“Better Food For All,” states Sobeys’ marketing material, be it in ad-space online or in print-space on flyers or free commuter newspapers. Even two-rung bicycle racks in Ottawa’s downtown core have been pressed into service. Those of us in the National Capital Region who readily consume increasingly location-specific social media, our feeds seem replete with Sobeys-sponsored mentions lately.
“Better Summer #summerofsizzle”
“Eat Better, Feel Better and Do Better” … with Jamie Oliver
“#BetterBurgers,” all chuck… neither additives nor preservatives
Founded in Stellarton, Nova Scotia by John W. Sobey in 1907, the now 1500 location Canadian grocery chain opened our city’s first “Urban Fresh” concept store on Metcalfe Street a month ago, on May 22nd. The 20,000 square-foot store is smaller than its suburban siblings, but carries a reputedly equivalent product line. Novel additions involve sushi and noodle bars next to the hot foods counter and gas-fired pizza ovens; and a small cafe, serving store-made sandwiches, soups, and pastries, which can be accessed from the street.
[Like Whole Foods at Lansdowne Park, shoppers who spend at least $20 can have Sobeys Urban Fresh “validate” 2 hours (120 minutes) of their underground parking. Essentially, the value will be deducted from the bill. Locals, however seem allergic to paid parking. While the threshold for validating at Ottawa’s single Whole Foods location is $25 for 90 minutes, the underground parking facilities seem underused.]
During its 107 years in business, Sobeys has made several acquisitions, making it the second largest food retailer in Canada. In 2013, it purchased Safeway’s former Canadian operations, taking over their locations. Last year, Sobeys closed 50 of its under-performing locations.
One of these locations was an Urban Fresh store in downtown Edmonton, Alberta, which closed July 31, 2014. At that location, Sobeys gambled that, as new condominium developments were erected, parking would become scarce and residents would increasingly opt not to own cars.
Urban Fresh stores are intended to serve as one-stop grocery destinations for the urban pedestrian, offering the following amenities:
- grocery (including an “assortment of organic products, salads, and cheese”)
- produce, deli, and bakery options that “make it easy for a busy person on the go to shop and go”
- “‘chef-inspired’ prepared-meals offered from both a buffet line and hot food cases
- helpful service-inspired staff
Deli and Cheese
[In comparison, while Whole Foods has a strong in-house bakery program, preparing artesanal breads and pastries, they tapped recognized local producers to resell small-batch bakery as well, including Nat’s Bread, Suzie Q Doughnuts, and Ottawa Bagelshop. Sobeys’ bakery is entirely made in-store. While fresh, the bakery does not differ significantly in quality from that produced by other mainstream grocery stores.]
While not entirely lower income, the Centretown neighbourhood in downtown Ottawa can be described as a bit of a food desert. A small family operated “bodega” (Boushey’s Fruit Market) on Elgin (348), a Hartman’s Independent Grocer on Bank (296), and a Loblaws on Isabella (64) streets dot the neighbourhood, disparate grocery outposts. From the months of May until October, local farmers and craft food vendors congregate in front of the Canadian Museum of Nature (240 McLeod Street) for the newly re-located Main Street Farmers’ Market (Saturdays from 9 am until 2 pm). Depending on their location, residents who depend on public transit have limited access to healthy food like fresh produce. Urban Fresh on Metcalfe provides Centertown another full-service supermarket option.
That said, Urban Fresh on Metcalfe may be a first-of-its-kind location for Sobeys in Ottawa, but both Loblaws and Metro established downtown locations. Loblaws operates a split-level more suburban-sized supermarket-over-an-underground-parking-lot concept on Rideau Street (Lowertown neighbourhood). And, their Isabella location recently incorporated aspects and decor that borrow the look and feel of the chain’s Toronto flagship store, which was built into the former Maple Leaf Gardens stadium (60 Carlton Street, Toronto). Metro also operates a location on Rideau (245), but that property was purchased by a condominium developer Claridge Homes for $22.15 million at the beginning of 2013. Sobeys Urban Fresh on Metcalfe is likewise co-located on Claridge property.
The renovation at Loblaws’ Isabella location, which has been a Loblaws Store for 55 years, was completed at the end of 2013. Upon its re-opening, hundreds of people lined up in the winter chill, filling the store’s thin strip of a parking lot with cars. Cars park on the bias to best use the available space in front of the store. Inside, the store boasts a “15 ft high cheese wall” and an assortment organic produce.
Non-Perishables (Including Condiments), Cleaning Supplies, and Frozen Food
[Notice the wide aisles that easily accommodate motorized wheelchairs. Store shelves at both downtown Metro and Loblaws locations are noticeably narrower.]
Meat and Seafood Case
Price-wise, CTV Calgary seems to have engaged in a grocery basket-style comparison between a sample of west-coast stores, “Co-op Connection“, Safeway (whose website you will notice borrows from Sobeys’), non-Urban-Fresh Sobeys, and Loblaws Superstore. Each week since January, Sobeys generally offered competitive prices for staples (milk, eggs, butter, and bread), cereal, dairy (yogurt, margarine), meat (beef, fish, pork, and chicken), and fresh produce. However, over all, it normally topped out as the most expensive option for total cost of the basket. Both Sobeys’ meat and produce prices tend to be higher than its competitors.
