Before finding the dim sum counter, customers will have to walk by the pay-by-weight frozen yogurt bar. The mini-donut stand is across from the teppanyaki grill, the Chinese barbecue counter just steps away from the Italian pasta bar.

The layout of the sleek, brand-new Nations Fresh Foods grocery store in downtown Hamilton's Jackson Square fits their 'east meets west' philosophy.

"We blend everything together," said Frank Ho, Nations vice-president.

What does it cost at Nations?

A 12-ounce cup of coffee: $1.45

A dozen large, white eggs: $2.79

Four bags of milk: $4.99

Minute Maid orange juice, 1.75L: $3.49

Activia yogurt, 650g: $3.99

Corn Flakes, 470g: $3.99

Hummus, 260g: $2.99

Unico spaghetti, 900g: $1.79

A box of salad, 5 oz: $2.99

Fuji apples: $1.19/lb

Oranges: $1.29/lb

The 55,000-square-foot grocery store has its soft launch Wednesday, with a grand opening on Saturday, July 13. Nations invested $7 million in renovations and adds more than 200 jobs to downtown Hamilton, Ho said.

"It's one of the most important developments downtown in the last 10 years," said Glen Norton, the city's manager of urban renewal. "It might not be the biggest investment, but it's the significance of having a full-service supermarket."

Nations' flagship store is 60 per cent "traditional" supermarket, said Ho, and 40 per cent restaurant-style, but grocery store-priced prepared foods. And the store's two main entrances cater to the target audience they want through their doors.

Ho wants to attract 'cookers,' stay-at-home parents with families or people who don't work full-time, to the grocery section, which is close to the Bay Street entrance to Jackson Square. Professionals and students, people who don't have as much time to dedicate to the kitchen on a daily basis, are the draw to the prepared foods section. That entrance is closer to the centre of the mall, and the offices.

"In the future, prepared foods will be the main target," he said.

And there is no shortage of choice at that end of the store. Customers can have their pick of sushi, teriyaki, a salad bar, dim sum, Chinese cuisine, a western-style buffet, pizza, pasta, or a grilled panini.

"With a wide variety, customers don't have to choose junk food," Ho said.

A long time coming

Through a series of focus groups, Ho determined that the average customer doesn't want to shell out a ton of cash for lunch. You can get plenty for $6 or $7, he said. For example, the salad bar and buffet goes for $6.99 per pound of food.

A unique feature to Nations are two "digestion" machines the company installed that breaks down a ton each of organic waste  per day from the prepared foods counters, said Scott Kyle, Jackson Square's co-manager. It grinds down everything from fruit and vegetable waste to fish and chicken bones, mixes the waste with a biochemical agent and turns it into grey water sent down the city's storm drains.

"It's diverting at least 2,000 pounds of waste away from a landfill every day," said Kyle. "No [other grocery store] in Hamilton is doing that."

'It's one of the most important development downtown in the last 10 years.' —Glen Norton, Hamilton's manager of urban renewal

The opening of Nations didn't come without challenges, said Jocelyne Mainville, Jackson Square's co-manager. First, it took more than two years to secure a deal with a grocery store.

"We talked to lots of groups about coming here," she said.

Change for downtown

Then right around the projected opening date in the spring, elevator repair workers across the province went on strike. The two in-store passenger elevators going down to the parking garage are not yet operational, but Mainville said she wasn't willing to wait any longer to open the grocery store's doors.

It's clear the anticipation from Hamiltonians is there.

"There were gasps from people who walked by on Thursday when the boards came down," said Scott. "The reality was setting in."

What Nations really does, said Norton, is help change the perception of the downtown core. Now with a full-service grocery store, people who otherwise weren't interested in living downtown might reconsider, he said.

"We can continue the growth downtown," Norton said.