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Apr 16, 2008 07:26 PM

"Loblaw Great Food" - it ain't Wegman's

The Loblaw's at Yonge St & Yonge Blvd ("Yonge & Yonge") in Toronto has always been an unusual store. While there wasn't anyplace else to shop for groceries in this affluent neighbourhood (and, really, there still isn't), the area residents didn't want the store and fought hard to keep it out. Their protests won them quite the one off store. It's small by current standards, and full of elegant details. The whole place is cedar, inside and out. Trees grow in the underground parking lot. There's a cafe (which once had superior coffee and baked goods, courtesy of Movenpick) of a style normally reserved for much larger outlets. Another Hound labeled this place the "Dress Up Loblaw's". Seems the locals get all decked out to go grocery shopping.

Well people, we're told it isn't Loblaw's any more. They seem to be prototyping a new, upmarket store format, and Yonge & Yonge is the place. (Their website shows two more locations, one in Etobicoke and one in Collingwood.) It is now (drumroll...) "Loblaw Great Food".

I had great hopes for great food when I went in, expecting all kinds of delights. After all, Weston's also owns Holt Renfrew and Fortnum and Mason. Hopes were quickly dashed. There ARE many changes, and most of them are good ones. The shelves were stocked (!) and staff was everywhere. Though the store was almost empty, nearly every checkout was open. It's certainly a great store compared to the huge but pitiful Leslie St Loblaw's, or the wasted little Broadview Loblaw's, their outlets in my neighbourhood. But, really, it's still just another Loblaw's. I had been hoping for much more.

The theme here is "fresh". You walk in past long, lighted, refrigerated self-serve counters with tray after tray of food by weight. It's similar to the salad bar setup at a Longo's, and there's a bigger selection of food. However, Longo's foods looked much more tempting. A closer look revealed an amalgam of the standard selections from a Loblaw's deli counter and antipasto bar merged into one area. A few upgrades looked pleasing (chopped up pieces of seasoned roast chicken, for example). They list all the ingredients in the salads on each tray. They promise small display portions, replenished throughout the day, no "chlorine washes", and nothing held overnight. They don't tell us what happens to the leftovers. But it doesn't resemble, say, the Big Carrot or Whole Foods setups. It's just a salad bar.

Prepared hot foods are on the other side of the entrance. It's mainly standard stuff. Instead of restoring the wonderful Movenpick rotisserie (which had been used here for storing boxes), they removed it. They sell the standard combi oven overcooked chickens. We are promised more prepared foods in the near future.

The baked-in-house bread and pastry selection is, if anything, smaller than before. One new innovation is a freshly baked foccacia counter. They have a large selection of savoury toppings (like pizzas), and several sweet toppings, on sheets of dough several inches thick. I wasn't hungry at the time and there were no samples, so I don't have a report. The bread to topping ratio is extreme, and I wasn't tempted to take a piece home.

Another new feature is soup. They have several kinds on the go, and state proudly that the soups are heated to order using the efficient "green" wonder of magnetic induction, rather than being microwaved or "boiling all day". They don't tell us whether the soups are prepared from scratch, or if they come from a foodservice can. They also don't tell us "why" induction is superior to microwave. I don't know whether it is, since we're reheating soup - not preparing freshly sauteed food. Another odd thing about this setup: soup is one of the few things that can get better when simmered for hours.

Espresso drinks are dispensed from a machine and brewed drip coffee from standard thermal carafes. I didn't find the cappucino fit to drink, and the brewed coffee is inferior to the coffee sold at less grand Loblaw's locations that have in-house roasters. Why not top quality beans roasted in house and a real barista? Why do it half way?

The service counters are standard issue Loblaw's. The meat and fish sections had stock similar to the stock at the much larger Queens Quay store. They guarantee that ground meat is sold only on the day of grinding. There was lots of fish, but only some of it looked fresh. Unlike at Leslie St, there were actual people present to sell you the items on display.

Instead of Whole Foods museum-like produce displays (which are copied at a few good Dominions), Loblaw Great Food went the other way. Produce is set out on carts in the style of a farmer's market. It's quaint and it's cute and the area was swarming with staff. The produce selection was standard, but the bins were full and the quality was okay.

Finally, there's a "gourmet" grocery aisle. It's mainly higher end condiments and fancy looking pastas. It's bigger than the selection of similar items at a typical large Loblaw's location, but a closer look revealed many items that are integrated into the regular aisles at other good stores. (Needless to say, Leslie St doesn't have this stuff.) Some displays had signs trumpeting a special deal that they were passing along (e.g., San Marzano tomatoes for about $1.00 below the going price for the brand). I had to laugh at the Rao's sauce display promising the lowest price in Toronto, since Pusateri's is selling the same sauces for much less (there's a manufacturer's promotion on right now).

