Lines outside the venerable Maple Leaf Gardens building, the former hockey shrine in midtown Toronto, are nothing new.

Maple Leaf Gardens, hockey, Toronto, Galen Weston, Loblaw Cos.’ executive chairman, Red Seal chefs, executive chef Mark Russell, Loblaws, T & T Supermarket, ACE Bakery, Tea Emporium, Livelifewell

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Inside This Issue - News

‘The crown jewel’

January 9th, 2012

TORONTO – Lines outside the venerable Maple Leaf Gardens building, the former hockey shrine in midtown Toronto, are nothing new.

But the crowds awaiting admittance before 8 a.m. on Wednesday, November 30, were there not, as in the old days, to see their beloved Maple Leafs but to experience the promised delights of what Galen Weston, Loblaw Cos.’ executive chairman, describes as "the crown jewel of food stores."

The first customers that morning were not disappointed. The 85,000-square-foot ground floor of the old arena has been converted, with panache, to a “theater of food.” A theatrical tone is set by the 20-foot ceiling that suggests that this is a space in which action can happen — and indeed it does.

A team of 14 Red Seal chefs led by executive chef Mark Russell, operating in an open kitchen at mezzanine level, is busy cooking the meals served in the café close to the entrance and prepared food items for sale in the store and consumption at home. A sushi bar, serving traditional specialties and new creations, draws on the knowledge of Asian food and customs Loblaws acquired through its purchase of the T & T Supermarket chain a few years ago. Diners can order sushi, sashimi and rolls to their specification or select from the 16-foot self-service display. A pizza oven serves made-to-order pizza in a matter of ­minutes.

Though its volume of in-store served meals might qualify Lob­laws Maple Leaf Gardens to be designated a restaurant, it is, of course, primarily a supermarket business, but a supermarket with flair.

Another recent Loblaws acquisition is given a lead role. A complete ACE Bakery is incorporated in the store. This facility operates from scratch, and the aromas of the artisan and variety breads and rolls waft through the store. Some products, such as the pugliese breads, are baked uniquely in this location.

A showpiece that has attracted much attention is the 18-foot-high wall of cheese. Among products in this glass-enclosed, refrigerated space is a 100-pound Stilton wheel, one of only a hundred such hefty specimens in the world. It is not alone in the elevated space.

There are more than 400 additional cheese varieties on offer, including local cheeses made the same day and rare products such as the Louis D’Or from Quebec, grand champion of the 2011 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix.

A patisserie displays handcrafted chocolates made from all-natural ingredients. Customers can also buy their fine chocolate in bulk — hand chiseled from a 250-pound block.

Chocolate specialties do not overshadow the wide selection of cakes and cupcakes — most of the varieties, it seems, known to the human race.

Canadians are perhaps not quite as enthusiastic tea drinkers as the British, but they are no slouches in this respect either. The arrival in Toronto in recent decades of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from tea-growing and tea-drinking areas in Southeast Asia has boosted per capita consumption of the beverage. As a result, the Tea Emporium that Loblaws has installed in this new store will likely be a strong attraction for many. It offers 100 varieties of loose leaf tea and all the paraphernalia involved in the infusing process. Each day 10 different samples will be brewed for customers.

Fresh departments are large and offer wide selections. In produce, all the traditional fruits and vegetables are available, but there is an emphasis on organic as well as on the vegetables that are favorites with the ethnic customers Loblaws has learned how to satisfy.

Gourmands will appreciate the dried mushroom bar featuring a bewildering choice of morels, black trumpets, porcinis and many others. The meat department makes a specialty of its cured, aging and omega-3 meats. The “Fishmonger” reflects Lob­laws commitment to selling only sustainable varieties, but it also caters to all price points including, at the top of the range, Malpeque oysters and live lobsters. The selection in the large deli department reflects the varied tastes of Toronto’s multi-ethnic ­community.

The Livelifewell department embraces natural food, vitamins, supplements and a pharmacy. A 50-foot wall of vitamins and supplements is stacked high with health products to fill gaps in diets. An in-store dietitian aids customers in decoding and understanding food labels and helps them plan nutritious meals. The pharmacy accepts all major drug plans and offers diabetes and cardio risk assessments, blood pressure monitoring and food allergy management programs, all free of charge.

Opening shortly will be a medical clinic providing an array of walk-in services including sports medicine, casting and suturing, seven days a week. The clinic will eventually house family doctors and specialists. Within the clinic, Physical Therapy One will be on site providing high-demand health services including physical therapy, chiropractic treatments and massage therapy.

