A new supermarket in Toronto’s east end aims to be a multicultural hub for new immigrants and visitors. Al Premium, as the store is called, opened in a power centre in Scarborough Dec. 10th, within spitting distance of a Walmart, Metro, No Frills and (soon) a Target.
Manoj Biswas, vice-president of corporate affairs for Oriental Foods, which runs Al Premium along with Oriental Food Mart in the GTA, said that Asian grocery stores have reached their saturation point and a new concept in grocery was needed.
Al Premium wants to bring together different religions and cultures under one roof. “The only time you’ll see different nationalities eating together is at the Eaton Centre food court,” said Biswas. Then turning to Al Premium’s eat-in area where there were different cultures gathered at the lunch hour, he added, “So you don’t expect to see this in a supermarket.”
Upon entering the 75,000-sq.-ft. space (once occupied by a RONA building centre), the centre store greets customers. Biswas calls this space “festival island.”
It is at festival island where the philosophy of a multicultural supermarket is readily apparent. This month the area has a display up for the upcoming Lunar New Year celebrated by Chinese, Koreans and many South and East Asians. Next month, the section will be decorated for Baisakhi to celebrate the Sikh harvest festival.
Moving to the left of the store is the cosmetics/HABA area, where popular Middle Eastern fragrance brands sit along side the mainstream ones as well as Korean and Japanese skin-care lines.
Next up is the produce area. It features a selection of Asian goods, such as fresh soybeans, and napa cabbage used for Korean kimchi dishes, as well as Caribbean beets and South Asian eggplant and okra.
There is also a fresh greens area where staff prepare Chinese greens such as boy choy and Chinese broccoli just as they would in a traditional outdoor market setting.
Biswas said that 60 per cent of Al Premium’s clientele is non-Chinese, with the majority of customers being Caribbean, South Asian, Middle Eastern and European. Over the next year, he aims to up that figure to 70 per cent. The grocer has started running adds in various ethnic media outlets to get the word out about Al Premium.
In Scarborough, where two-thirds of the population are visible minorities (compared with 40 per cent for the rest of Toronto), Biswas feels there’s untapped potential in catering to the needs of ethnic groups apart from the Chinese-speaking population. “We’re trying to keep everyone’s needs in mind,” he said.
In Scarborough, according to the most recent City of Toronto figures, the top three places of birth among recent immigrants were South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia.
Food from most of these regions can be found at Al Premium. Tasting demos take place every weekend, and the HMR section features a veritable mosaic of ethnic foods: sushi from Japan, dim sum, barbecue pork and Peking duck from China, noodle pho soup from Vietnam, pad Thai from Thailand.
But the piece de resistance at Al Premium is the tandoor oven that produces freshly made naan bread and roti that will accompany Caribbean jerk chicken or pork, or Indian curries and the like. For Middle Eastern flavours, there is a shawarma-making vertical spit along with the accompaniments of tabbouleh, tahini and hummus.
As Biswas pointed out, grocery shopping for many ethnic cultures is a family affair so Al Premium offers something for everyone. While parents are grocery shopping, grandparents and kids can relax in the eatery and grab a bite.
Adjacent to the eatery is a European cafe concept, that offers Taiwanese bubble teas along with espressos.
Another unique feature at Al Premium–a name that plays on a common prefix used in the Arabic “al”–is the Halal Meat area. It houses a separate storage and delivery area, and is certified by the Halal Monitoring Authority.
There’s a wide array of frozen seafood cases, from Bengali rohu to Pakistani kingfish and in a separate area there is live seafood, which Asian consumers prefer.
Al Premium’s competitor’s include Metro and No Frills, but Biswas said his prices are at least 20 per cent lower than that of their competitors.
In the next few years, Al Premium will look at opening several more stores in and outside of the GTA. In the short term, the grocer will be rolling out new touchscreen monitors where customers can punch in a product name to find out which aisle the product is located. As well, Biswas said he’s looking to offer some clothing from India within the HABA area this year.
Take a tour of the Al Premium store: