It’s lunchtime at the newest Denninger’s Foods of the World store in Burlington, Ont., just west of Toronto, and Patrick Denninger is manning a cash register as customers line up to pay for their ammkuchen (a German flatbread akin to pizza), loaded perogies and sausages.
A third-generation grocer, Denninger is following in the footsteps of his grandfather Rudolf (who opened the first Denninger’s store in Hamilton in 1954), and his father Herman, who spent more than 40 years as a butcher with the family business before retiring about five years ago. The younger Denninger served as project manager for the new store, which occupies one corner of a former Target store at the Burlington Mall. It’s located just up the street from its previous Guelph Line location, which it had occupied for several decades.
On this mid-May afternoon, it has been just two weeks since the new store opened for business and one of the unanticipated challenges Denninger is grappling with is how to deal with all the additional foot traffic coming from the store’s mall entrance. “We only put two cash registers at the mall entrance, assuming that most of our customers would park and enter via the main entrance,” says Denninger. “But it’s been busy, so we’re trying to guide lineups and figure things out on the fly.”
Bright and airy, with wide centre aisles no higher than five feet in order to better facilitate in-store navigation (and eliminate the claustrophobic feeling common in older stores), the new 23,000-sq.-ft. location is more than double the size of its predecessor and establishes a template for future Denninger’s locations. “The complaints we heard from our customers [at the old store] were that the aisles were too narrow, it was difficult to navigate, and [a lack of] parking,” says Denninger’s CEO Mary Aduckiewicz. “We think we’ve solved those problems.”
The new store marks the biggest investment in the company’s history, and the design by Burlington-based architectural firm Studio Intersekt oozes class and refinement. It nods to the company’s European heritage, with some of its black-and-white signage in German— such as “käse” (cheese) and “metzger” (butcher)—while its rear wall features a series of arches that Denninger likens to those found in a European train station.
Other playful touches include washroom signs bearing the words “Herren” (men’s) and “Damen” (ladies), with the men’s sign featuring a figure wearing a traditional Bavarian hat complete with a feather in the side. “We’re trying to rebrand ourselves a little bit to attract the next generation [of shoppers],” says Denninger. “That was a big focus with the design elements of this store—how do we bring some European flair to it while making it fun?”
The store is also a testament to Denninger’s longstanding expertise in meat, with about 40% of its total footprint given over to meat and seafood counters. That includes a broad selection of sausages and other cured meats produced at Denninger’s 60,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing plant in nearby Hamilton.
As with many new grocery stores, much of the action at Denninger’s is around the perimeter, which, in this case, houses a dedicated sampling space and a seafood counter operated by Caudle’s Catch, a family-owned business based in Kitchener, Ont. It’s the first fresh seafood counter in Denninger’s history, part of the company’s objective to become a one-stop food destination for its customers. “We’re meat experts, so we decided to bring in a seafood expert,” says Denninger of the partnership with Caudle’s. “They have a lot of the same values we do, so the partnership has been working out really well.”
The store also houses a modest, 800-sq.-ft. fresh produce section, which offers the essentials such as bananas, tomatoes, peppers and onions. “Produce for us is a complementary item,” says Denninger. “We offer the essentials so you can finish your meal and don’t need to go to another grocery store to pick them up.”
The bakery department, meanwhile, offers a broad, enticing selection of European pastries and breads, such as a wide variety of ryes, plum doughnuts, tarts and more. “There’s more and more competition these days, so you need to have something unique,” says Denninger.
The centre aisles also feature an expansive array of European products including jams and spreads from Copenhagen’s Danish Selection ($4.99 for a 305 mL jar) and marzipan from Niederegger in Lübeck, Germany. “Marzipan is a pretty unique item, and a lot of people come to us for our selection,” says Denninger. The store is also a year-round home to about 20 SKUs from Scottish cookie brand Walkers Shortbread, a number that typically expands to 30 or 40 around the holidays. “You don’t get that selection anywhere else in Canada,” says Denninger. “What keeps our grocery department unique is the vast variety.”
Denninger’s has created a new in-store dining area called the Bitehaus Bistro, which offers European-inspired fare such as chicken and pork schnitzels, charcuterie featuring Denninger’s meats, and an assortment of ammkuchen that includes a traditional “ amm” consisting of a sour cream base with bacon, swiss cheese and onions that costs $4.99 for a slice. In an effort to appeal to the dinner crowd, there’s beer and wine on the menu as well. “We figured that the only thing our sausages and schnitzel were missing was a cold beer,” says Denninger. “We’ve always been known as a lunch destination … but our other bistros are more cafeteria-like. Here, the décor and the furniture are geared towards more of a dinner atmosphere.”
One of the key objectives with the new store is expanding Denninger’s core customer base, which traditionally has been comprised of European immigrants who arrived in Canada after World War II and sought out food items from their homeland. The store remains popular with customers from as far away as
Toronto and Buffalo, who make special trips to the store for hard-to-find items.
Denninger says the company is now working to appeal to younger families who simply appreciate good food. “More and more customers these days want to know where their meat is coming from, or what goes into certain products,” says Denninger. “The biggest challenge is not being as well-known outside of our general area. It’s about getting them to discover us.”
While the company bills itself as a destination for the “everyday gourmet,” Denninger says a challenge is getting customers to recognize that high quality doesn’t always mean high prices. “We do feel that you’re getting a good quality product for a fair price,” he says.
Denninger’s now operates five grocery stores that serve communities in Burlington, Hamilton and Oakville, and has no immediate plans to expand. “We want to make sure that everything works,” says Denninger, “and we need at least six to 12 months to really know that everything is running efficiently
This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s June 2018 issue.