Preschool-aged children jump, climb, slide and tumble their way through “Happy Kingdom,” a colourful, 4,000-sq.-ft. spaceship-themed indoor playground, as moms and dads watch from a seated viewing area. To the left, just past the Party Rooms, a spacious eating area is scattered with diners lunching on dim sum, pizza and jerk chicken from the nearby hot kitchens. And to the right, neon lights emanating from the large Games Room, housing about 100 arcade games, beckon tweens along with a few “big” kids.
It’s not your typical supermarket scene, but the sprawling 155,000-sq.-ft. Nations Experience is no ordinary supermarket.
“Foodertainment” is the term Frank Ho, Nations Fresh Foods’ senior vice-president, uses to describe the concept behind the store, located in Toronto’s Stock Yards Village in a space formerly occupied by a Target. Foodertainment is also a big part of Nations’ strategy to attract families. “The key is the family,” says Ho. “They come, they play, they’re exhausted, then they eat.”
Ho, who originally hails from Shanghai, says his inspiration for Nations Experience comes from living in Las Vegas in the late 1990s, where he was impressed by the integration of food with entertainment at many of the city’s venues. He also sees the integration of food and entertainment as the key to survival for brick-and-mortar grocery stores in the future. “You need to have very strong brick-and-mortar store models—you have to deliver something unique.”
Experts agree. Over the past year, a chorus of retail analysts have warned that to combat the threat from Amazon and other encroachers, grocers must amp up the in-store experience to engage shoppers and keep them coming back.
At Nations Experience, Ho admits that the team underestimated the appeal of the store’s entertainment area, noting that the five party rooms are fully booked each weekend and lineups for the other entertainment areas can be long during peak periods. “We should have tripled the entertainment space,” he says. “But we were testing things; we weren’t sure how customers would respond.”
Since its grand opening last November, customers have, in fact, responded enthusiastically to the entertainment/restaurant/supermarket hybrid. Ho rapidly lists off customer comments posted on Google reviews, along with the store’s current rating (4.5 stars). A quick look at Google confirms Ho’s account: overwhelmingly, the (500+) reviews are positive with many customers giving a thumbs-up to the store’s unique features, multicultural fare, and its affordability.
“Fresh and daily affordable—that’s our secret weapon,” says Ho, as he offers a quick tour of the store’s expansive prepared food area, in the centre of which is a large International Buffet. “We have two pricing levels: premium and value,” he says, explaining that at the value buffet shoppers can load up on things that “fill you up”—potato wedges, mixed vegetables, mac & cheese, etc. for $5.99 per pound—while those opting for the premium buffet pay a bit more, $6.99 per pound, but have more protein options and dishes prepared with more expensive ingredients.
This pricing strategy was conceived at Nations’ Jackson Square location in downtown Hamilton, Ont. Before introducing its prepared food offer at the Hamilton store, Ho says invitations for a free lunch were delivered to all offices in the vicinity. “After lunch we asked them, what would you feel comfortable paying?” explains Ho. “We settled on a fair price.”
At the new Toronto location as well as the others—in Vaughan, Mississauga and Hamilton—a key theme is “Where East Meets West.” This is evident up front in the prepared food area where the Western Kitchen serves up pizza, burgers, fish and chips, rotisserie chicken (of course) and grab-and-go salads; while nearby another kitchen serves up Asian noodle dishes, dim sum and Chinese barbecue pork. There’s also a sushi and teppanyaki station, and a bubble tea bar sits next to a fresh juice counter.
Nations’ East meets West philosophy continues in the grocery aisles. Along with Chinese, Japanese and Korean products, there are sections dedicated to Caribbean, Mexican and Filipino fare as well as Portuguese and Brazilian favourites. “We have a lot of Portuguese and Brazilian staff,” says Ho, noting this reflects the local makeup of the neighbourhood surrounding Stock Yards Village. “We learn a lot from our staff at each store,” says Ho. “They’ll tell us about the food of their culture and we’ll try to incorporate it into the mix.” At the Toronto store, this means introducing a Portuguese chicken dish to the menu, while the Mississauga store has an extensive halal offering to cater to the area’s sizable Muslim community.
Among the other notable features at Nations Experience is a semi-enclosed seafood department. It’s an intentional departure from Asian grocers where open seafood counters are the norm. “The smell of fish can be off-putting to some customers,” says Ho, adding that on the other hand, some customers don’t think fish is fresh unless they can smell it. “Our solution is to have a semi-enclosed fish area so for people who like the smell, you can go in this area and get it.”
As impressive as Nations Experience is, Ho says the current iteration is just “phase one.” When asked about the future of the store, Ho, who appears to have boundless energy, quickly rhymes off a list of plans. In phase two, Ho envisions that the presently unoccupied commercial space near Nations’ entrance will include restaurants, a high-end wine bar, retail kiosks and small themed, temporary pop-up shops. Further down the line he has a vision for satellite stores that offer a taste of Nations Experience, which could be called “Nations Express.”
As we wrap up our photoshoot with Ho at the store’s exit, a mom walks by with an inconsolable toddler in tow. Not wanting to quit the play area, the child is refusing to put on her shoes. “She could be a poster child for Nations,” jokes the mom. “She doesn’t want to leave.” Ho gives the mom a wide smile. As she passes he says, “Yes, that happens a lot.”
This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s August 2018 issue.