Downtown Residents Plant Seeds for Co-Op Grocery Store

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 11, 2012

A group of citizens is developing a concept for a community-owned grocery store in downtown Hamilton. Called The Mustard Seed, the organization is studying the feasibility of launching a cooperatively-owned grocery store. According to their news release:

The Mustard Seed community grocery anticipates incorporating a variety of elements including a focus on local producers, stocking natural and organic foods, a cooperative ownership model, and nurturing a thriving urban food culture.

With an online survey, they hope to assess local demand and solicit feedback on the co-op model they are developing.

Momentum for a co-operative downtown grocery store has been building. The proposal to lure a grocery store downtown with a public incentive cast light on the issue of downtown Hamilton's "food desert" and the potential for a new grocery store to improve livability in the core.

According to Mustard Seed member Emma Cubitt, last week's On The Cusp event further galvanized the organizers to action. "Coming out of that discussion about how we need momentum on local initiatives, we've really stepped up the pace on developing concepts for a downtown community-owned grocery."

2012 is also the International Year of Cooperatives, tying Hamilton to a larger global movement.

For more information or to get involved, you can contact Graham Cubitt, Mustard Seed Steering Committee Co-Chair, at 905-546-7348 or via email at

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Kiely (registered) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 09:13:27

I must admit, between the Fortinos at Main and Dundurn, the No Frills by Main and Wentworth, the Food Basics at Barton and Mary, The Farmers Market and all the smaller independent markets in between, I'm having a hard time picturing this "food desert".

A Co-op is still a nice idea despite my inability to see the "desert." But if it is going to be successful and a benefit for the whole community they are going to have to compete on price. A lot of people are struggling with their grocery bills these days and while "local produce and natural and organic foods" are great I'm not sure how many people in the downtown core are going to be willing or able to pay much of a premium for these things. I'd be extra diligent in my market research with this initiative.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted May 11, 2012 at 09:33:59

I cannot believe that we are still talking about "food deserts" in Hamilton. Or Canada, period. Our only food deserts exist in the sprawling suburbs.

I and other people I know drive from the suburbs into Hamiltons "Code Red" neighbourhoods to shop at the No Frills, the Food Basics, the Farmer's Market and the Asian and Portuguese shops downtown. There is plenty of good, inexpensive, healthy food just East and North of King & James.

But let my shelf my incredulity over the term for a moment.

Ryan: can you tell us your definition of "food desert" so we can look at Google Maps, drop some markers, and see if it somehow makes more sense that it seems?

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-05-11 09:35:02

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By Sean Dickinson (anonymous) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 12:49:29 in reply to Comment 76778

What are Hamilton "Code Red" nabourhoods?

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By Ezaki Glico (anonymous) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 10:18:55

I think there's more nuance to the picture, both universally and in terms of valuation by various ethnic groups. I'm sure some might see a supermarket as a culinary wasteland.

There are small international grocers on James at Murray, Colbourne, Robert and Vine. There are mid-sized international markets at MacNab & Cannon, York & Inchbury, Queen & York. There are two Denningers downtown. There is a Goodness Me at Locke & Blanshard.

There is a small market at James & Duke. There was an independent market-fresh grocer on the NE corner of James & Augusta, though I believe it may have closed. And there are a host of various sizes of international specialist grocers pocketed around the No Frills just east of downtown in Landsdale.

Locke South hosts a farmer's market Thursday afternoons June-Sept. Plan B Organic Farms will deliver weekly/biweekly produce shares to no fewer than seven downtown depots as well as offering a home delivery option. And if you're housebound, Grocery Gateway might be another service on your speed dial.

Some see a jobs desert in the absence of corporate employers. Others do not.

Some perceive the lack of name brand retail options as commercial poverty. Others do not.

Maybe the same is true of food.

I suspect that there is no single "right" answer. Diversity can be an asset.

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 13:51:18 in reply to Comment 76782

There's also a Zarky's on Dundurn (unless that's closed).

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By lakeside (registered) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 13:03:58

So maybe what we have is a 'supermarket desert' in the core, then.

As an exercise let's just imagine that there were not one, but rather two or even three new full-scale supermarkets to arrive in the downtown area. Might we not then be lamenting how these new entrants will suck the life out of our existing ecosystem of smaller, more varied food stores?

What we have now just may be the ideal, or very close to it. What supermarkets often provide is the same selection of corporate, typically over-processed food and near-foods at a variety of price points. No-Frills has a bag of pasta for 88 cents, Fortino's will sell it for $1.30, and Metro in Westdale will sell the same pasta for $1.55

I'm not sure if that's the sort of variety that I'm looking for.

