Lady York all about food and la famiglia

How gourmet-grocer Lady York Foods keeps customers coming back

LadyYork lead photo

Any store in business half century is doing something right. Family-owned Lady York Foods, in Toronto, has done it 55 years, serving a diverse mix of shoppers. Owners Gabriele Torchetti and Frank De Rose tell us how they succeed.

Explain your selection. How has it changed over the years and what are you doing differently now?

GABRIELE TORCHETTI: Today, 60% of our offering is fresh: meat, cheese, dairy and deli. We continue to offer a large selection of European food– something that has kept our customers coming back. But over the years, we’ve slowly replaced regular branded goods with more glutefree, organic and natural foods as customers demands for these products have increased.

FRANK DE ROSE: Our dedicated organic produce section, which represents 10% of our fresh today, is something we introduced last December. Local is also becoming increasingly important. I’m looking at more Quebec and Ontario cheeses this year, and we’re testing organic meat with Yorkshire Valley Farms, to complement Rowe Farms’ grass-fed meats that we’ve carried for years. Sales of our in-store packaged meats have tripled over the last year–a testament to the fresh product and service a store like ours delivers. With packaged meat, if people buy it once and it’s not good, they won’t buy it again.

PHOTO GALLERY: Take a tour of Lady York Foods

How has your clientele changed over the years?

DE ROSE: We’re seeing an increase in Jewish customers, so we’ve been expanding our kosher section every year based on customer feedback. We also work with our buyers closely to get the right product mix. We offer as many seasonal products as possible, too. For Christmas, we do a brisk business in Italian panettone sweetbreads, chestnuts and pomegranates. In the fall, we sell palettes of fresh olives, as it’s pickling and canning season.

How are you meeting time-pressed consumers’ need for convenience?

TORCHETTI: Last year, we tripled the size of our HMR department. We now offer more hot foods, typically home-style Italian comfort foods. But now we’re offering up some gourmet, specialty items as well, such as burek, an eastern European puff pastry made with cheese, meat or vegetables. We also bring in farm-made pies from The Pie Place in Embro, Ont.

What’s the main challenge for your business as it grows?

TORCHETTI: As our customer demographics have changed, we’ve had to change as well. But we’re careful not to alienate our regular customers as we cater to the new, emerging ones. What’s interesting is we’re draw- ing people from all over the city. We’ve become a destination shop of sorts for gourmet shoppers. Over the past five years, our business has increased 25% and we’re up to 5,000 unique customers a week.

DE ROSE Consumers are so much more educated now, in the age of cooking shows. They come searching for trending items in our store. Take kale. I couldn’t give kale away before. Now I can’t keep green, red and black kale–packaged or in bunches–on the shelf. With our store footprint, people like the fact they can get in and out fairly quickly. And with the garden centre in our parking lot, which runs for two months, starting in May, we’re offering that extra service in the city.

Are you going to expand your private-label product offering?

TORCHETTI: One year ago, we launched our private-label sauces: basil, roasted garlic and hot and spicy. They took seven months to create and were based on family recipes that my wife helped develop. We just launched a fourth, a vodka sauce. To complement the sauces, we have our own line of pasta, which is made at a Mississauga manufacturing plant, as we’re not HACCP approved. Twice a week, the pasta is delivered to the store and we cut the pasta on-site. Our Lady York sauces are outselling the branded sauces. There is definitely opportunity to expand our private label, but we want to be selective. Fresh and gourmet is what we’re aiming for with the private-label line.

As second-generation grocers, what’s the key to remaining competitive?

DE ROSE: We just need to keep people intrigued. People today don’t seem to mind travelling to different stores to get what they want. In fresh, I’m always looking for something new. Lately, salad kits, such as the Eat Smart sweet kale vegetable kit, are very hot. It features seven superfoods including chicory and brussels sprouts topped with roasted pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries and it comes with a poppyseed dressing.

TORCHETTI: In the old days, as an Italian grocer, we knew how to cater to our Italian customers. Today, you have to adapt and learn about what other cultures want. Our customer feedback is what we rely on to stay on top of trends. If there’s something a customer asks for, we try to bring it in. We find these end up being our bestsellers. For example, a customer asked for Menu canned chopped tomatoes from Italy, a gourmet line that retails for $6.99. Now we can’t keep it in stock.