It’s just before noon on Wednesday, and Nations Fresh Foods’ newest store is beginning to fill with people looking to grab a quick bite for lunch. Most of the action is at the large buffet area, where customers of all ages and ethnicities stand shoulder to shoulder perusing more than 40 freshly prepared items ranging from jerk pork and barbecue pork ribs to goat curry and grilled beef.
The sushi and teppanyaki sections are also doing a brisk business, as are the dim sum, Chinese barbecue and fresh salad counters. “It’s a market restaurant concept, and it’s never boring,” says Frank Ho, the multicultural grocery chain’s senior vice-president. “I believe prepared food is the future of grocery.” At Nations’ Hamilton and Mississauga locations, he says, prepared food accounts for between 30% and 40% of total sales.
Nations Fresh Foods opened its first location in Woodbridge, Ont., in 2012 and followed with a store in Hamilton one year later. In February, Nations opened a third location in Mississauga, and for good reason: Mississauga is Canada’s sixth-largest municipality, and boasts a growing ethnic population. More than one quarter of the population speaks a mother tongue other than English or French, including more than 28,000 people who speak one of the Chinese languages.
The 60,000-sq.-ft. store is designed in a modern aesthetic, with dark wood, glass and steel elements complemented by the occasional bamboo plant. The prepared foods are featured near the store entrance, with other grocery departments (including an enclosed seafood department that uses powerful fans to ensure odours don’t waft into other areas) located deeper within the store.
The store’s “Where East Meets West” philosophy is re reflected in its blend of western and ethnic items in every department. Along with the traditional western-style fare, you’ll find chicken feet and pig ears in the prepared foods section, grass carp steak, conch and shark steak in the seafood section, and products such as preserved plums and preserved orange peel in the centre aisles.
The philosophy is even more present in the produce section. Bananas and broccoli are ranked by ethnic produce like bitter leaf (“I don’t even know who will use this but it will sell here,” says Ho, with a laugh), and exotic fruits such as dragon fruit, custard pine- apple, milk fruit, rose apples and watermelon-sized jackfruit from South Asia. “Produce is one of our bright spots because of the diversity,” says Ho. He adds that nearly half of Nations’ produce—and as much as 30% of its fruit—can’t be found at a typical grocery store.
The meat department also caters to multicultural shoppers, offering a range of halal meats for Mississauga’s large Muslim community, while other meat is either prepackaged or custom cut for the store’s Asian customers.
Nations Fresh Foods continues to expand with a fourth store set to open in Toronto this September. Ho says the grocery chain has signed a long-term lease at the now-shuttered Target outlet at Stock Yards Village.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Canadian Grocer