Upon closer inspection, the stores selected compare somewhat poorly. Out west, Loblaws Superstore is more of a wholesale to the public operation, intended to compete directly with American Costco and Walmart Supercentres. Shoppers reap savings by purchasing in bulk. Safeway is more of a discount grocery operation. In Ontario, just as Loblaws retails two in-house brands, premium “President’s Choice” and and “No Name”, Sobeys and its “Compliments” brand “compares better with Loblaws’ standalone operations than Loblaws Superstore. Though, Sobeys has positioned its branded grocery staples to compete with Costco’s Kirkland and Walmart’s Great Value products.
The full-service supermarket landscape in Ontario thus follows:
More “Premium” Groceries
- Whole Foods
- Sobeys (including Urban Fresh)
- Indpendent Grocery (affiliated with Loblaws)
[An Urban Fresh store, the Metcalfe Sobeys does not follow the “regular” Sobeys flyer. Specials differ between the downtown and suburban Kanata and Barrhaven locations. For the Urban Fresh flyer, you will have to visit the Sobeys website. The popular Flip grocery flyer mobile app on Android and iPhone only hosts the regular Sobeys flyer as well. Interestingly Sobeys is marked “Sobey’s” on Flip’s flyer list.]
- Loblaws Superstore
- Walmart Supercentre
- No Frills (affiliated with Loblaws)
- Food Basics (affiliated with Metro)
With Stirling Silver premium beef steaks and roasts from Alberta, a prominent “healthy” and organic produce offer, and a focus on retailing prepared foods and grab ‘n go “home meal replacements,” we find that Sobeys Urban Frensh compares well with Loblaws, Farmboy, and Whole Foods. In fact, unlike Loblaws and Loblaws Superstore, I have not seen American USDA-graded meat in the meat cases at Sobeys, something CTV Calgary doesn’t take into account.
Home Meal Replacement: Cold and Hot Table
Home Meal Replacement: Service Counters
[Pork Tonk[o]tsu Ramen Noodle Bowl for $8.99 w/bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, scallions, carrots, fish cake, nori, crispy onions]
[Al Taglio Pizza vegetable and goat cheese slice for $3.99 w/zucchini, grilled mushroom caramelized onion, goat cheese, and mozzarella]
With the western world climbing its way out of the most recent global recession and yet another economic slow-down, Sobeys Urban Fresh’s investment in prepared foods and home meal replacements is on trend. Diners are readily opting to dine-in on takeaway instead of dining-out for their meals on busy work days. The rationale seems to involve reducing cost per meal by eliminating table service (hosts and servers) and other restaurant amenities (ambiance). Sobeys Urban Fresh enables these types of dinners by preparing an affordable variety of hot and cold foods-to-go from its buffet tables and service counters. Not shown, but also offered are carved to order Stirling Silver roast beef and rotisserie chicken. Quality-wise, for the dishes we’ve sampled, everything is on par with popular takeaway foods from Loblaws, Farm Boy, and Whole Foods. It is largely unreasonable to expect better, such as restaurant-quality (“a-la-minute”) fare, from a grocery store without a brigade of chefs and cooks or dedicated kitchens.
Our final thoughts about Sobeys Urban Fresh? My wife and I travel. When we travel to metropolitan cities, especially those that are larger than Ottawa, we visit grocery stores. We want to know how locals buy their food. When we visited London, England and New York City, we were amazed how well grocery stores integrated into dense urban neighbourhoods where there simply isn’t the space for warehouse-style stores. Suburban-style stores can be disruptive, occupying entire city blocks. It’s about freakin’ time a grocery chain established a location that 1) accommodates its downtown location and 2) caters for a more urban lifestyle.
Will the store succeed? Time will tell. Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood isn’t in transition. Sobeys isn’t gambling on condominium developments. Available parking is already a frustration.
The author has received consideration from Sobeys’ media partners in exchange for this content. Sobeys has not reviewed these claims and is not responsible for the content.
Disclaimer Addendum: However, the experiences and opinions are our own.
…and some transparency: Here’s the thing, the “sponsorship” consisted of a $150 gift card to Sobeys. But, not one cent of that gift card was spent on purchasing the meal replacement food pictured in this post or the groceries in the forthcoming “cooking” post. Followers of our Instagram account, essentially my dining and cooking notebook, have already seen the dishes we prepared with groceries from the Sobeys Urban Fresh at Metcalfe.
We feel the $150 gift card to Sobeys would be far better used by the Parkdale Food Centre, an urban food bank in the Hintonburg neighbourhood and one of our favourite charitable causes. So, we are donating the card to Parkdale’s coordinator Karen Secord. Our challenge to her follows: How far does the gift card go to purchasing items for donation from the centre’s Good Food List.