Andrew Coppolino's look at the return of independent shops

Andrew Copplino suggests trying some new nibbles in Waterloo Region over the Victoria Day long weekend.
Many small stores offer food to take away, like cabbage rolls from Tollgate Mini-Mart.

The opening of Public Market and J and P Grocery in downtown Kitchener got me thinking about the nature of small independent neighbourhood food stores, where they went and how they have reappeared.

Decades ago, it was common to see small corner stores embedded within urban neighbourhoods. The shops, often built in the style of the surrounding homes, sold groceries and other household supplies to the people living nearby who likely walked there to do their shopping.

For instance, what is now Guitar Corner at Victoria and Park streets in Kitchener was once Wunnenberg's store, and a block away at Theresa Street was Shoemaker's. As a kid, I remember them delivering groceries in a pick-up truck as far as Colonial Acres in Waterloo.

Stores like that are long gone – grocery delivery might start as an app on your smartphone or as a division of large chain grocers – and most shopping now is done in big box stores. Today, the remnants of these early groceterias are still there, and some are still selling foods and groceries, but, like much of our food landscape, they have evolved to represent the changing face and nationalities of our communities.

Interest in small shops

I also think that the renewed interest in smaller food shops and hot tables in convenience stores is part of the evolving local food movement and a demand that neighbourhoods be more walkable and sustainable.

The range of available foods is wide. There are plaza stores like Farah Foods and Hasty Markets, which, in many locations, have moved from being simply milk stores and cigarette shops to small green grocers and specialized retailers often selling the food of the shop-keeper's cultural background, whether that is Middle Eastern, Korean or southeast Asian. 

There are also scattered specialty food stores throughout both urban and suburban neighbourhoods, with a wide variety of take-away meal options. And then there are the classic older stores that have the warm bones of history with a slightly worn and dog-eared charm. 

While it's impossible to list all of the stores selling prepared foods – including several Latino food grocery stores that sell meals and snacks – here are five selections if you are looking for a new "food-in-the-hood" experience for this long weekend. (Please check with individual venues for dish availability and hours of opening.)

(Torreense Store/Facebook)

Torreense Store 

For a charming visit and a little piece of Portugal in Waterloo Region, visit Torreense Store on Mill Street at Stirling Avenue. Recently, new owners have introduced fresh fish specials to their grocery stock on Thursdays. They recently had some lovely sea bream. 

Go for: northern Portugal chorico and pastéis de nata 
You can chat with the regulars as they buy chorizo sausage, bread, presunto (prosciutto-like) ham and the luscious and traditional caramelized pastéis de nata custard tarts.

Peixaria Micaelense 

Similar to Torreense, and like Torreense replete with an old, defunct conveyor belt at the check-out counter, but a little smaller. Peixaria Micaelense is on Queen Street near Homewood Avenue. It sells a wide variety of Portuguese dry goods and frozen foods. There's likely Portuguese soccer playing on the television.

Go for:  Lupin beans, or lupini, stored in brine
A flat, round, whitish-yellow legume, lupini are packed with protein and their salty, nutty flavour will go great with a backyard beer on your patio. A Mediterranean snack favourite, you can buy them in jars at many grocery stores, but at Peixaria Micaelense you can scoop them out of a big pail along with varieties of olives.

(Google Street View)

J and P Filipino Store 

Located at the corner of Madison and Courtland avenues, J and P Filipino Store is a combined Filipino and Newfoundland food shop that represents the heritage of the owners. There's a small hot table where you can get some wonderfully salty, crispy sardine-like grilled fish, fried pork belly and noodle dishes.

Go for: saba on a stick
Saba, a variety of plantain, is secured on a stick, coated in brown sugar and caramelized to a deep golden brown. It's a version of pisang goreng and is a popular street snack in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

(Tollgate Mini-Mart/Facebook)

Tollgate Mini-Mart 

Scott Gosselin, formerly of Babelfish Bistro, Guelph, operates the Mini-Mart at Tollgate Plaza on Tollgate Boulevard in Waterloo. He's currently preparing cooler meals in the store's kitchen for take-away. Prepared meals include comfort food favourites such as shepherd's pie and stuffed peppers.

Go for: cabbage rolls to take-away
Gosselin says that the cabbage rolls are a surprise run-away best seller.

Taaza Market

Located in Doon Village, Kitchener, at the busy corner of Homer Watson Boulevard and Doon Village Road, Taaza Market (which translates to "Fresh Market") carries a range of Canadian, Indian and Pakistani foods and groceries. While they don't make the sweet and savoury treats in-house, they serve desserts such as dilbahar – think gulab jamon stuffed with cream – and a sweet chickpea flour fritter called ladoo.

Go for: bread pakora
I rather enjoyed the bread pakora. It's a slice of bread that's folded, stuffed with vegetables, dipped in chickpea batter and fried, and it's delicious. As for a strategy, I would call the store and find out when they are being delivered and then arrange to be there at that time.


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.