Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2012/ Groceries in Downtown Kitchener

Groceries in Downtown Kitchener

Besides the perception that downtown Kitchener is unsafe, one of the most frequent complaints I encounter is that downtown Kitchener does not have a grocery store. In addition to getting into (sometimes heated) discussions about the topic in person, from time to time the newspaper prints articles and op-eds about the subject.

I may be the only person in Kitchener-Waterloo who feels that downtown is doing just fine without a Sobeys or Zehrs or Valu Mart or FreshCo downtown. I feel that there are lots of adequate food options here, and that the lack of a grocery store has encouraged a diversity of food options to fill the niche. But instead of keeping my mouth shut and my opinions to myself, here comes another judgemental, poorly-researched and possibly incorrect article sure to alienate any reader who lives in Kitchener-Waterloo and bore anybody else (assuming anybody outside KW actually reads this blog -- Facebook does not appear to display the entries to people on my friendslist unless I am making banal declarations about my sexuality, and nobody believes in RSS feeds any more.)

In addition to alienating my audience, I have two theses in this entry: firstly, that Kitchener has adequate food options, and secondly that introducing a traditional grocery store to the core could well do more harm than good. My hidden agenda is to illustrate some of the food resources downtown, so that if you are one of those people who feels there are no options downtown you can go exploring.

The Kitchener Farmers Market

My first argument against the necessity of a traditional grocery store in Kitchener is the Kitchener Farmers Market. The market is healthy; there are lots of farmers, lots of vendors, and the place bustles with customers. The market is much better than a grocery store in many ways:

The main criticism of the farmer's market is that it is only open on Saturdays, which means it is inconvenient. Usually, this gripe is expressed as "some people can't get to the market on Saturdays". I have some sympathy for this argument, but not much.

For all of its faults (and it does have faults -- notably the white-elephant building) the farmers market is one of the best things about downtown Kitchener, and I oppose any developments that threaten its vibrancy.

New City and "Ethnic" Foods

My second argument against bringing a grocery store to downtown Kitchener is that it already has a grocery store: New City Supermarket, aka "the Chinese grocery". New City is a thriving mid-sized grocery store that is doing very well for itself -- it has expanded once already, and I think it is in the process of expanding into a housewares business too. I am fairly sure that New City is committed to staying downtown; I think that it made a break for some plaza on Krug Street once, but then the Krug street people moved back or the a splinter group opened a downtown location or something.

Kitchener City Council stubbornly clings to a vision of suburbanites flocking to downtown businesses; New City is one example of that vision in action. Kitchener-Waterloo does not have that many Chinese grocery stores, so people from elsewhere in town flock to the store to do their shopping. That would not happen with a traditional (read: "non-ethnic") grocery store, because a traditional grocery would have no comparative advantage to the many grocery stores outside the downtown.

As for the food: you can find some good stuff there, and not everything is imported from China. Many fruits and vegetables are grown on this continent (albeit in Texas and California), and a lot of the breads and soy products come from the Greater Toronto Area. It is true that the majority of food in the store is imported from overseas, and also true that for all my brainless hippie ways I do purchase a few imported goods: soy sauce and noodles and a few other things.

One of the big selling points at New City is the seafood. The baskets of live crabs and tanks of fish on Death Row make me feel sad and squeamish, but there is no question that the fresh fish is popular.

The store is open every day, and provides a wide-enough range of food that one could use it as a primary grocery store. I think lots of people do; when I am there I always see some non-Chinese patrons getting their groceries.

I do worry that the City of Kitchener will end up cracking down on New City. I think the most likely culprit is parking; on Saturday mornings you can see a long line of cars idling down Scott Street. (Nobody is willing to use the parking garage half a block away, it seems.) But this is one of the costs of having a store that draws business from the suburbs; people in the suburbs drive. There is lots of parking in downtown Kitchener (how many parking garages do we need?) but little of it is free parking, and I cynically believe that suburbanites are unaquainted both with the customs of paying for parking, and of walking.

New City is not the only ethnic food store in the downtown area, although it is definitely the largest. Different ethnic stores wink in and out of existence all the time. There is an African grocery, a Latin store across from the bus station that somehow stays in business, a Portuguese bakery, and a couple of other East Asian stores. There is also the Hasty Market across from the bus terminal, which has somehow morphed from a convenience store to a pretty good source for middle Eastern foods. I do not shop at all of these stores (and I suspect some of them have closed since I last checked) I am glad that they exist. At least a few of them are filling niches in the community. Maybe a few of them will grow in success the way New City Supermarket has, and expand their sizes to cope with demand.

