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The Interview Issue – Mark McEwan

There’s no doubt that celebrity chef Mark McEwan knows a thing or two about the restaurant world. He’s the owner of such successful Toronto culinary destinations as North 44, Bymark and One. And two years ago he dove into retail, opening McEwan, a gourmet grocery shop in a trendy outdoor Toronto mall. The 22,500-sq.-ft. space is European-influenced with counters serving charcuterie, seafood and cheese alongside prepared meals made on site, inspired by McEwan’s restaurant dishes.

Q: What has been the most surprising aspect of owning a grocery store?

It’s an incredibly challenging and competitive business, even more so than the restaurant side. I found the restaurant side easier than grocery. Never having any experience in food retail, it definitely was a learning curve for me, balancing out what you make versus what you buy and sell at a margin, too.

Q: What’s your customer looking for in a grocery store?

Coming from a chef’s background, my interest lies in what we make generally, but then you want to have a full shop, so when you look at the store experience from the customer side, there is a need for efficiency-getting everything you need, and going home. You don’t want to divide your trip between two or three stores because you don’t have time for it.

It’s really about listening to your client, and trying to put that full service in front of them, but without having to put everything in your store. I’ve had to go through an edit because I don’t have 80 feet of grocery aisles, nor do I want them. I’ve had to find out what people want and have put a great deal of attention to my clients’ needs.

Q: Private label is really taking off; what are your thoughts on this category?

There are almost 600 items that we put our McEwan’s Own label on. From salad dressings to infused oils and terrines, we produce everything on site and my restaurants are little incubators for that as well. Where I disagree with private label is when you find a boutique olive oil producer and you stick your name on it. I think that’s a 25-year-old game and I don’t believe clients are necessarily impressed by that. I think my clients actually want to buy that small olive producers’ olive oil with their label on it. They do, however, want my label on my fresh pasta sauce, prepared meals, pastry.

Q: What are some of the major challenges in grocery going forward?

Driving your grocery margin in a business without exceeding price expectation on the customer side and offering a unique fresh product and controlling your shrink on that product. Your production, labour, driving the P&L on a grocery store is complicated. To make them profitable and efficient while providing a really interesting fresh offer is challenging. For example, we offer five different kinds of smoked salmon. We smoke the salmon, we marinate it, offer it hand-sliced and even freshly sliced on the weekends. Anything you can do to make that offer more immediate and artisan and chef-driven from the kitchen is what the client really connects with.

Q: What’s the biggest difference between the restaurant and grocery sides?

The Canadian market is horrendously competitive on pricing–to its detriment. You play with the lowest common denominator most of the time among the big boys–“how cheap can you be”–to garner attention rather than on how unique your offer can be. That’s what we’re focused on, and that’s where I believe the future of grocery is.

Q: What are some of the big trends coming into grocery?

When I go to New York, I watch people hop into stores and how they live in that urban environment. They go in and buy food for a day-and-a-half; it’s very much that European concept, rather than filling up the grocery cart. Most of my clients are shopping for singles or couples; they’re buying food for two days, consuming and going back out and buying again. That is the offer we’re looking to fill. When people think that way, I want them to think of us. You can come in and buy butter-braised lobster sous vide. All you have to do is reheat it in a butter sauce with vermouth and lime leaf, pop it in the water and you have that dish.

Q: Where do you see grocery retailing headed?

It’s going to be about the flour that’s used in the bread, and it’s going to be about having a great quality bread. Everybody is moving toward a quality food story, an ingredient-driven story. Customers want that story both from my restaurants and the store–is the beef hormone free, is it free range, is it antibiotic free? All of our beef is from P.E.I. and all the farmers are boutique farmers who bring their cattle to a central abattoir. I’m getting the top five per cent of that production at the store. We also carry Mennonite chickens and Ontario lamb, too.

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