The rest of the store is a regular Loblaw's, though with full shelves (at least at the moment I was there).

If this is your regular shopping place, they've made it better. But it isn't worth a trip across town. I'm disappointed because Loblaw's has the resources to do it better than Wegman's, or any other grocery chain for that matter. They haven't.

I'd like to hear your ongoing experiences with this place if you shop there. The optimistic view is that they'll tweak it and expand it and roll it out across the city, at least in suitable areas. The other view brings to mind the Home Depot at Gerrard Square. When that store opened, staff were falling all over you trying to help. Now it is often impossible to order an item, or even buy a can of paint, because so few people work there and the stock levels are often low.

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  1. Good post. I wasn't planning on going, and now definitely won't be.

    About the Leslie st. location, I was there the other day and "egads" they had plenty of stock. And the fish in the fish dep't was very appetizing. I get the feeling, it's a feast or famine situation and next time I'm there, they'll be out of the stuff I'm needing at that particular time. Broadview Loblaw is brutal.

    4 Replies
    1. re: grandgourmand

      Embee what a terrific post...that store is not one that I frequent but if I am in the area I might pop in based on your informative review. My Loblaws (Christie & Dupont)which I complained about prior to leaving for the winter has certainly pulled its socks up vis-a-vis the stock seems to replenished daily, the employees seem 'happier' and I have not heard any further rumblings about a 'big change' in this location. I will try to ask around and see if there is 'something' to get excited/otherwise happening in this location.

      1. re: grandgourmand

        I'm sure that the main reason the Broadview location is so bad is that they don't want to do a small temporary fix on it. There were plans over 5 years back to build a completely new and much larger store there. I've heard (back around 2003) that Loblaws has bought almost all the buildings north and south of the store, except the one house directly south of it. Apparently that is one of the reasons they have not built the new place yet. The old lady who owns that house doesn't want to sell after she slipped in the store some years ago and didn't get whatever she was asking them for as compensation. This is news from a few years back, so maybe they have bought the house and have some other delay. You may remember that they started ripping down part of the overhead parking, probably in preparation for the rebuild.

        1. re: foodyDudey

          That anachronistic little store was a Dominion, which became a Mr Grocer, which became a Loblaws. It's too small to be a mainstream supermarket, and not worth upgrading as it is, but it's an ideal location for an upmarket, "gourmet" store. Imagine a Summerhill Market type of store at that location. The subway station across the street sure wouldn't hurt.

          I don't know anything about their current plans, since Toronto's weird height limits in the area devalue the property. That's a logical spot for a ten storey building of $650,000 condos with fabulous views. The (demolished) parking structure was a filthy, dangerous wreck.

        2. re: grandgourmand

          Good observation. There was quite a bit of fresh looking fish at Leslie yesterday evening. However, as is typical, there was nobody stationed at the fish counter.

        3. We live near the Burnhamthorpe Market. While it looks spiffed up after the remodelling, the merchandise doesn't really seem to have changed much to justify the "Great" superlative. As Embee says, there's lots of staff. I was there last Saturday afternoon, and there were cashiers looking for something to do!

          1. I've been to the Burnhamthorpe store, and have to agree.

            Yet, I also think that this is still a work in progress since there has not been an official announcement of a "Grand Opening", so I am prepared to give them time to complete the transformation in branding and merchandising.

            Loblaws was the standard in my opinion for the "Dave" years. Junior seems like a hard working guy, and I think he is driven to succeed at a higher level.

            It will however take a lot for Mrs Scary to stop referring to the stores as "Dave's" and "Yellow Daves".

            6 Replies
            1. re: Scary Bill

              While Yonge & Yonge isn't completely finished, the grand opening has already taken place.

              1. re: embee

                Thanks for the great post embee. I think if I want high end I'll stick with my Summerhill Market and I LOVE your dream about one going in at Broadview.

                I refuse to shop at the Broadview Loblaw's and have now limited my Leslie Street Loblaw experience to once every 2 months at which time I stock up on all the necessary dry goods. In fact we went yesterday. Have you noticed how the produce bags break through the bottom the minute you put something in them. We put some pears (out of desparation) in our cart. When we went to lift them on to the checkout the bag broke and the pears went crashing everywhere. What really annoyed me is that the only boxed greens they had were PC brand. I could not find any Earthbound. And...they had a TON of PC greens, all with a due date of today so if you go, buyer beware....check the due date.

                On a positive note we purchased some fresh wild sole filets which were quite nice. All in all I hate the Loblaw experience. So much for the positive note, eh!

                The one off Bayview is the best IMO.

