Downtown Edmonton just became a food desert, save for a brand-new oasis.
When Michael Kalmanovitch learned of Sobeys’ departure from their former keystone location on 104 Street downtown—just days after he had finalized the paperwork for a second Earth’s General Store on the same block—his first reaction was apprehension. “The deli manager and I looked at each other and said, ‘We can’t handle that!'”
Kalmanovitch is sitting on the sidewalk outside his new store, sipping a coffee made from beans roasted in-store; he mentions that he wants to have a patio open soon (and did just four days later), and has already installed bike racks after noticing the dearth of lock-up areas on the street. “We’re a small store, and over a thousand people went through [Sobeys] a day; maybe closer to two thousand,” he says. “If even 10 percent of those people came here, especially during lunch hour, we could not handle that. And what always worries me the most, is not servicing the customer: if we’re too busy then we can’t have the relationship that I want to have with our customers. A lot of customers are our community, but also our community waiting to happen.”
His emphasis on customer relationships is immediate and obvious: Kalmanovitch thanked every customer exiting the store and over half a dozen people walking by stopped to say hi and chat briefly; a couple even made a point of asking that I make sure to spread the word about how much they love the store.
Kalmanovitch opened Earth’s General Store in 1991 and just celebrated its 24th anniversary. When he began investigating a second location, he initially had northeast Edmonton in mind, but ended up on 104 Street downtown in the space formerly occupied by the short-lived Pangaea Organic Market.
“Young people are demanding different food, produced differently and more ethically: more traceability, more local, more organic,” Kalmanovitch says. “They’re demanding urban agriculture, there’s more community gardens going up, and they’re driving it. I thought—because there’s a lot of young people in this area—they would be supportive of the idea of it and the business model that we have. We’re local, independent, community-minded, activists. But they haven’t really shown up.”
In fact, despite the major gap created by the departure of Sobeys, the number of customers to Earth’s downtown has been quite low so far. People simply might be still discovering the store: it’s fairly easy to miss, and Kalmanovitch is working on increasing his signage—adding awnings and window graphics, and building up light behind the windows to make it easier to spot the fresh produce while passing by.
Given all the persistent buzz about Edmonton’s downtown development and redevelopment, it seems incredibly—almost bafflingly—short-sighted of Sobeys to leave right now. But that store had significantly changed its character from when it opened in 2008, and had been in obvious decline for quite some time.
“It was upscale, and possibly a little bit too upscale for the Edmonton market,” notes Kalmanovitch.
Branded as Sobeys Urban Fresh, the store initially offered a trendy flair to the usual chain grocery store experience: a wine and oyster bar, a sushi bar, an emphasis on local products, deli food prepared by Red Seal chefs, a patio open to 104 Street. Fast-forward a few years and the store was a shell of its former self, gutted of all the amenities and personality it had proudly trumpeted at the outset: no more wine, oysters, sushi, local products or freshly made deli food; the store even cut itself off from the street by blocking the windows with garish vinyl decals and closing the patio.
Obviously the chain’s business priorities had shifted significantly; the final coffin nail was Sobeys’ acquisition of Safeway Canada in November 2013 and its subsequent announcement that it would close a swath of “under-performing” locations.
Earth’s General Store has never suffered such an identity crisis. While he’s done a few things differently at the downtown location—namely introducing a deli with from-scratch lunch items (and hopefully breakfast ones soon)—Kalmanovitch has always adhered to his vision of offering fairly priced organic food. He’s kept prices identical at both locations, despite the much-higher overhead cost of the downtown store. And his business model is actually dependent upon chain stores—he hopes another major grocer will move in next door right away.
“We want to have a store like Sobeys sitting there, that provides the basic bulk of a person’s grocery needs,” he explains. “Very few families or people will come to my store and buy 80 percent, 100 percent of their groceries. They fill in the gaps here, and we do fine at the south-side store with just that.”
Another major loss for downtown’s grocery landscape is Family Foods on Jasper Avenue and 117 Street, which is closing its doors at the end of September. They didn’t really provide a clear reason for their departure, simply stating that they didn’t renew the lease. Sobeys, on the other hand, packed up because the store was “under-performing”—it wasn’t losing money, it simply wasn’t making as much as the company desired.
“Corporations—like Sobeys, Save-On, Safeway, Superstore—are this centre of a community along with the schools,” Kalmanovitch says. “And as you’ve seen in a lot of communities, they’ve shut down schools, so the kids have to go further out. Same thing with grocery stores: they want to build these newer, larger-format stores because the cost per-square-foot and the return on investment per-square-foot is so much better.
“They need to use a different yard stick for the small-format stores than their large-format ones,” he continues. “And ask what other intrinsic value it has. People in this area are being dis-serviced by not having the grocery store. Now people are saying, ‘Well I need groceries; I’ll jump in the car and drive to Save-On or Safeway.’ They’re going out of the community, and they might say, ‘Screw you Sobeys; you had no community affinity except for taking as much money as you could.'”
Hopefully the current lack of grocery stores in the heart of downtown will be resolved soon. The location of the former Sobeys is prime real estate that could easily become a sustainable grocery store—all the equipment is still there. Meanwhile, Kalmanovitch will continue to pursue his vision for the niche occupied by Earth’s General Store.
“I think we provide something the downtown community requires: a convenient store that offers good food. I want to be a functional, long-term store. I’m not here for the short-term.”
Earth’s General Store
10150 – 104 Street