Galen G. Weston didn't disappoint foodies on Wednesday.
With his top team close at hand, the executive chairman of Loblaw Cos. Ltd. launched his flagship mainstream store at the historic Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto as hundreds of shoppers stood in line to get into the store for the 8 a.m. opening.
Lining up to get into a supermarket? Well, there were freebies (free muffins and peameal bacon sandwiches, for instance). And this wasn't just any grocery store. Mr. Weston called it the world's best supermarket, and it's pretty good. Twenty-foot ceilings give the site, which was once the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, a grand feeling. Mementos of the grand days of hockey are omnipresent, including a dramatic installation at the entrance of shiny restored blue seats from the arena mounted on the wall in the pattern of a maple leaf.
The red and orange floors borrow from the hues in the Loblaws' logo and punch up the overall colour scheme of the store, while even the shopping carts are distinctive – a bright orange-red – to help the outlet stand out from others.
Ranging from freshly cooked prepared foods made in an open kitchen above all the grocery action, to cheeses displayed in a massive floor-to-ceiling cooler, to 19 different types of cupcakes in the patisserie, the fare tempts shoppers in the way it's arranged, through the aromas that arise from different sections and the sheer variety of products on offer. (The cheeses include a 100-pound wheel of blue stilton, for instance, one of 100 in the world, at $46 a kilogram.)
The store borrows a leaf from Whole Foods Market, although at generally more affordable prices, and has a touch of Kensington Market with a range of ethnic offerings (examples: Shanghai bok choy, organic black kale and five different types of coconut water.) Attention to detail is evident: writing on signs emulate the stencil font used at the original Gardens.
Customers were clearly impressed, not the least with the freebies and special deals (a big bunch of asparagus for $1.99).
"I shop at Whole Foods and it's very expensive for me," said Marika Szabo, who waited in line for about 30 minutes to get into the new Loblaws store right at 8 a.m., and didn't finish her shopping until noon (during which time she racked up a $130 grocery bill.) "This store has everything I need. The aisles are fabulous. I'm not bumping into anyone."
Ms. Szabo also came for nostalgic reasons, having attended concerts and hockey games at the former Gardens. With a nod to the past, the company has mounted posters of celebrities who performed at the venue, such as Frank Sinatra and Madonna, as well as numerous photos and murals of hockey greats.
Other highlights: a George Weston-owned Ace bakery with artisan bread freshly baked in an oven; chocolate "chiselled by the chunk;" an expanded tea emporium; and an "east-meets-west" sushi bar run by the Loblaw-owned ethnic foods specialist T&T Supermarket, featuring chef-inspired creations.
"It's a spectacular store," said shopper Stuart Ross, who lives nearby and describes himself as a foodie. At 8:05 a.m., he made the first purchase at the Loblaws – a bottle of pomegranate juice for $2.99 – and had Mr. Weston personally sign the receipt. "Their cheese wall is unbelievable. The cupcakes – it seems like a 20-foot-long display case of bakery goods – that impressed me. Their organic vegetables are amazing, and they look good. So many other stores say organic and they look terrible."
Still, perhaps the biggest attraction of all was Mr. Weston himself, who roamed the aisles and chatted with shoppers. A celebrity of sorts who stars in Loblaw's television commercials, Mr. Weston signed autographs for shoppers who, at one point, formed a long line around a display of peppers and mushrooms. His wife Alexandra stood close by him.
"It's not typically our biggest day when it comes to supermarket shopping," Mr. Galen said just before the store opened, waiting at the entrance to literally unveil the store when a red velvet curtain was lifted at 8 a.m. "We're actually thrilled with the turnout.
"We traditionally shy away from big, grand store openings. In our judgment this was a very special case, given the storied history of the building. We did feel that a little bit of dramatic flourish – the red curtain – was more than appropriate."
Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story incorrectly stated that Ace Bakery is owned by Loblaw Cos., which is itself majority-owned by George Weston Ltd. This online version has been corrected.