Downtown Edmonton’s Grocery Store Shortage

This week’s issue of Vue features a piece I wrote the new downtown location of Earth’s General Store. They opened the new store about six weeks ago on 104 Street, in the space formerly occupied by the ill-fated Pangaea Organic Market and on the same block as the recently-turfed Sobeys Urban Fresh.

I chatted with Earth’s owner, Michael Kalmanovitch (a truly lovely individual) about his new store as well as about the situation downtown Edmonton is currently facing in regards to grocery stores. It’s a pretty interesting read, if I do say so myself, that touches on some huge issues for the city.

Sobeys’ departure was perhaps not surprising to those of us who watched the store slide inexorably into decline within a couple years of its opening in 2008. It became obvious when Sobeys abandoned its support of the trendy, chic downtown grocery store (even though it has nine of these formats in Toronto and Vancouver) and decided to change its business priorities to a major corporate acquisition, then subsequently closing “under-performing” stores (which weren’t losing money, just not making enough) and instead opening more fancy big box-format stores perched at the corners of Edmonton’s ever-sprawling borders and paying bloggers to say nice things about it.

Part of me felt a petty smugness when Sobeys announced the close. I frequented the store in its early days when I still worked at deVine Wines just across the street, but I had long stopped going there except when in dire need, even though I still worked just a couple blocks away. Their prices became ridiculous, the selection sucked, and the produce was usually crappy. ($4.50 for a tiny, limp bunch of kale? I don’t think so.) But the closure also leaves a huge void for local shoppers. Those with cars can drive out to one of the box stores around the city, while those without have to carry their groceries on the bus (a huge pain in the ass), pay extra for a taxi or…I dunno, eat hot dogs from the 7-11?

It might surprise some to hear that Michael at Earth’s actually wants a chain grocer to replace Sobeys, as his store isn’t designed to provide the bulk of his client’s grocery needs – instead, he fills in the gaps. It’s a model that has worked for him for 23 years, and I hope it continues that way. I shop at the south side store quite often (their bulk section kicks ass) and can attest to their excellent customer service, product knowledge, fair prices, and wide selection. Earth’s presence is also more than just a mere grocery store; Michael is a huge advocate of community. He immediately installed two big bike racks outside his store (at his own expense) after the 104 Street Association hummed and hawed about adding any extra bike lock-ups. He also regularly hosts things like produce swaps, where people can trade extra veggies and fruits from other gardeners.

So, here’s hoping that a new grocer moves into the vacant spot on 104. It’s prime retail space and won’t be hard to make money there. Sure, it won’t make as much as a store on the edge of the city that’s quadruple the size and one-fifth the rent per square foot, but not every grocery store can (or should) be some mammoth cavern in an area that’s impossible to reach unless you have access to a car.

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