I'd be more excited by the advent of a co-op than a 'real' supermarket. The co-op might truly reflect the community it serves, the result of the creative efforts of its members. And one thing we have an abundance of downtown is creative minds.

If you're looking for a one-stop everything store at middling prices then a full-scale supermarket is your baby. But we already have those within easy driving distance, ample parking included.

Comment edited by lakeside on 2012-05-11 13:31:44

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By O'Wheelie (anonymous) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 13:14:08

Panniers and bus passes also have their moments.

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By O'Wheelie (anonymous) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 13:19:32 in reply to Comment 76797

Also, this food talk is giving me hunger pangs...

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By SeanD (registered) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 13:16:02

"a concept for a community-owned grocery store" - " a cooperative ownership model, and nurturing a thriving urban food culture."

I think this dynamic, is what is missed in previous comments, it's promoting a community-owned not privately owned place for basic sustenance and so can work outside the confines of the usual economic model.

The mustard seed, famously in christianity a symbol of the smallest of things growing thru simple maintenance and care into something might and self replicable, is a great name for this "project".

I think the people who are enacting this idea do however need to more specifically as to their intentions as i feel there is a latent ambiguity as to weither this would be (in part at least) a charitable venture? As well as a community hub to get to know ones Nabours etc. and it will no doubt add to the already exquisite variety of foods on offer in the Hamilton area.

The emphasis is Community i think, not the so called "food desert".

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 13:23:32

I have to agree with the common-sense comments here: it doesn't take much observation to realise that there is no "food desert" in downtown Hamilton. Hamilton has a wonderful variety of different types of food retail, and it's much less boring than big super-markets. A coworker of mine was actually just commenting about a green grocer that has just opened in Westdale (I haven't had the chance to visit yet, not sure where it is exactly), lamenting that she lives near a supermarket, and that it is unpleasant to have to navigate something that big when all you need is a bag of milk or some eggs.

It's a wonderful thing that we have more choice. Lakeside is dead right: if you want "easy access" to a big supermarket for your weekly grocery run, it's not hard to get in the car to do that. It's lucky that, for the rest of us, we have a lot of different choices for different types of food from different places.

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By frank&ernest (anonymous) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 13:33:16

I don't know if these people saying everythings great food wise downtown live downtown, but I live downtown. I don't own a car. And I can say it's a pain to get groceries. Sorry but it's true. I don't like having to go to three different stores. Having to pay 50% more at a small store than I'd pay if I trekked out to a supermarket. Showing up at the Market only to remember it's Wednesday and they're closed that day. Limited hours at small stores that close at 8 or 9 when I have to work late. Count me in as someone who would look forward to a supermarket that I'd gladly use.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted May 11, 2012 at 22:38:38

I don't live downtown so I can't really comment on whether the "desert" exists - mapping "Hamilton supermarkets" in Google shows quite a few smaller places but whether that means there is enough around to serve the population adequately perhaps others can say (and it would appear just based on the maps that the real desert in the lower city lies between Wentworth and Kenilworth south of Barton)

I know from personal experience though that the major chains are very competitive and pay close attention to their stores' local market areas. And before they decide a new location is warranted it must show that it will have enough market share to be profitable. Right or wrong from the community perspective, it would appear that corporate market researchers have determined that there is no benefit for their brands to locate right in the core.

That could very well change in the future, depending on how downtown residential intensification pans out.

A co-op may make a lot of sense until the marketplace downtown changes further.

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By Ishmael (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2012 at 08:04:09

Neat-o idea. Would be a great addition for Beasley. Work for free to buy your groceries at cost, maybe?

They should definitely chat with the Skydragon folks to get some tips on troubleshooting.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:12:44

Unless you wanna shop at the Hasty Market, you kind of outta luck downtown. Yes, there are several small grocery stores and the Market but an urban format supermarket in the core would do wonders for convenience, not to mention real estate values.

I can't believe that some RTH readers would actually suggest that downtown doesn't need a supermarket; people will argue about absolutely anything.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted May 12, 2012 at 13:33:32 in reply to Comment 76841

I can't believe that some RTH readers would actually suggest that downtown doesn't need a supermarket; people will argue about absolutely anything.

I'm not sure that anyone is suggesting that. What some of us are saying is that downtown is not a "food desert", given that Food Basics and No Frills are in the eastern part of downtown, that there are small markets and a farmers market downtown and a Fortinos at King & Dundurn.

