The Loblaw's at Yonge St & Yonge Blvd ("Yonge & Yonge") in Toronto has always been an unusual store. While there wasn't anyplace else to shop for groceries in this affluent neighbourhood (and, really, there still isn't), the area residents didn't want the store and fought hard to keep it out. Their protests won them quite the one off store. It's small by current standards, and full of elegant details. The whole place is cedar, inside and out. Trees grow in the underground parking lot. There's a cafe (which once had superior coffee and baked goods, courtesy of Movenpick) of a style normally reserved for much larger outlets. Another Hound labeled this place the "Dress Up Loblaw's". Seems the locals get all decked out to go grocery shopping.
Well people, we're told it isn't Loblaw's any more. They seem to be prototyping a new, upmarket store format, and Yonge & Yonge is the place. (Their website shows two more locations, one in Etobicoke and one in Collingwood.) It is now (drumroll...) "Loblaw Great Food".
I had great hopes for great food when I went in, expecting all kinds of delights. After all, Weston's also owns Holt Renfrew and Fortnum and Mason. Hopes were quickly dashed. There ARE many changes, and most of them are good ones. The shelves were stocked (!) and staff was everywhere. Though the store was almost empty, nearly every checkout was open. It's certainly a great store compared to the huge but pitiful Leslie St Loblaw's, or the wasted little Broadview Loblaw's, their outlets in my neighbourhood. But, really, it's still just another Loblaw's. I had been hoping for much more.
The theme here is "fresh". You walk in past long, lighted, refrigerated self-serve counters with tray after tray of food by weight. It's similar to the salad bar setup at a Longo's, and there's a bigger selection of food. However, Longo's foods looked much more tempting. A closer look revealed an amalgam of the standard selections from a Loblaw's deli counter and antipasto bar merged into one area. A few upgrades looked pleasing (chopped up pieces of seasoned roast chicken, for example). They list all the ingredients in the salads on each tray. They promise small display portions, replenished throughout the day, no "chlorine washes", and nothing held overnight. They don't tell us what happens to the leftovers. But it doesn't resemble, say, the Big Carrot or Whole Foods setups. It's just a salad bar.
Prepared hot foods are on the other side of the entrance. It's mainly standard stuff. Instead of restoring the wonderful Movenpick rotisserie (which had been used here for storing boxes), they removed it. They sell the standard combi oven overcooked chickens. We are promised more prepared foods in the near future.
The baked-in-house bread and pastry selection is, if anything, smaller than before. One new innovation is a freshly baked foccacia counter. They have a large selection of savoury toppings (like pizzas), and several sweet toppings, on sheets of dough several inches thick. I wasn't hungry at the time and there were no samples, so I don't have a report. The bread to topping ratio is extreme, and I wasn't tempted to take a piece home.
Another new feature is soup. They have several kinds on the go, and state proudly that the soups are heated to order using the efficient "green" wonder of magnetic induction, rather than being microwaved or "boiling all day". They don't tell us whether the soups are prepared from scratch, or if they come from a foodservice can. They also don't tell us "why" induction is superior to microwave. I don't know whether it is, since we're reheating soup - not preparing freshly sauteed food. Another odd thing about this setup: soup is one of the few things that can get better when simmered for hours.
Espresso drinks are dispensed from a machine and brewed drip coffee from standard thermal carafes. I didn't find the cappucino fit to drink, and the brewed coffee is inferior to the coffee sold at less grand Loblaw's locations that have in-house roasters. Why not top quality beans roasted in house and a real barista? Why do it half way?
The service counters are standard issue Loblaw's. The meat and fish sections had stock similar to the stock at the much larger Queens Quay store. They guarantee that ground meat is sold only on the day of grinding. There was lots of fish, but only some of it looked fresh. Unlike at Leslie St, there were actual people present to sell you the items on display.
Instead of Whole Foods museum-like produce displays (which are copied at a few good Dominions), Loblaw Great Food went the other way. Produce is set out on carts in the style of a farmer's market. It's quaint and it's cute and the area was swarming with staff. The produce selection was standard, but the bins were full and the quality was okay.
Finally, there's a "gourmet" grocery aisle. It's mainly higher end condiments and fancy looking pastas. It's bigger than the selection of similar items at a typical large Loblaw's location, but a closer look revealed many items that are integrated into the regular aisles at other good stores. (Needless to say, Leslie St doesn't have this stuff.) Some displays had signs trumpeting a special deal that they were passing along (e.g., San Marzano tomatoes for about $1.00 below the going price for the brand). I had to laugh at the Rao's sauce display promising the lowest price in Toronto, since Pusateri's is selling the same sauces for much less (there's a manufacturer's promotion on right now).
The rest of the store is a regular Loblaw's, though with full shelves (at least at the moment I was there).
If this is your regular shopping place, they've made it better. But it isn't worth a trip across town. I'm disappointed because Loblaw's has the resources to do it better than Wegman's, or any other grocery chain for that matter. They haven't.
I'd like to hear your ongoing experiences with this place if you shop there. The optimistic view is that they'll tweak it and expand it and roll it out across the city, at least in suitable areas. The other view brings to mind the Home Depot at Gerrard Square. When that store opened, staff were falling all over you trying to help. Now it is often impossible to order an item, or even buy a can of paint, because so few people work there and the stock levels are often low.
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