The Grocery Game

I hope you enjoyed this drop of snow, and perhaps strapped some cross country skis on or took the kids to a hill for some sledding.  Despite being a pain in the butt and a bit slippery on the roads, we’re certainly treated to a beautiful spectacle in this part of the world: we’ll be sick of it soon enough!

For your viewing pleasure, we uploaded an album of 2022 photos on our website. 

I really appreciate all of the feedback you gave me re: “Stalking Celery”.  I often forget that the reason so many of you shop with us is because you are avid, expert cooks.  It’s dawning on me we should make a section of our website where we post recipes you share with us.   I think we will start this up come summer when the real goodies start rolling in.  We will have to incentivize your submissions with maple syrup or something like that….

I also have to all those of you who so quickly took me up on signing on for CSA boxes and cards for the season so far!  It really is a remarkable thing to me, that we have such a practical working relationship with our customers.  

I suppose it’s obvious at this point, that I dwell a great deal on the food system, but when I see how seriously you take working with our farm, I have to pause and acknowledge that we are actually, indeed, a viable (albeit microscopic) part of it.  The relationship we have with you is really the backbone of this small miracle, and represents a totally different side of our operation from the capital F Farming.

Most producers (of any commodity) generally get to wave goodbye to the fruits of their labour at the end of their driveway, and devote the bulk of their time and expertise to the brass tacks of producing their speciality.   Farming on our scale does not allow us the luxury of sharing so much of the consumer dollar with middlemen and retailers, and so we take the additional steps of bringing the food to market and getting it into your hands in a pleasant way that you’ll want to repeat.

Although it is an entirely different business than agriculture proper, retailing food is something that I genuinely enjoy, above and beyond it allowing our farm to exist.  I consider myself fortunate to have made so many friends and acquaintances over the years; your encouragement is meaningful and motivating, and your feedback keeps us sharp and aiming ever higher.

For better or worse, retailing food puts us in the position of competing against the grocery chains: which due to the ubiquitous and constant nature of eating, are some of the biggest (and most ruthless) businesses in the country.   The modern North American grocery store is a wonder of abundance and logistics, which is largely accomplished through vertical integration and consolidated buying power.

Grocery in Canada is dominated by five main players:

Loblaws is the biggest player in the food retailing in Canada.   Started in Toronto as the first self-serve “Groceteria” in the country (groceries were previously kept behind a counter, and weighed out for you), they now employ over 135,000 people and although they sell under 22 different labels nationwide, you know them in the Kingston area as Loblaws, Independant, No Frills and  Freshmart, not to mention owning all of the Shoppers Drug Marts. Loblaws is famously owned by the Weston family, of baked goods fame, and in recent years has been found culpable for price fixing in the bread market.

Canada’s second largest grocery is Empire Company, started as Sobey’s: originally a meat delivery business in Nova Scotia, and like Loblaws, has absorbed many smaller brands over the years.  Less high profile in Kingston than Loblaws, you would know its brands as Foodland, Fresh Co. and most recently acquired, Farm Boy.  Quebec based Metro is #3 nationally, but very prevalent in Quebec under a number of brands.  Besides the two Metro locations in Kingston, you’ve probably deduced they also own Food Basics as well.

The largest retailer in the world, Walmart is relatively new to groceries in Canada, but their rise has been meteoric and the incredible scale of their purchasing allows them to maintain their discount reputation.  As far as I know, the company makes slim, if any, margins on most of the grocery items, but uses the food as a draw and loss leader to maintain the convenience of “one stop shopping” and traffic for the higher profit items in the stores.

Costco is another American juggernaut in the Canadian grocery market, and although I appreciate them most for their incredible Kirkland paper towels and toilet paper, I generally hear very good things about the quality of their food products.  Although I often find the size of their offerings impractical and the prices not terribly competitive, I have to give them credit for the brilliant innovation of charging people to shop in their store – the shakedown at the end of your visit being a particularly nice insult as well!

It’s hard to think of many independent grocers left.  John’s Deli on Princess Street was a great business that is sorely missed.  Quattrochi’s is a retailer we work with a fair bit, and carry a lot of items you might be surprised to find in there.  I see a number of new ethnic stores popping up around town – but I wouldn’t know the first thing about their structure. The Glenburnie Grocery on Perth Road is a real treasure and one I hope to see for years to come. I’ve never been to Bearances but I understand they even have an in house butcher, which is quite the luxury these days. Tara’s and Sigrid’s are both well liked shops: the classic sort of “Health Food Store”; I often wonder how the spread between food and supplements goes in those places.

There’s some really nice delis and bakers that add a lot to Kingston as well: Pig and Olive, the Barriefield Meat Market, Pan Chancho and Bread and Butter all come to mind.  Pasta Genova is a unique business and Kingston institution in its own right.  I bet there are other little gems out there I don’t even know about.  Care to share them?

Something I’m sure all of these local businesses have in common with us is that we appreciate you going out of your way to shop at our establishments.  Time is our most precious resource, so it means a great deal when you share it.   I hope we can all continue to cultivate what makes it worth going out of your way for.

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