But, yes, an urban supermarket which is more general than Denningers and less unpleasant than No Frills would be very welcome (except perhaps by the market owners and FM vendors).

And a co-op might be nice.

But we don't need to fix a "food desert" problem which does not exist. Which is not the point of the co-op, as far as their web site goes. It's just something that Ryan brought up (much to my surprise).

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-05-12 13:36:01

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By Capricorn (anonymous) | Posted May 12, 2012 at 11:53:01 in reply to Comment 76841

" urban format supermarket in the core would do wonders for... real estate values."

Ironically, our urban renewal guy will tell you that it's the real estate values (along with the downtown demographics) that have dissuaded supermarkets from setting up shop:

“The grocery stores are saying there aren’t enough people living downtown to make the investment and the developers are saying people are complaining because there’s no grocery store downtown. So it’s a matter of who’s going to go first. We’re trying to break that logjam and get someone to take that risk.”

He added that land prices downtown are more expensive than elsewhere in the city and that the grant can help bridge that gap and make a grocery store a viable venture.

$650K is chump change, though. They'd do better to save the cost of the John/Rebecca park, expropriate the lands to the north, give the whole thing away to a winning entrant, then marry it with some condos that would supply the necessary density of moneyed inhabitants to support the supermarket and build the whole shebang at once.

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By CouldaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2012 at 08:04:06

Fascinating exchanges.
'Disturbing' at times...but in the end, revelatory.

One of the things I notice about any exercise at 're-imagining' Hamilton...specifically 'the core' the tendency to not be able to manage images that haven't been seen before. (At least by that particular person.)

And that how some people see things isn't at all the way others do...biking and walking 'longer' distances, for example...and therefore, reasoning is dismissed.

Most of my life, I've walked to get my groceries. Up to a half-hour's walk each way. (And I'm a tall strider.) The rest of the time, buses. Only then would I include using a car. (I'm merely trying to framed my comment appropriately.)

To me, regardless of the Hamilton Farmers' Market, regardless of what I would refer to as 'ancillary' choices, to my mind, and I regard myself as a pretty conventional grocery shoppper at heart, if you have no 'primary' food shopping choices between Dundurn & Main, Barton & Mary, then as Ryan says, we *do* have a 'food desert'.

I've been a downtowner long enough to remember The Barn at Hess and York. And the Dominion's in the basement of then-Terminal Towers. Living on Market Street or Duke, I used to shop at The Barn, shop at the Farmers' Market, and when I lived on Stanley Avenue, at the Fortino's. When I lived in the UK, I'd either walk to the local Tesco, or bus it to Sainsbury. In London, I also either walked or bused it to one of the options. The same applies for the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and The Beaches in Toronto.

Honestly, I'm still scratching my head over the seeming 'resistance' to stating an obvious fact: that there's nothing within that area that correlates to other types of purchasing, or activities. It's almost like me stating 'There are no single-screen cinemas downtown', and someone saying 'There are plenty of video-rental shops', or 'There's an Empire multiplex at Jackson Square'.

Having a community co-op in the core is something I mused about earlier this year online. And if this wasn't possible, the other notion I embraced was a chain store; Lord knows there's a ton of perfectily appropriate retail space at either City Centre or Jackson Square...but I suspect some would see this as an 'evil', somehow being the nail in the coffins of struggling neighbourhood grocery stores. (Which I'm not inclined to shop at, but that's me; it's nothing personal, they're just generally not my cup of tea.)

I'm sorry to get a little pissy here, but for those who like things the way thay are, and don't want certain aspects of 'the core' to change, I can't help but wonder how they're going to feel when the thousands of new residents that move into new developments in that part of the city...I'm thinking of the prime area from James to Wellington, north of King...will essentially be demanding more 'upscale' options, such as Whole Foods. Because at some point, when things change, the market will shift.

For the time being, my vote is for a solid grocery store choice in our current 'food desert'.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted May 13, 2012 at 09:16:53 in reply to Comment 76852

Honestly, I'm still scratching my head over the seeming 'resistance' to stating an obvious fact: that there's nothing within that area that correlates to other types of purchasing, or activities.

As I said above, it was the use of the highly-loaded term "food desert" which ruffled my feathers. It's an American term imported out of its native context and used by Canadian and British poverty activists - and here I speak broadly and a little bit jocularly - to explain why poor people are fat but still need more money for food from the government and charities.

Take that phrase away from the OP, and I'd have nothing negative to say.

I wish the co-op well. And I'd love to see a normal grocery store (Metro, Fortinos, etc.) in downtown Hamilton.

