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Mark McEwan, who recently opened McEwan, his 22,000-square-foot luxury food store in North Toronto’s Shops at Don Mills. (seed9/© copyright seed9 2009)
Mark McEwan, who recently opened McEwan, his 22,000-square-foot luxury food store in North Toronto’s Shops at Don Mills. (seed9/© copyright seed9 2009)


The outlier Add to ...

There's a cockiness to Mark McEwan that might seem a little out of place these days. Just two weeks after opening McEwan, his 22,000-square-foot luxury food store in North Toronto's Shops at Don Mills, the serial entrepreneur, chef to the city's elite and a newbie shopkeeper, is laughing at the rest of the grocery industry.

“I've had many supposed retail experts – food retail experts who live and work in Ontario – give me all sorts of advice,” McEwan says. “I'm like, ‘Okay, where do you work, and what have you put together that's really interesting?'”

“It's really funny how they come up with all these thoughts that they believe are so invaluable to me.”

McEwan, as this city's big swinging expense accounts should already know, made his name at the stoves long before he turned his attention to retailing. North 44{ring}, his uptown Toronto temple to beautifully executed, if notably safe, exotica (i.e. “crisp laughing bird shrimp with spiced chipotle and yuzu”), has been a high-society favourite since it opened in 1990. In the TD Centre downtown, McEwan's Bymark restaurant (home to the one-pound, $125, whole-roasted foie gras) endures as the financial district's reigning power lunching palace, insomuch as the financial district still leaves its office for meals these days. His newest restaurant, called One, situated in Yorkville's ultra-swish Hazelton Hotel, sold $12.8-million of product in the year after its August, 2007, opening. No more than two or three other chefs in Canada could dream of an opening like that.

McEwan, who turned 52 last May, is prodigiously tanned and fit. His forearms are built like a bricklayer's. His smile, even if only intermittent, is assured, and his shaggy, Malibu-blond hair is swept back off his forehead as if out of submission alone. Mark McEwan looks relaxed, even though he's invested nearly $6-million into his new food store – his only partner is the Royal Bank – and even though he's had to humour all those interloping “retail experts” over the past few years.

Their supposedly invaluable thoughts? Put the produce section near the entrance. “It has been the written rule,” McEwan sighs. But when you walk into his store, the first thing you see is the all-important takeout selection: gleaming refrigerator cases of $14, single-serve truffled mac and cheese, raffia-bowed chicken sandwiches, $8 double-stuffed potatoes and osso bucco shepherd's pie. The meat, cheese and fish departments – “make ‘em hike to it” is an honoured industry maxim – are just a couple easy steps beyond the takeout section, along with the rows of $8 house-made chicken stock and the jars of pickles. Produce goes at the back at McEwan, in spite of what the so-called experts say.

Another rule: Grocery shoppers buy pantry staples and store-brand soups in recession years. Ignoring this, McEwan sports a 10-metre-long display of specialty olive oils. Actual grocery store groceries, although McEwan does sort of stock them (but mostly to keep his clients out of Loblaws – witness the $12.99 Bounce Free dryer sheets), aren't particularly important here. During a recent meeting in the prepared foods section, McEwan's young floor manager, Cheryl Cartwright, gestured toward the grocery aisles and said – joking, but also not joking – “That side's usually empty.”

Which is all pretty much the way Mark McEwan intended it. “Everybody thinks alike in this business. It's a herd mentality,” he scoffs. “And so I've gone against the grain.”

The word “supermarket” conjures visions of hairnets and stubborn buggy wheels for many of us, and aisles so long and jammed with product that finding a can of soup can sometimes take an eternity. Grocery stores are still mostly huge, and resolutely suburban; the industry, in many ways, is a slow-moving beast. Its balance sheets often look that way, too. Many big Canadian grocery retailers net just 1.5 per cent on their sales, says George Condon, a long-time industry watcher. Another analyst sounded excited when he reported that he expects a 3 per cent profit at Metro Inc. in fiscal 2009.

McEwan's approach, though it is unique in many ways, harnesses two of the newer and more promising developments in the grocery industry. The first, often referred to as “baby box” grocery, puts small, smartly edited stores in urban areas, in a bid to pull in price-insensitive consumers who don't need to sort through 41 different varieties of everything as they wander the grocery aisles. Sobeys Inc. has opened 13 of its Urban Fresh stores in Toronto and Edmonton in the last couple of years, many of them 20,000 square feet or less. In Ontario, Longo Brothers Fruit Markets Inc., the independent company that runs the Longo's mini-chain of suburban grocery stores, has moved downtown with two Market outlets in the last year, and the grocer has plans to add a third in the coming months. There is also Pusateri's, the two-location upscale grocer that was the city's gold standard until McEwan came along. (The chef very clearly has Pusateri's clients in his sights.) When they're located properly and smartly operated, these express-format stores have the potential to deliver “immense gross margins,” wrote Perry Caicco, an analyst with CIBC World Markets, in a report in 2007.

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