Processed Foods and Dry Goods

The most common complaint about New City Supermarket is that it is too ethnic. Fortunately, if you are looking to pick up milk, bread, eggs, or processed foods you have several options:

Between Full Circle and the Bargain Shop, I am able to satisfy most of my dry good and processed food needs/cravings. In addition I also purchase dollar bags of hard candy at the Family Dollar store near the Walper.

Accessible Grocery Stores

Fine, you say. I'm a brainless hippie. I am single. I have a limited palate. Maybe I can satisfy my food needs downtown. How about regular people who want one-stop shopping at a real grocery store, as opposed to some ethnic grocery where the labels are not even in English?

Good news, I say. If you really want to shop at a "real" grocery store, there are lots of options, all of which are easily accessible on King Street, the best-serviced public transit corridor in the region:

There is also a Valu Mart down at Frederick Street Mall, which is less accessible by transit.

All of these locations (except Vincenzo's?) have two things that are unreasonable to expect in downtown Kitchener: floor space and free parking.

The Costs of a Downtown Grocery Store

Given all the options above, I believe there are lots of food options in downtown Kitchener, and that we are doing just fine without a conventional grocery store there. But that is not going to silence the critics, so let us explore the option: how can we get a grocery store downtown, and what will it cost?

It is true that grocery stores can exist in downtown areas. I recently had the privilege of attending a conference in downtown Toronto, and there was a Loblaws embedded on the second floor of a building. The grocery store was a reasonable size (probably bigger than New City Supermarket, but smaller than Central Fresh) and there were shoppers present. The food was also expensive, which might have been Loblaws pricing, Toronto pricing, or the costs of having a grocery store downtown.

I could believe that downtown Toronto has the density to support a grocery store and additional shops. I do not think the same is true of downtown Kitchener. I believe that a successful downtown grocery store will reduce business to other stores for the same reason tourists to foreign countries eat at McDonald's: it is familiar and predictable. That means the Farmers Market gets weaker (because who wants to wake up on Saturday morning to get groceries?) and that New City loses business (because who wants to shop at an ethnic grocery with such narrow aisles and weird foods?) and that the small ethnic groceries wink out of existence (because I suspect many of them are barely holding on as it is). I could be wrong about this -- maybe a downtown grocery will just lure away residents who currently shop at big box stores -- but I doubt it.

Of these consequences, I worry about the Kitchener Farmers Market the most, because the kinds of local foods I purchase at the market carry a hefty premium at grocery stores (and probably earn the farmers less money). If you don't believe this, consider the anaemic market held Thursdays at Waterloo Town Square. Except for CSA members, few people use this market as a shopping destination -- why would you, when there is a grocery store right next to it? As a result few farmers attend the market, and the overall result is disappointing. It is true that the Waterloo Town Square market is relatively new, but as far as I can tell the market is losing momentum, not gaining it.

It would be different if I thought people were actively suffering for lack of a conventional grocery store downtown. I think people are still able to get affordable, quality food at a small inconvenience. The benefits you get with a grocery store are small, and the costs are great.

In addition to its effect on the downtown food ecosystem, consider the constraints a downtown grocery store would face. Such a store would necessarily be small (because as far as I know there are no grocery-store sized buildings available downtown) and parking would have to be expensive or subsidized. That means food selection will be smaller than at other grocery stores, and food will be more expensive. Maybe that will be okay for local residents, but anybody who has other grocery store options will opt for those instead. Worse, the critics will STILL complain that the grocery store downtown is not good enough (which is why they do not accept the Shoppers Drug Mart or New City Supermarket as adequate).

My biggest worry is that there will be enough of a stink raised around the issue that the City of Kitchener will step in, subsidizing a chain grocery store (and its parking). That would be the worst outcome I could think of. We already have private businesses doing good business downtown, and the City would distort the market and hurt those businesses for little public benefit. If a private grocery store came downtown and set up shop without subsidies, then I would not be happy but I would write off the competition as one of the costs of capitalism. (I guess the lamented David's Gourmet tried this, and it flopped.) If the City came into the picture and poured tax dollars into such a venture, I would be furious.

When people cry for a grocery store downtown, I think they are crying out for something familiar and convenient. People want one-stop shopping, not grocery trips that involve several stores and walking. People want the foods they want all year around, regardless of the consequences on local farmers. If you really want these things then you can have them, but there will always be a cost. The suburbs are ill-suited for walkability and a diversity of shops, and downtowns are ill-suited for one-stop shopping at box stores.

If you somehow read this far and still want a grocery store downtown, so be it. All I ask is that you appreciate the grocery options that already exist here, and that you take advantage of them and see just how many of your groceries you can get here. Doing this will serve two purposes: it will help keep you fed, and it will tantalize grocery chains into setting up shop, because they will see that there are people willing to spend money on groceries downtown.