A retail reinvention

With a brand-new store, Montreal staple Le Marché Esposito is reinventing itself

Photography by Chantale Lecours.Photography by Chantale Lecours.

Phil Esposito insists he and his two brothers aren’t trying to shake up grocery with the opening of the new concept store for their family-run Le Marché Esposito in Boisbriand, a suburb of Montreal. “We didn’t reinvent grocery,” he says of the fifth Esposito store, which opened last November. “We’re reinventing ourselves.”

The $2.5-million, 15,000-sq.-ft. outlet marks a rebrand and new beginning for the grocer, a Montreal staple since their father Angelo Esposito opened an 800-sq.-ft. store in the Park Extension neighbourhood back in 1960. Now in its second generation, Esposito is run by brothers Phil, Tony and Johnny, vice-presidents who all wear a number of hats for the chain.

With the new store and format change, Esposito is sticking with the core philosophies his father established back in the 1960s, which were “fair prices and quality” while also bringing back “the neighbourhood grocery feel,” something he says is lacking in large-format stores.

“We just weren’t changing with the times,” Esposito says. “The thought was to have a really nice store that is very price-conscious where everyone can shop—(with) good quality products, freshness, a focus mostly on perishables, ethnic goods and fair prices.”

le-marche-esposito-2In most conventional grocery stores, the look, feel and service you get at a store go hand-in-hand with price, he says. In other words, the lower the prices, the less bells and whistles. “We didn’t want that,” Esposito declares. Here, “you get great service, personalized service, good quality products and a nice ambience.”

The flagship Boisbriand store, on the north shore of Montreal, is the company’s first outlet off the island. It’s located in a building on Chemin de la Grande-Côte that formerly housed a Provigo store, but had been vacant for two years. More than half of the selling space is devoted to perishable foods and the store is designed in hues of grey, brown, black and red.
“We wanted a contemporary, clean feel,” Esposito says.

Customers enter the store in the meticulously maintained produce section, which Esposito says contains fruit and vegetables not found in typical grocery stores. “A lot of the independents are doing fresh because that’s how they’re competing,” he says. “Any perishable product you’re going to buy here is going to be less expensive than what you’re going to pay in a conventional chain store.”

esposito_march2018_031Ten varieties of sausage are made on-site daily, while organic, antibiotic- and hormone-free items fill the meat counter. And unlike “a lot of chicken in grocery stores that’s filled with water, ours is natural,” Esposito says. In the deli section, Canadian and Italian prosciuttos and other Italian cold cuts sit alongside turkeys and hams. Shoppers at Le Marché Esposito can also choose from a large selection of imported cheese from around the world, including Italian favourites such as bocconcini and burrata, “which is becoming more and more popular.” Fresh bread is baked onsite and traditional Italian desserts such as cannoli are brought in from local bakeries.

The Italian flavour of the store is immediately obvious, and to reinforce this focus, store signage is presented in both
French and Italian. “We feel that Italian [food] is something that is geared toward everyone,” says Esposito.

Another highlight of Le Marché Esposito Boisbriand is its commercial kitchen where everything is made from scratch. “Everyone wants a home-cooked meal (but) no one has time. We thought, ‘You know what, we’re going to make nice rustic Italian food with some recipes from mom.’”

Brother Tony works in the kitchen “to make sure my mom’s recipes are followed,” Esposito jokes. “It’s good old Italian cooking—no recipes are written down.” Freshly prepared meals include lasagna, eggplant parmesan, arancini (breaded rice balls stuffed with cheese), meatballs, pasta sauce and stuffed chicken.

esposito_march2018_025Traditional Italian tomato pizzas are made using our and tomatoes from Italy and baked in a stone oven. The pizza is affordably priced—two extra-large, all-dressed pizzas sell for $26—and is a strong seller at the store. “We don’t cut corners,” Esposito says. “People are used to traditional grocery store pizza. That’s not what you get here!”

The store also sets itself apart in the dried goods sections. Pasta choices include not only traditional brands but air-dried pasta and a wide range of imported brands from Italy at various price points. There are more than 60 types of olive oil, and balsamic vinegars aged six or 12 years. The beer section is stocked with a number of little-known Quebec microbrews (craft beers) that have proven to be
popular sellers. “We want to have a store for everyone,” Esposito says of the decision to provide shoppers with as much choice as possible in each department.

Product sampling is done on the weekend and a Découvertes/Scopertes (discoveries) section highlights products people might not normally try, such as olive oil from a small
producer or balsamic beads.

Since the store’s November opening, Esposito says sales have been steadily increasing every week and “our kitchen is doing phenomenally [well].” Customers in the primarily francophone neighbourhood who were previously unfamiliar with the Esposito banner have embraced the grocer, while the store has also attracted Montrealers who initially visited out of curiosity to check out the new concept but have kept coming back.

esposito_march2018_014Using Boisbriand as a template, Esposito aims to renovate the other outlets starting next year. The other stores are located in the Notre Dame de Grâce, St-Laurent and St-Michel areas of Montreal and Montréal-Nord. Plans also call for Esposito to open one new 15,000- to 20,000-sq.-ft. store annually for the next five years, with a focus on expansion on the north shore. “I’d like to be known as your go-to ethnic [store] for fresh quality products and Italian specialty goods,” Esposito says.

A fresh juice bar will soon be added to the Boisbriand store and a click and pick-up pilot project is planned that will be extended storewide if the results are good. All Esposito stores welcome telephone orders and deliveries, although as Esposito notes, “today’s generation is not a
phone-order generation.”

While mom died a few years ago, 94-year-old Angelo Esposito is still going strong and visits the store on weekends. He’s given a thumbs-up to the transformation of the grocery business he founded. Dad is “very proud of it, very happy.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s May 2018 issue.