The Rise and Fall of the Grocery Store!

Recently, I wrote that Calgary’s greater downtown communities are being well served by the numerous existing supermarket chains and specialty grocers.  However, several readers questioned me about the need/opportunity for boutique urban grocery stores given the numerous condos popping up everywhere around the downtown.

Their comments haunted me for a few weeks until recently, when west driving along 20th Avenue NW from 10th to 19th street (where there is a mid-century corner store every few blocks).  I was reminded how Calgary’s inner city communities, when first developed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, all had “mom and pop” mini, grocery stores every few blocks. 

The mid-century corner store was critical to the walkability of those communities (back then it was one car per family).  It was not large, in fact no larger than neighbouring houses at about 1,000 square feet. Some were two storeys; others had an attached home to create the equivalent of today’s live/work space. The stores were usually located on major community access roads (like 20th Ave NW) that were enroute to other places, making them very convenient.

It had no surface parking lot, nor a requirement for assigned street parking - neighbours just accepted cars would pull up, get what they needed and drive off.  There were no concerns about children’s safety, even though they regularly played on the street. It was a place where kids as young as six years old could be sent to pick up a loaf of bread, a jug of milk and even occasionally allowed to spend the change on a treat from the penny candy selection.

It was also a time when people didn’t demand organic foods, exotic fruits from their favourite boutique orchard in Okanagan, farm-to-table vegetables or artisan breads.. It was a time of instant coffee and canned vegetables. People didn’t drive across the city to get their favourite coffee beans or find that specialty spice for an ethnic-inspired dish.

It was all about basic foods bought at convenient locations.  The “mom and pop” corner store, evolved into chain convenience stores like 7-Elevens and Mac’s, in the ‘60s, which served a similar purpose but weren’t located every few blocks. 

Jimmy's A&A Deli is located at the corner of 20th Ave and 13th St NW. 

Browns's Grocery is located at 20th Ave and 11th St. NW.

Weeds Cafe is located at the corner of 20th Ave and 18th St. NW.  I expect it was a grocery store when first built. 

21st Century Corner/Convenience Store

Might bringing back the convenience store be something developers and city planners in Calgary should be looking at - both for established communities and new suburbs?   Would creating a land use that would allow a small corner store every few blocks along access roads in new communities make sense? Would people support them?

Perhaps the MBA yuppie types laid off in the oil patch might consider using their entrepreneurial skills to create the 21st century convenience store. Two good case studies for a model new convenience store can be found in Bridgeland, where both Lukes Drug Mart and Bridgeland Market, though very different, seem to be thriving. 

Lukes Drug Mart is very interesting model. Family-run since 1951 and today under Gareth Lukes’ leadership, it is more than just a drugstore - it is also a coffee bar (serving Four Barrel coffee from San Francisco), grocery store (basement) and hipster store (with numerous niche brands of specialty retail and dry goods).  In this tiny store, you can buy groceries, have a prescription filled, access to Canada Post office and shop for unique items like Rifle Paper cards, Vance Family Soy Candles or Mast Brothers Chocolate.

Did you know that Lukes was named one of the Top 11 new record stores in Canada by Aux (a Canadian specialty TV channel and website) in 2013?  Yes, Lukes carries vinyl too!

Bridgeland Market at the east end of First Avenue NE is a second example of a 21st century corner grocery store. Compared to Lukes, it is a more traditional mid-century corner grocery store but with a modern twist. They pride themselves on having some of the “rarest, freshest and most ethically created products in the community.”  You can complete their “Product Request” form online if there is something you think they should bring in and  sign up for Marketgrams for updates on when they’re cooking up something fresh.

Along with artisan breads of all kinds, you will find croissants and “Made by Markus” treats like macaroons.  Combine that with other offerings like Santa Cruz Lemonade and Green Cuisine tofu and you see how convenience food has morphed into today’s increased demand for organic comfort food.

However, like Lukes and even the mid 20th century corner store, Bridgeland Market is family-owned and operated. As they say, “we’re just a bunch of locals.”

Both Lukes and Bridgeland Market are small spaces - less than 2,000 square feet (the size of today’s typical Calgary home) and certainly not to be confused with new urban grocery stores like Urban Fare at 30,000 square feet, (coming soon to Lower Mount Royal), a Shoppers Drug Mart at the base of a condo building (15,000 square feet) or a destination supermarket (50,000+ square feet).

Lukes Drug Mart is located on 1st Ave at 4th St. NE

Bridgeland Market is located on 1st Ave and 10th St NE.

Bridgeland Market's provides great local grocery shopping.

Bring back the milkman?

All this thinking had me also wondering if the next evolution of grocery shopping isn’t the “bricks and mortar” local grocery store at all, but rather home delivery.  With the rise of online shopping, one can’t help but think the next step in the evolution of grocery stores will be to bring back the 21st century equivalent of the ‘50s bread man and milk man.

Instead of creating mega supermarkets or micro-grocery stores, everyone may well have a “Shopping List” App that links to a giant warehouse that will deliver your groceries and dry goods at your convenience. For those living in downtown condos, that would mean one less reason for owning a car.  And for everyone, it would free up a lot of time for extracurricular activities.

In fact, online grocery services already exist in Calgary. One is called Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery (or Spud for short) focusing on organic food. Sunterra also has an online grocery ordering and delivery service, as does Walmart. 

Home milk delivery was common place until the late '60s in Calgary.

Last Word

Hmmm….could it be that in the future, at least some of those monolithic Walmart and Costco sites will become mixed-use condo villages? Never say never!

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