Winnipeg really wants a Loblaws – or a Sobey's, or even a No Frills. In March, half of downtown Winnipeg's grocery stores closed for good after a four-storey Zellers was shut down by its new owner, Target, leaving only one full-service grocery store to serve tens of thousands of residents. Locals are so desperate that city council is considering tax breaks to attract a big grocery chain.
Toronto, on the other hand, has quite enough Loblaws downtown. So says the group Friends of Kensington Market, which is protesting the very idea of the mega-supermarket as the anchor tenant for a new condominium just north of the historical market.
Although the building's developer says it hasn't decided which retailer will go into the space, the group is already worried about a potential Loblaws displacing the family-run food stands and bulk provisioners that create Kensington's hippie-meets-Old World flair.
At heart, I'm a small-shop customer, but those who are fighting for healthy and affordable food aren't as picky. "A vibrancy of choices is needed," says Debbie Field, the executive director of FoodShare. The organization's main goal is to get fresh fruit and vegetables within walking distance of every Torontonian. Ideally, she feels, that produce is seasonal and local, an easier proposition for indies buying from the Food Terminal daily than chains locked into long-term contracts with bulk suppliers. Independents are also generally better at responding to an individual community's ethnic and family-size needs.
But what matters most to Ms. Field is basic access and freshness. If people walk to a chain where they can buy toilet paper with their apples, she's happier than if they drive to a small grocer to grab frozen corn. "Making it an either/or creates a strange polarized conversation," she says.
The relationship between entrepreneurs and big boxes is equally complicated. Zellers' closure means the loss of $7-million in grocery revenue alone. Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, the city's business association, fears a trickle-down drop in traffic on nearby blocks could hurt small businesses. BIZ is lobbying hard for a supermarket, but also considering a new farmer's market, to draw workers out of their cubicles during the sunny months.
Perhaps the blaming of store closures on the trend toward big downtown supermarkets – as Torontonians sometimes do – deserves some reassessment. Take the Portland Street Loblaws in the city's Queen St. West area, which opened to great consternation in late 2011. But in the time that's passed, the Healthy Butcher around the corner has seen its sales increase. The owners say they're glad that locals (like them) can now buy essentials nearby. Meanwhile, their confidence in the superior quality of their meat has borne out. Shoppers have been willing to make time after their big-box stop to visit a real butcher, and pay a bit more when they get there.
The supermarket chain earned quick blame after a cheesemonger on the same strip was shuttered, but proving direct cause and effect would be tricky. What I do know is that I live minutes from another location of the same shop, and stopped visiting after my requests for a bit of affordable Havarti were consistently met with emo gloom (or full-on dirty looks).
Guess what – I don't need $20 worth of artisanal-washed rind curds every week, though the gregarious staff at Kensington's Cheese Magic can often convince me otherwise. Chain stores do bring intense competition, and offering customers what they need, with a pleasant attitude, becomes especially non-negotiable. Both buyers and sellers are always juggling convenience, quality, service, and cost.
Obviously, the two cities are different. Winnipeg is working hard to kickstart its downtown after a decades-long middle-class flight to the suburbs. In Toronto, it's the far-flung inner suburbs that could use an influx of food providers.
The friendly family that runs my favourite Kensington produce shop wakes up at dawn to visit the Ontario Food Terminal, which ensures that their daily bounty is super fresh. Winnipeg's lack of a similar setup makes it harder for small grocers to find good quality produce.
I wish the people of Winnipeg good luck in achieving a food run that's a little bit easier. As for Kensington Market, I'm almost certain it will be fine. My greengrocer is already beating the chains on freshness, and price, and a nice little chat about the weather.
Denise Balkissoon is a Toronto writer and co-editor of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about ethnic and cultural pluralism in the Greater Toronto Area.