The celebration of food in the store means it no longer offers the expanded electronics and home furnishing selection that was featured in the company’s superstores developed in anticipation of Walmart’s arrival. Nevertheless, Loblaws has not abandoned home-related products in this store. It has deployed a full-service but compact dry goods and general merchandise department. As well as the everyday household articles, it features small appliances, cookware, linens and home accessories from the President’s Choice and Everyday Essentials corporate brand product lines.

The dry grocery department has the usual Loblaws full selection of national and corporate brands, and, as in the regular stores, prominence is given to the corporate brands, particularly — in this urban location with many time-deprived customers — President’s Choice, oven-ready meals.

The building’s second floor houses an 8,500-square-foot version of Loblaws’ successful entry in the fashion world, Joe Fresh, a President’s Choice cooking school and a Liquor Control Board of Ontario wine and spirit store. The Joe Fresh store features the full range of women’s and men’s apparel, activewear, accessories, cosmetics, jewelry and sleepwear.

Loblaws has had success with the cooking schools installed now in many of its larger stores. Uniquely, a “Dine with the Chef” program is planned for the Gardens store.

The store’s décor reminds patrons of its heritage. Near the entrance a three-dimensional sculpture has been created from reclaimed stadium chairs. Graphics used for in-store sign­age reproduce the stenciled style developed for the Gardens in the 1930s. Ice-rink light fixtures, restored windows, wall murals, exposed concrete walls and other artistic images provide links with the past.

This, after all, was the arena that hosted its opening game on November 12, 1931, when the visitors, the Chicago Black Hawks, defeated the Leafs 2–1, and where for 68 years the home team played to consistently full houses despite its spotty record on the ice. The last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup was 1969. Nevertheless, in all the years since then scalpers have had no trouble moving their limited supply of tickets. It was disappointing, but perhaps not surprising to their loyal Toronto fans, that the Leafs also lost the last game they played in the Gardens, on February 13, 1999, before they moved to their new location in the Air Canada Centre on the lakefront. Their opponents that evening were again the Chicago Black Hawks. That time the Hawks won even more convincingly, 6-2.

For Torontonians the nostalgia goes beyond hockey. Maple Leaf Gardens was also the location of choice over many years for the big acts from the world of entertainment who were visiting Toronto. Artists who have played here over the years include Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles (three times), Sting, The Who and Anne Murray. It was also the site of other major sporting events from basketball to wrestling.

When Loblaws announced its purchase of the property some years ago some politicians and urban planners were skeptical about the viability of a supermarket in an area that offered limited parking and was something of a retail desert. That skepticism has proved to be unwarranted. Lob­laws excavated the basement to provide 154 parking spaces. But management estimates 80% of its customers will arrive by foot or on public transport.

In recent years population density in Toronto has been rapidly increasing. There are currently over 150 high-rise apartment projects under construction, more by far than in any other North American city. Rush hour is no longer characterized simply by a flow of traffic from the suburbs to the center. Now the suburbs are home to most manufacturing and distribution activities and to offices that do not need proximity to the financial sector.

Many younger people opt to live downtown and commute to their suburban jobs. Some 100,000 potential customers live within a 10- to 15-minute walk of Loblaws Maple Leaf Gardens. Another 30,000 office workers have easy access to it. Shortage of traffic is not likely to be a ­problem.

Obviously convinced of the opportunity offered in downtowns, Loblaws, within days of the Maple Leaf Gardens event, opened another large store in the reviving Queen/Portland area, and it, too, has been welcomed and vigorously patronized by local residents.

The sounds of skates scraping the ice and the roar of the crowd will soon be returning to the Gardens. The upper floors of the building are being redeveloped as an athletic facility for nearby Ryerson University. The newly named Peter Gilgan Athletic Centre is due to open in March 2012. Under the Gardens’ domed roof a full-size hockey rink is being installed to be home to Ryerson’s men’s and women’s teams. Up to 2,600 spectators will be accommodated in its seats — not a big crowd by the standards of the Leafs but likely to be filled by fans of equal enthusiasm. Lower floors will accommodate other facilities for sporting and exercise purposes. Loblaws contributed substantially to the $71.2 million cost of conversion of the Centre as did the federal government under its stimulus program. The students themselves agreed to pitch in, raising $20 million through a levy.