Longo’s Maple Leaf Square – Something For Everyone

In the food community, many of us have love/hate relationships with supermarkets. Corporate-minded and stocked with processed food, the supermarket is a place we prefer to avoid, shopping instead at farmers’ markets or small family-owned artisanal food shops where the focus is on fresh, wholesome and delicious products. But what if that actually described your local supermarket?

Longo’s has been around since 1956, and just opened their 23rd store. Yet this company that employs more than 4000 people is still family-owned and run. And while their latest venture, the 48,000 square foot store that opened yesterday at Maple Leaf Square, is most definitely a supermarket, they’ve taken great care to ensure that high quality, artisanal food is a priority.

Some highlights that food lovers will not want to miss include:

  • a cheese island with over 300 varieties of cheese from around the world, all clearly labelled with country of origin
  • an on-site butcher shop that will cut meat to order and will feature Kobe-style beef and 28-day dry-aged Angus beef as well as locally-raised meats
  • a deli section with a smoker to create in-house smoked meats
  • chocolatiers creating in-house treats
  • a huge produce section with over 100 organic offerings, many locally grown options when in season, and rare items such as Chaunsa Pakistani mangoes and pink-fleshed Hidden Rose apples
  • a huge array of artisanal breads and pastries
  • a sustainable seafood program that is set to be rolled out to all Longo’s stores
  • a “Grab and Go” section of prepared foods for quick lunches or dinners, all made in-store
  • more than 40 store-made ready to cook items
  • made-to-order stone oven pizzas, paninis and grilled sandwiches
  • piped-to-order signature Longo’s cannoli
  • the option to sample products such as cheese, deli meats and produce before purchase, just like in an independent shop

Longo’s consulted with noted marketing expert Paco Underhill to create a space that fulfilled many demands. 5 years in the making, the Maple Leaf Square store presented a major hurdle from the get go as it is in the basement of the building, so many structural elements had to be taken into consideration when planning aisles and traffic flow. Nevertheless, the shopper is greeted by a glorious array of produce as they descend the escalator into the store from York Street, with everything carefully arranged and never overwhelming.

Sure, there are the rows of basic packaged groceries that you’ll find everywhere. But customers looking for fresh products or prepared foods don’t have to wander the store to find what they’re looking for. The prepared foods and salad bar section is in its own easily-accessible area. Freshly prepared market items like meats, cheeses and baked goods are thoughtfully arranged so shoppers can move from one to the other easily without having to wander through aisles of cat food and plastic wrap if they don’t need to.

There are also some unique features that make the shopping experience interesting, little bits of theatre and design that are fun and refreshing, like the living wall of plants near the check-outs, or the coffee station where beans are roasted in-house. Customers can watch chocolates being prepared at the chocolate fountain, or check out the really cool tortilla maker that makes fresh tortillas, chapatis and rice cakes (one of which exploded as we passed on the tour) for a little excitement.

Also of note is the Loft Lounge, an area where customers can relax and enjoy a snack or a meal. An area of tables and chairs leads to a section of sofas surrounding a large fireplace, with flat-screen TVs on the walls. Offering free wi-fi, the Loft Lounge also features a Starbucks, and customers can check out Corks Beer and Wine Bar to purchase local beer and wine. Cheese and charcuterie boards will be available to pair with flights of wine or beer, and staff will be able to offer pairing suggestions for prepared food or meal planning.

And since the entire lounge area is licensed, guests can also have that glass of beer or wine with any prepared food they’ve purchased from the Grab and Go section of the store. There’s even a microwave available for reheating and reusable dishes and cutlery to cut down on waste.

Longo’s promotes the Loft as a place to gather, cook and learn, so there’s also a state of the art demonstration kitchen where local chefs will offer classes. Sommelier Lesley Martin also plans on featuring events with brewers and winemakers.

Longo’s is a company based on family values, with 15 family members working within the company, and a long tradition of offering high quality products and service to their customers. At the outset of the media event, Longo’s spokesperson Rosanne Longo stated that the company’s goal with the new store was “to change the face of food retail in Canada with our innovative fresh offerings and ideas, our renowned customer service and the wealth of knowledge and experience offered by our team of food experts.”

But will that resonate with the many flavours of downtown shoppers, from condo dwellers looking for a prepared dinner for one, to parents doing a weekly shop for the family, to those of us who like to know the names of the people who grow and make our food? Can they really have something for everyone?

Based on what I’ve seen, I think they do. The prepared foods departments are full of staff able and encouraged to engage with shoppers, to offer samples of cheese just like in a small cheese store, or to cut meat to order in the butcher shop. (Heck, when was the last time a supermarket even did on-site butchery? It’s a dying art!) Many of them have years of training and experience as well, making them experts in their fields, just like those small little Mom and Pop bakeries and butcher shops we know and love.

Okay, so it won’t replace a trip to the farmers’ market on Saturday morning. But when it comes to supermarkets, this Longo’s, as large as it is, is a really nice place to shop. Thought has been put in to every detail, not just to market and manipulate and make the customer buy more, but to make them feel comfortable, to allow them to find things easily and to make their shopping experience interesting and enjoyable. That doesn’t really happen in supermarkets anymore.

We left the media preview on Tuesday talking anxiously about when we could come back to see the store again, to explore the aisles more fully, to sample the many cheeses or check out Corks to see what they have on tap. Two jaded food writers, excited about going to the supermarket? That in itself should make it clear just how great this new Longo’s store really is.