If we didn't have a Metro in Westdale, I would be very excited about getting a real grocery store - not because this would be a "food desert" without one, but because a grocery store is an important part of a complete retail diet.

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By CouldaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2012 at 10:26:25

I'll 'fess up here: I am subject to my own reminiscences regarding Downtown Hamilton. I've seen it in its last two 'incarnations of greatness' and so it grieves me in a different way than those who simply check out archives and get upset. I want that whole area from Queen to Wellington, King to the bayfront to be all that it can be...even those areas that have never shone, never been developed.

I'm not so naïve as to not understand why the core changed, outside of neglect. But I guess that makes me want things that I believe should be there, mostly because I believe in synergy and organic growth...even if I don't claim to be either an urban planner or a Jane Jacobs acolyte; my 'training' comes from having lived in a fascinating selection of communities and on a subconscious level, understand what *I* need to see in a core for it to provide *me* the sustenance, to resonate in an invigourating and sustaining way. (What the core currently offers is most certainly, within my experience, *not* displaying either.)

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By What food desert? (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2012 at 14:44:53

I live quite a hike from the so called food desert downtown and I drive there regularly to get groceries. Denningers has the best cold cuts around and some of the best deals if you know what your are buying. The asian store on Queen just south of York has great deals on lots of things and a decent selection of very reasonable produce and great selection of fish. No Frills is a regular stop, some of the most competitive pricing around especially on there sale items, and they price match on items they carry that other stores have on sale. Duarte's on Barton is great not just for Portuguese items but their lunch counter is perhaps the best in the city. A great bun loaded with 6 slices of different cold cuts lettuce and tomato for $2.50. I drive by a Fortinos and a Metro to get there so please stop this nonsense of calling the downtown a "food desert"

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By CouldaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2012 at 15:22:28 in reply to Comment 76859

Hey, WFD: I'm happy for you. That's great that you're content with what you get where you get it. But that doesn't change the basis of the effort to want to get a grocery store into the downtown: many people would prefer something they're familiar with, something akin to what they're used to. Why does this seem to raise such ire? If it happens, in whatever manifestation it's fated to, if you end up not wanting to shop there...

...don't. Simple as that.

This is all about *options*. And the one that many want, isn't there. It's pretty black-and-white, regardless of how you want to insist that labelling the geographical area as it currently stands a 'food desert' is all 'nonsense'.

I guess, as you've indicated in your response, and as Moylek admitted that he found it 'highly-loaded', the term itself may be at the heart of your reaction. Which quite frankly, makes me wonder where we are as a city if a single term of reference can get people riled up during a discussion. How are we going to deal with the more substantive issues when we can't even get along in dealing with the hypotheticals...?

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By WFD (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2012 at 05:18:59 in reply to Comment 76860

I never said that there should not be another grocery store downtown. I merely stated that there is no "food desert." There just is not enough money downtown to support a Metro, Fortino's or Sobey's style store. I cannot imagine that kind of store spending the amount of money required to open another branch in the core when it is doomed to failure. The vast majority of people with a large disposable income live in the burbs. Hence that is where the stores who rely on that kind of base locate. It is simple economics. If you disagree then you are free to put your money where your mouth is and open a large grocery store downtown or anywhere else. The absence of large grocery store downtown is not part a some collusion or conspiracy it is the manifestation of sound economic principals.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted May 13, 2012 at 16:41:21 in reply to Comment 76860

Which quite frankly, makes me wonder where we are as a city if a single term of reference can get people riled up during a discussion.

The term "food desert" came up on RtH a few times in different threads a year or two ago, so there is some history behind the term and the use of it in RtH discussions.

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By Homerta (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2012 at 18:04:30

Mmmm.... food dessert...

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted May 13, 2012 at 19:17:55

Mustard Seed often has Christian connotations; is this organized by a faith group?

Supermarkets tend not to move into the downtown, and have largely vacated the downtown, because downtown real estate is expensive, and because people will drive for groceries. For those who won't/can't drive for groceries, too bad.

With that said, I think it is a mistake on the part of some well meaning groups to encourage supermarkets to move into the core. The downtown would be better served by more independent retailers, including a co-op, selling a variety of food products. More green grocers, bakeries, and butchers, in my view, would be much more welcome than yet another corporate chain.

For those who find affordable and nutritious food hard to get, buying clubs and CSAs can be organized with the support of local organizations, including a co-op, to act as depots.

