“Nobody does seafood better than T&T,” proclaimed Tina Lee, CEO of the supermarket chain at the grand opening of its new flagship store in Richmond, B.C., in August. A bold statement, but Lee went further: “And we’re one-upping that, making [T&T] not only the best place to buy seafood but also the best place to eat seafood.”
Indeed, fresh seafood is front and centre at the newest Richmond store (the city, part of the Metro Vancouver area, is home to two other locations). The star attraction at the 70,000-sq.-ft. Asian-focused supermarket located in the Lansdowne Centre is the Seafood Bar, a first in the chain’s network and— according to Lee—a first in Canada. The in-store dining concept was inspired by visits Lee and her team made to markets and restaurants in places like Shanghai, China and Santa Monica, Calif.
At the Seafood Bar, customers select the seafood they want—with options including spot prawns, canner lobster, mussels, clams and scallops—from tanks filled with live product. The selection is weighed by staff then sent to the cooking station via a zipline-like contraption suspended from the ceiling (staff have dubbed it the “Sea-to-Sky Highway”). At the cooking station, in-house chefs stand by to prepare the seafood once customers have paid, selected a sauce (Cajun and Thai are among the options) and cooking method (steamed or boiled). Sides can be added as well, and once the dish is ready, customers eat it in a sea-themed dining area (complete with lobster-trap lighting fixtures) bordered to the right by giant seafood tanks. There are more than 4,000 gallons of water in the store, according to Lee, who notes “that’s enough to fill your backyard swimming pool.”
In-store dining is part of a strategy currently being employed by a wide swath of grocers in a bid to get consumers into the store, have them stay longer and spend more. And many grocers such as T&T are upping the ante in terms of quality and experience. “We’re offering restaurant-quality seafood at supermarket prices,” said Lee of the concept. On this day, the strategy appears to be working, as the dining area is crowded with customers testing out the service. And in the weeks following the opening of the Lansdowne store, local media reported long wait times (up to 60 minutes) at T&T’s Seafood Bar.
While fresh seafood is the star of the show at T&T Lansdowne, it’s not the only draw. At 70,000-sq.-ft., the store, housed in a space formerly occupied by Target, is the largest in the network and roughly double the size of a typical T&T. In addition to large fresh produce, meat, bakery and, of course, seafood departments, the extra space allows room for features not typically found in a T&T. As Lee guides me through the bright and airy store, she points out a number of firsts. The Lansdowne location, for instance, has a Starbucks and is the first in the T&T network to offer self-serve checkouts (14 stations). Another unique feature of the store is the weigh station located in the middle of the produce department. Lee says T&T’s customers like to be able to touch and smell product. With this in mind, most items in the produce department are loose. Once customers have selected their items they can take them to a weigh station where staff will weigh and add a price sticker to the produce so shoppers can save time at the checkout.
While the store is filled with Asian specialties, the ready-to-eat Asian Street Food area is a highlight. At this quick-serve station, staff buzz around a kitchen preparing an array of “authentic” Asian dishes from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. About 30 different foods, which Lee says are inspired by Asia’s popular night markets, are available including sesame pancakes, steamed pork buns, lamb soup, crispy rice noodles and popcorn chicken.
Another fun feature at the Lansdowne store is something called Treasure Hunt. Located near the entrance of the store, the Treasure Hunt is a cabinet filled with exclusive, higher-ticket goods from Asia. On this day, there’s a Sori Yanagi southern iron deep pot going for $268, as well as Toyo Rice (“The world’s best rice”) for $198 and Xi Gua Narcissus Tea for a whopping $688. “They’re really hard to find, collectible items and we may have just 20 units of each,” explains Lee, adding that the Treasure Hunt offers something unique for customers.
As the centre of the Chinese community in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Lee said it was fitting that T&T— the largest Asian grocer in Canada with 26 locations and growing—open its flagship in Richmond. It’s also a community where T&T, acquired by Loblaw in 2009, has deep roots. Richmond was the location of one of the first stores opened by Lee’s parents Cindy and Jack back in 1993. And after 25 years in business, T&T is showing no signs of slowing: in recent weeks the retailer has opened stores in Aurora and Waterloo, both in Ontario, and another Vancouver location (Kensington Gardens) is opening soon.
Photography by Tanya Goehring
This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s December/January 2019 issue.