Messages of support are scrawled on the wall near the cash registers of Asian grocer T&T Supermarket’s Cherry Street location in the weeks leading to its closure at the end of the month after 12 years. It might seem odd for such sentimentality to be directed at a multimillion-dollar supermarket chain owned by Loblaws, but as T&T CEO Tina Lee walks down the aisles she says this was the store that introduced many downtown Torontonians to East Asian ingredients and dishes like silkie chickens and Chinese-style barbecue.
“Cherry Street is not a good location, but there are a lot of food enthusiasts out there and if you have good food, people will find it,” she says, adding that only one bus goes to the supermarket and many customers take Ubers and taxis to get there. The land that the store is sitting on will be dug up to make way for the Don River as part of the Port Land’s redevelopment. The store’s last day of operations is Jan. 30, just after the Lunar New Year. In preparation for the closure, T&T announced it is now offering online shopping and Lee has been telling customers to visit its next closest location at Steeles Ave. E and Warden Ave. in Markham.
People have been voicing where the supermarket should reopen on social media, suggesting the Beach, Dufferin Mall, the Annex, College St., the Danforth, or just a central location in downtown Toronto. The goodbye messages on the wall also suggested T&T reopen in CityPlace, Leslieville, the Junction and the Stockyards. Lee and her team from T&T and Loblaws have been driving around downtown looking for potential spots. But choosing a location requires more than dropping a store in a neighbourhood with hungry shoppers. In a city like Toronto where space is limited and rents are high, there’s a lot to think about.
A supermarket opens where it will make money, says Michael Widener, Canada Research Chair in transportation and health whose research looks into food deserts. He says grocers will look at the spending power of a neighbourhood, whether there will be enough people in that neighbourhood to fill job positions and whether the location can generate enough revenue to offset the rent.
Residents thinking that the opening of a supermarket is an easy win for everyone need to look at the bigger picture, he says.
“If we pretend all supermarket and grocery stores are equal, there’s really good coverage across Toronto no matter if you’re a pedestrian or transit user, but food deserts are more complicated,” he says. “If you live next to a Whole Foods, but can’t afford to shop there then it’s useless. There’s also access to child care; if you’re busy you’re less likely to cook and shop healthily.” His research also looks at the opening hours of supermarkets, and whether shift workers who tend to be lower income and work multiple jobs or late nights have the ability to shop for groceries.
Lee also says opening a supermarket isn’t as simple at looking where the shoppers are, it’s about finding the space.
“The biggest challenge is finding a floor plan that is large enough to accommodate a 30,000 to 40,000 square foot store with adequate parking,” says Lee, whose parents Cindy and Jack opened the first T&T almost 30 years ago in B.C. (T&T is named after Tina and her sister, Tiffany, as well as two early investors who had the same initials). “Cherry Street did that, but obviously it’s very difficult to find that in downtown Toronto, and the spaces are quickly disappearing because we’re not the only supermarket wanting to open another location.” There’s another large space requirement that the customer rarely thinks about: loading docks behind the store so trucks can deliver goods.
Demographics also come into play, as Lee looks at whether a potential neighbourhood will have a large East Asian population that would automatically be drawn to T&T, though she says that’s something that has been changing in recent years as non-Asians are getting more used to shopping at Chinese grocers.
“We opened a store in Waterloo last year, a place we wouldn’t have considered before but now we know a lot more non-Chinese people love what we sell in the prepared foods and bakery section. There’s also a big student population there, and many of them are international students that want a taste of home.”
Other factors include street visibility, access to public transportation, rent and whether the space would be a stand-alone store, inside a mall or at the bottom of a condo, the latter becoming increasingly common in Toronto.
“We have stores in Unionville, Vancouver and Richmond that are performing well at the bottom of a condo, so that’s possible in Toronto,” says Lee. “But it’s important for us to get in early at the design phase because a grocery store is a much more complicated operation with utilities and fridges. There’s enough water in our seafood department to fill a swimming pool.”
But the challenge of that, says Lee, is that she doesn’t think T&T is well-known enough throughout downtown Toronto. “Our brand is very strong in Vancouver because we started there in 1993 so real estate developers want us to be part of their projects because it attracts condo buyers. We have a shorter history in the GTA (the first Ontario location was in Thornhill in 2002), and I think the Cherry Street location has been an off-the-beaten path treasure for those in the Chinese community, clubgoers in the area and food enthusiasts. I’m not sure we’re on the top of minds for developers or people living downtown, but I hope we can build a stronger brand.”
Longos, on the other hand, was approached by developer First Capital four years ago to open a 32,000 square foot store at the base of a new condo at 1110 King West (at Joe Shuster Way) in Liberty Village, says Joseph Longo, vice president of real estate and e-commerce at the family-run supermarket chain.
“Historically, condo developers’ primary concern is getting the construction finalized and selling the units. The retail was typically an afterthought,” he says. “But given how scarce land is, developers are also giving more attention to retail. They’re making sure the loading requirements for trucks and parking are there, and that supermarket operations can happen.”
Having a supermarket at the base of a new condo could also be a selling point for buyers. In 2017, residents in the Junction Triangle were complaining that Food Basics, a discount supermarket chain, would be moving into the base of Fuse Condo at Dupont St. and Lansdowne Ave., instead of its slightly more high end sister grocer, Metro, that the developer advertised initially.
Longo says Liberty Village was an ideal spot because the other two closest Longos locations are far away on the Etobicoke-Mississauga border and at Maple Leaf Square, next to the Scotiabank Arena.
“The demographic profile for Liberty Village is basically high-income earners who are also highly educated, and had a median age of thirty-six-and-a-half, compared to the city median of 39,” he says, adding that being in front of a streetcar stop on King Street is a big benefit. “It’s young professionals, a demographic every grocer wants.” In addition to an in-house coffee truck making espresso-based drinks and a mozzarella bar that serves charcuterie and cheese platters, the supermarket is fully licensed so customers can order wine and beer and drink while shopping.
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Even though there’s already an existing Metro supermarket in Liberty Village (and a second Metro that opened just north of the neighbourhood in West Queen West while the new Longos was under construction), Longo says with the growing population and developments in the neighbourhood, there are enough shoppers to keep his store busy.
He adds opening in Toronto requires being flexible with space. For example, being at the bottom of a condo means having to deal with structural support columns that may disrupt the flow of a traditional supermarket. It also means getting creative and carving out a space, literally, at any level: Longos had to go underground for its 50,000 square foot Maple Leaf Square location while its Yonge-Sheppard Centre spot is located on the third floor, something that isn’t as common in the suburbs where stand-alone stores rule.
Downtown, Longos also has its smaller, Market By Longos concept that is around 10,000 square feet and Pronto Eats, a prepared-foods concept that’s the size of a convenience store at 1,000 square feet. Ottawa-based Farm Boy also announced last month that it is opening five Toronto locations over the next year ranging in size from a smaller 12,000 square foot location at College Park to a large 34,000 square foot space at Front and Bathurst Sts.
T&T CEO Tina Lee has been busy reviewing potential new locations in the city as its only downtown spot prepares to close, but none have been solidified yet. Some have been too small while others had an impractical layout. But with prime space disappearing and other supermarket chains also itching to expand, Lee says she’s open to anything.
“We’ll entertain different sizes and locations, things that might not have met our criteria before. Cherry Street wasn’t a prime location but we made it work,” she says. “Tell me where to be, and we’ll try to make it work.”