British Columbia

Small grocers carry diverse food from around the globe to compete with box stores

Small, independent grocers are facing competition from multinational companies like Costco and Walmart, which now carry everything from olive oil to organic apples, but CBC food columnist Gail Johnson said there are some advantages to being the "little guy."

Relationship with local producers allow small grocers to cater to the community it serves says food columnist

Wendy Lam picks up some groceries at Killarney Market. She says she'll miss the old store but looks forward to some of the products the new owner will bring in. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Small, independent grocers are facing competition from multinational companies like Costco and Walmart, which now carry everything from olive oil to organic apples.

But CBC food columnist Gail Johnson said there are some advantages to being the "little guy."

"Independent grocers have to be innovative in order to survive, but it's actually because of their independence that a lot of innovation happens in the first place," Johnson told On The Coast's Gloria Macarenko.

Big stores have what's called a listing fee, she said, which pays for marketing and retail availability, and can cost around $40,000 per product.

"Say you're a small-scale producer, someone here in Vancouver who makes their own line of granola or jam or soup. Well, good luck coming up with that kind of money just to get on the shelf at Loblaw's," she said.

"Smaller, indie stores don't have those listing fees, so they can bring in any kind of product they want and it can happen quickly."

Unique and diverse products

This close relationship with local producers allows small grocers to cater to the needs of the community it serves and gives them the upper-hand of having unique and diverse products, Johnson explained.

"There is no one-size- fits-all where we live."  

The Killarney Market in South Vancouver is a perfect example of a successful small grocer providing to a diverse neighbourhood Johnson said.

Tito Chiang and his brother, John, from Peru started the market in 1993 and stood out from the big stores by carrying products from more than 40 countries.

"Items ranging from 'banana sauce' from the Philippines, to instant Thai soup, to eel from Holland. It was actually one of the first places to carry Que Pasa tortilla chips," she said.

When the brothers retired, they sold the business to another local independent shop called 88 Supermarket which also caters to shoppers from different countries.

Other stuff too

The shop is still in transition but Johnson said to expect a grand opening in May.

Johnson says the shelves will be stocked with things like purple-yam cookies from the Philippines, multiple varieties of hot sauce from Mexico, dozens of types of chicharrons from Latin America, candies from Japan and Taiwan, and Hungarian goulash cream.

She added that new owner Ken Chau wants it to be a one-stop shop, so it will also carry all staples like paper towels, flour, fresh produce, and dairy from Burnaby's Avalon.

Still when it comes to groceries, price often trumps most other things, but Johnson wants consumers to think about supporting local economies.

"It is worth thinking about whether you want your hard-earned dollars to go toward Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, or to a place run by a Vancouver family that's active in the local community."

With files from On The Coast.