Canadian based retailer Loblaws has turned the conventional supermarket format on its head in its Toronto flagship. John Ryan investigates what they are doing differently.

The blueprint for a supermarket in the UK is well-established, largely irrespective of the name that hangs over the door. Interiors tend to be white - it helps to foster the sense of efficiency and the idea that everything is fresh and clinically displayed.

There are, of course, exceptions - the use of wood by Tesco of late, the many ‘local’ graphics that are a feature of the new-look Sainsbury’s stores and the mist-creating chiller units in the refurbished Morrisons stores are all good examples of this.

Nonetheless, the rule holds good and if you want to see something different, Whole Foods Market perhaps excepted, a trip across the Atlantic to Canada may be on the cards. Head for Toronto and then make for a building known as Maple Leaf Gardens. This is a huge 1930s structure in the heart of the city’s downtown area and, in former times, it used to be the home arena of the eponymous Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team.

The Maple Leafs team still exists - it is the most important sporting force in the city and is housed in a purpose-built structure less than a mile away.

But today, the Maple Leaf Gardens edifice is a supermarket, having been acquired by Weston family members (whose interests span Selfridges, Primark et al) in 2004. Work on turning the arena into an 85,000 sq ft supermarket began in 2009 and was completed two years later.

Food, glamorous food

The outcome is a food store but in many ways it has more to do with fashion than the business of selling food, particularly when it comes to the visual merchandising. The name on the door is Loblaws and this is the retailer’s flagship store and source of pride, if the enthusiasm of executive chef Mark Russell is anything to go
by. “This is a unique store concept and nobody knew whether it would work,” he says.

The concept that Russell refers to was created by Australian consultancy Landini Associates. And it is certainly nothing like a conventional supermarket, except insofar as you come in empty handed at one end and emerge with some purchases once a store circuit has been completed.

Entering through one of the two doors into this large space, the vista is an un-supermarket-like experience. The main entrance takes you into an area with seats from the original hockey arena along one wall and a self-serve cafe along the other.

In most large UK supermarkets, where a cafe exists, it’s an excuse to put white tiles on the walls and have a few stainless steel counters for the products. This is fine, but it is not the Loblaws Maple Leaf Gardens way. Instead, much of the large space at the front of the store has been stripped back to the original raw concrete and the legend ‘cafe’ has been painted directly onto the main wall in an ad hoc graffiti manner. Small tables in front of the arena chairs create a popular space and, on the day of visiting, it was busy in spite of the early hour.

And just behind this is a cupcake wall. This is the patisserie and, like so much of the rest of this store, you know this to be the case as there is a large sign towards the top of the free-standing mid-shop wall that tells you.

The wall is see-through, being composed largely of glass, on which serried ranks of brightly coloured cupcakes are arranged. The area is something of a statement of intent for the rest of the store.

To the right of this is a white-tiled (but not in a UK supermarket way) mid-shop island with the word ‘Food’ above it.

This might seem pretty self-evident but it is the primary area for what Russell refers to as ‘HMR’, or home meal replacement. That means that the 25 staff that Russell has working in the kitchen are kept busy supplying this space throughout the day, cooking up everything from single portions of beef stroganoff to meatballs, the latter being a best-seller. It is worth mentioning the kitchen. In the majority of supermarkets where there is some kind of food preparation area, it is behind the scenes. In this store, the kitchen is located in the middle of the store above the Ace Bakery (a Loblaws brand that is found in its stores and other well-to-do Toronto shops) and is highly visible. The point is that shoppers are made aware that everything in the Food area is freshly made in the store.

And Russell is as much manager as chef, with a tight control of every aspect of the fresh food offer, having
previously spent seven years as senior personal chef to Galen Weston. Prior to that, he worked as the personal chef to the late Princess of Wales.

A supermarket like no other

There is, however, rather more to the store than home meal replacements and a cafe. This is a supermarket and, wherever you look, the primacy of visual merchandising has been asserted. This ranges from the beef-ageing counter at the back of the store - demarcated by a vast sign on the perimeter created from white on black tiles with the word ‘Butcher’ on it - to seeming hectares of fresh fruit and vegetables.

There are also a number of features that are unlikely to be found anywhere else. Among these is the cheese wall, a high glass and steel structure that rises up towards the kitchen and that is filled with large parmesan rounds.

Mention should also be made of the non-food and ambient goods area, occupying around half of the ground floor - the aisles are wide and sightlines good.

These areas look good, with the concrete pillars featuring black stencils of notable worthies in caricature
form, and the floor-covering changes from the red of the fresh food to a more orange tone for non-food and ambient. Walk through and you end up at the vitamin and pill area - always a feature in US and Canadian supermarkets and still strange looking to European eyes.

There is also a first floor. There, shoppers can choose to visit a Joe Fresh shop (the clothing offer from Loblaws), visit the state-owned alcohol shop, or head for a space that can be hired for group cookery lessons anddemonstrations.

To get to this part of the store, shoppers use a long escalator backed by a bare concrete wall with 129 blue arena chairs that have been mounted against it to look like a Maple Leaf. It’s a simple artistic device, but is immediately attention-grabbing.

Loblaws shares its Maple Leaf Gardens site with Ryerson University, which has a gym and ice rink on the level above the store.

This is a flagship store of the kind that is highly unlikely to be replicated elsewhere - costs would be too high and appropriate locations would be hard to come by.

Nevertheless, for those in search of a possible food retailing future, this is certainly not a blind alley and it does demonstrate how food can be made appealing in the same manner as a new season’s range that has just arrived in a fashion store.

Since the store opened in 2011, Loblaws continues to refine it and alter elements of the interior. It’s definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in Canada’s commercial capital.

Loblaws, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto

Opened Late 2011
Size 85,000 sq ft
Store design Landini Associates
Ambience Fashion