may not just be the mom-and-pop shops; it could be Loblaws itself.
"Our focus is on whoever is interested in us," says Stephen Pang, marketing and planning manager for T & T, who commissioned a survey at the Cherry Street location last weekend. "We're attracting more white people than traditional Asian clientele - young professionals from nearby condos."
It's easy to see why. The seafood counter rivals those of the St. Lawrence Market, with dozens of selections, from geoduck to cherrystone clams to the liveliest Dungeness crabs in the GTA. The meat counter features every cut imaginable, from oxtails to tripe. The whine of the butcher's saw is nearly constant. Chickens (head and feet still attached) may be heaped in a pile like some prehistoric midden, but flavour and price are without parallel.
Nevertheless, business is still slow at the Cherry Street location, which is marooned south of Lake Shore Boulevard. Although it's only a stone's throw from downtown, it is still out of the way for most Toronto shoppers. (On my last trip, I had to wait several minutes while a drawbridge eased up to let a boat through.) "It's a little bit remote, so it might take us a while to reach our target numbers," Mr. Pang admits. "In the meantime, we continue to search for additional locations in the GTA."
Naomi Duguid, a Chinatown resident and the author of several Asian cookbooks, says she was amazed by T & T when she first encountered it out west seven years ago. "It's brilliant marketing," says the author of Hot Sour Salty Sweet. "People who would normally be intimidated on Spadina feel fine at T & T.
"I'm amazed at how accessible and transparent everything is - there are English-language labels on everything."
Perry Caicco, a retailing expert and former Loblaw executive, calls T & T Canada's premier ethnic supermarket, and says it beats Loblaw companies handily at their own game. "T & T is growing like wildfire with Anglo customers because it understands and presents food in a dramatic way, and with good price points and value offerings," Mr. Caicco wrote in a CIBC World Markets report. "While Loblaw has reduced its food square footage and pared back its offering in fresh and grocery, over at T & T we get stuff like pork tongue, whole geese, black chickens, live exotic fish."
Our Chinatowns may be feeling the pinch, but T & T's arrival in downtown Toronto can only be a good thing for the city. It's high time we got some decent ethnic supermarkets, modern ones that can cater to the narrowing differences between our Asian population (which is increasingly Westernized) and the rest of Toronto.
"Anything that ... brings cultures and cuisines from far away closer to home is a good thing," Ms. Duguid says.
Mr. Caicco points out that T & T's energetic attitude is reminiscent of Dave Nichols's Loblaw companies in the 1980s. While Loblaws recently celebrated the opening of its Milton store by launching prepackaged naan, the Cherry Street T & T hauled a 600-pound tuna through the store. "These efforts get people excited about food, which is what Loblaw used to do."
The freshest in market right now: Chinese greens
If you look at Chinese-restaurant menus in Toronto, you would never suspect that Chinese greens have a season. They do, of course. And many of them are being harvested locally now.
T & T carries about a dozen types of greens, from baby bok choy to gai lan (a.k.a. Chinese broccoli). Although each varies in flavour, from mild to more pungently mustard-tasting, most are best stir-fried with a little ginger and garlic, before tossing with a little sesame oil and soy sauce. It's best not to arrive in the produce section with preconceived notions of which greens you want for dinner; simply choose the freshest you can find.
My current favourite is ong choy, or water spinach. The long, spear-like leaves have a sweet, almost spinach-like taste, and though the leaves soften when stir-fried, the hollow stems remaining appealingly crisp.
Finding local Chinese greens may soon become easier: The Toronto Environmental Alliance is at work compiling a list of Greenbelt farmers who grow Chinese and Southeast Asian produce. Franz Hartman, the executive director of the organization, hopes to publish a Chinese and Southeast Asian guide early next year.