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By allsaints (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2012 at 21:59:07

Viennacafe said: "Mustard Seed often has Christian connotations; is this organized by a faith group?"

I would say yes as some of the folks organizing it are involved with local churches.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted May 14, 2012 at 00:44:13

I live downtown. I've said it before, there's nothing within walking distance of my home. I can walk 25-30 minutes to the No Frills going East, or do the same walk West to Fortinos. Having done this walk with about $50 of groceries in the past, let me tell you - it's not something you do often. Usually I'll just get my groceries from Fortinos on my way home, or Walmart.

The independent stores are nice, but not cheap; I can't afford to pay 20-50% more to support them. I can't afford to run to the Hasty Market and pay $7.99 for a bag of milk when the same thing goes for almost half that at any other supermarket.

I shop at the Farmer's Market on Saturdays, but only get what's affordable (mostly things like fruit, vegetables and bread), and get the rest of the stuff at a supermarket.

I'm all in favour of a supermarket located downtown. Something that's convenient, affordable and accessible. If a co-op gives me that, great. If not, then I will continue to shop at cheaper, more convenient locations.

(PS - Metro isn't the best. It seems to be the most expensive out of Freshco, Fortinos, No Frills and Walmart.)

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By WFD (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2012 at 05:23:11 in reply to Comment 76867

Just like the huge majority of people in this city. Hardly anyone does live within walkable distance to a large grocery store. This is not some slight against the poor sobs who live downtown.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted May 21, 2012 at 21:28:42 in reply to Comment 77131

When I lived in Dundas, I lived about 10-15 minutes away from the University Plaza. I was able to walk there and back (or bike) with ease. I hardly think that "the huge majority" - whatever that is - is in the same boat.

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By Friesen (registered) - website | Posted May 14, 2012 at 08:59:55

The only other thing I would point out when looking at the big picture is this quote from the Mustard Seed blog: "how important it is to see a positive ‘upward spiral’ in the Canadian grocery system in which consumers pay a fair price for food, which allows farmers to receive a fair price and grocery workers a fair wage, which continues the upward spiral creating a healthy food economy." I also think that the co-op aspect and focus on community building could be a wonderful thing anywhere in Hamilton and would add a little something extra to the rich diversity of options currently available, ownership and neighbourhood pride included!

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted May 14, 2012 at 22:04:27

If what value is cheap, our values will be cheapened.

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By 2bhonest (registered) | Posted May 21, 2012 at 11:04:50

Interesting subject indeed. Hamilton downtown is changing and it feels that there is this creative undercurrent that wants to offer an alternative to Corporate Culture. I love the fact that Hamilton is a real city but still small enough to generate its own vision. Co-Ops thrived after the second world war and served a purpose that is just as relevant today with the economy being what it is. It is a sad fact that big grocery chains are run purely on profit and loss, not community value. A Co-Op would be a welcome alternative. Any kind of independent grocers, butchers or other small holdings would obviously need the support of local residents. I for one would pay more for local or trusted food items. Buying, for example, such items in a large supermarket, as say: bagged salad and certain cold meats? Trucked in from unknown origin and mass factories. This fact alone opens you up to Listeria etc. The fancy package has everything to do with marketing psychology, nothing to do with content. On many occasions I have had to question my trust in a product, over price, as the deciding factor because it seems to me that pre-packaged convenience foods are made for shelf life, never human health or nutrition. Basic food is affordable, it is the packaging, transport, marketing and built in 'profit margins' that add to the overall pricing. Denningers cold cuts are comparable in price to mass packaged brands and they are local and their kitchens can be trusted. The Farmers Market downtown and on Ottawa Street can be trusted if you know which stall holders sell local grown and butchered. I think a vegetable store next to Denningers on King Street would do very well. I would open one if I had the funds to do it. It also goes back to being content with making a 'living wage' and not always putting the focus on massive profit. I know of one major food chain that stopped selling leftover bakery items as too many people were coming in at the end of the day to purchase day-old sale items and not buying the full price product. No profit in that kind of consumer and to heck with the community! No Frills serves a purpose but many consumers are growing tired of mega-companies that cater only to a certain demographic. There is a lot of poverty downtown but we should not always believe that only the big-name stores can provide value for money. We the general public, seem to be programmed to think (by mass media) that we are smart by knowing the 'price of everything and the value of nothing'. There are also many families with a healthy disposable income that happen to live downtown. Sad to say I am not one of them, and we do not own a car, but I would (and do) support locally owned businesses for health and ethical reasons.

Comment edited by 2bhonest on 2012-05-21 11:15:31

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