                1. re: millygirl

                  We've been to the Yonge and Yonge Blvd. location a couple times since the reno. While I agree with Embee that it could be better, it is a much improved solution to what was there. We were impressed by the receptiveness from the seafood department manager. We were looking for some more sustainable seafood to be carried at that location. While he didn't have all the answer, it appeared as if he was looking for us to ask for them to carry more sustainable offerings. Perhaps the suggestions will be put into place. I found that the produce was a bit expensive, but that the quality was quite an improvement from what was there before. While it's not Whole Foods, it's quite the improvement from what was. I say it's a step in the right direction.

                  1. re: millygirl

                    One of the big issues I (and others) have with Loblaws stores is that it's to the point where they carry only PC brand and maybe one other brand for a lot of items. Maybe. That's brutal.

                    1. re: futronic

                      Dave Nichol's main model way back when was Marks & Spencer, which carries only private label foods. Speaking generally, these "St Michael" products tend to be the best mass market products in their categories in the entire UK.

                      Many PC products share this characteristic. Unlike private labels at their competition, or anywhere in the US, the PC products are frequently the best of breed. Nevertheless, there damn well should be more choice of major brands, especially in a 125,000 sq ft store.

                      What's even more annoying is that not all Loblaws carry the entire PC line. NoFrills stocks hardly any.

                      When the concept is working according to plan, you would CHOOSE the PC product over any other and get a better product that is more profitable to Loblaws and costs less to you. Sometimes this works. When I buy commercial cookies, Oreo's excepted, I'll almost always choose a PC variety. And we are now total converts to the PC 3-ply toilet paper....

                      Unfortunately, Loblaws seldom stocks brand name products unless there is either extreme consumer demand (Coke/Pepsi; Tide) or the distributor rented the shelf (a so-called listing allowance). They stopped listening to consumers years ago, and special orders are now virtually impossible.

                  2. re: embee

                    I must have missed it. I have seen nothing in any publications, or any flyers, so I assumed that it was yet to come.

                    Just did a "Google" and discovered that there was a rather limp Grand Re-Opening at Burnhamthorpe also.

                    Young Galen has some lessons to learn about rebranding and marketing.

                    Or maybe he needs to be sent to bed without supper a couple of times to find some inspiration.

                2. Great post.
                  You hit the nail on the head when you ask "why do it half way?" with regards to the coffee. Loblaw's likes doing things half way.

                  Loblaw Great Food is aiming to place themselves somewhere between Dominion and an upscale grocery store like Pusateri's. They want to look polished, but they also want to attract the families in the neighbourhood that will fill their shopping carts once a week. It's true, people do look like they've dressed up to go grocery shopping at this particular Loblaw's. It's the only grocery store (apart from maybe Pusateri's) where I have felt underdressed.

                  Although it's the closest grocery store to where I live, I find myself travelling a little further to shop at the Dominion (at Yonge/Lawrence, Bayview/York Mills, Bayview/Eg), Bruno's (on Avenue) or Longo's (Leslie and York Mills).

                  I don't think Loblaw's is interesting in spending the money or attention to detail required to offer the quality deli/take-out you would find at Chapman's, Pusateri's or Bruno's.

                  What I do like about Loblaw Great Food, and the Empress Walk Loblaw's is the fact they have underground parking leading to the store. Very convenient when it's raining or snowing;)

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: phoenikia

                    That is my local Loblaw's (hmm... "Loblaw"?) as well. I found myself thinking many of the same things as embee. The soup humoured me, and the chickens are double wrapped in foil and sealed in these funky "insulated" bags. The one good thing about the bag is that it doesn't leak.

                    Despite the changes, I am still only going there for staples. For meats, fish, deli and most produce, I hit Bruno's or Longo's. I think the Dominion at Bayview and York Mills is horrendous when it comes to produce.

                    I never dress up to shop there. I suppose that the Lawrence Parkers just think I'm a nanny. :o)

                    1. re: TorontoJo

                      Agree that the Dominion at Bayview & York Mills has sold horrendous produce in the past, although maybe it's improved a little since their renovation. I mostly get my staples there, and I can't remember the last time I bought any of their produce. I really miss the produce shop that used to be next door!

                      I love the produce section at Longo's.

                      I'm not sure what the Lawrence Parkers think when they see me in my sweats...they probably come to the conclusion that I'm not from these parts;)

                  2. I just visited this location on the weekend and was very impressed witha couple of items:

                    1. canned cherry tomoatoes, which I LOVE LOVE LOVE, and could only find at Longo's.
                    2. Beretta lean ground beef at 3.47/lb, which produced the MOST delicious burger I've ever created
                    3. Monkfish, 7.99/lb - decent, fresh, better quality than most supermarkets.

                    It was a pleasant experience, esp. for a Saturday afternoon, when I hate to shop.