McEwan raises the bar on ready-made
By Jacquelin Bhandari
Celebrity chef Mark McEwan is the epitome of entrepreneurship in what is one of the most underappreciated industries. But perhaps what affirmed his immortalization as a culinary heavy hitter was his business venture into the grocery aisle.
“It was a bit of an experiment for me with this size and location,” says McEwan. “And it’s turned out to be a real home run for us.”
To date, McEwan is the chef and owner of four restaurants in Toronto — North44, Bymark, Fabbrica and ONE Restaurant. He is also an active food service manager, caterer and consultant for the Aga Khan museum and the Toronto Congress Centre. The George Brown alumnus was also honoured by the Ontario Hostelry Institute in 1997 with the Gold Award for Independent Restaurateur.
The Buffalo native can also be found in front of the camera as the head judge on Top Chef Canada, which will be coming back to television soon as Top Chef Canada All Stars, and as a judge on Chopped Canada. McEwan was also the host of The Heat.
“I believe it’s very easy to get ahead in the world,” says McEwan. “There are so many people who focus all about themselves and not enough on what they are doing.”
Before McEwan opened its doors, gourmet products had been limited to specialty wholesalers and family-owned importers who would distribute a few select lines of product to big box grocery stores, often placed in isolated sections. But as the Canadian palate becomes more adventurous, the demand for a higher standard of product continues to grow.
What McEwan sought to create was a gourmet grocery experience for the consumer who wanted more. McEwan says that clients at his flagship store care about how their food purchases impact the global ecosystem, not just the flavour components or calorie intake. So instead of grocery store-hopping, McEwan’s customers can find everything they need in one facility — from the flank steak to floral arrangements.
“I’ve always loved food retail,” says McEwan. “I always romanticized having my own shop and I had the opportunity with Cadillac Fairview …we hit the ground running and we grew the business in a variety of ways.”
McEwan’s first namesake grocery store opened in 2009 at the Shops at Don Mills in Toronto. McEwan also carries a range of his specialty-branded food products, cookbooks and cookware. The 20,000-square-foot facility would make specialty or gourmet items accessible to people who cared about food that is organic and curated sustainably.
“We have a very educated, well-read client that wants high quality. So whether that’s gluten-free, sugar-free, they want to be able to eat snacks without feeling guilty about it,” says McEwan. “We find that the more of this stuff we bring in, the faster it flies off the shelves.”
Last summer McEwan opened up his second flagship grocery store in a smaller 6,000-square-foot space underneath Toronto’s TD Centre, right across from Bymark. Because the store is situated in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, it is a great place for business executives to live the fast life without having to sacrifice quality.
The typical client of the TD Centre location can grab a breakfast sandwich with house-made maple pork sausage and one of the Lavazza coffee selections before work, or savour some braised short rib empanadas from the 32-foot-long hot table at lunch. Like the Don Mills location, the focus is on making quality and variety accessible to people who care about having more control over what goes into their food.
“People want choice, they want variety,” says McEwan. “They want to entertain at home without the cumbersome preparations. So if I can help them out, I think it’s a win-win on both sides.”
McEwan’s business model manages to cast a wider net through both his wide selection of grocery items and his prepared items. McEwan is meticulous about making restaurant quality ingredients available to his customers. They can quickly make a healthy meal at home, or pick up something from the hot table and salad bar. Some of the gourmet items range from roasted legumes and mushrooms to his signature soup bases and sauces.
But the food he puts out is a personal offering, too. Many of these bases can be found on one of his restaurant menus and the tomato sauces, in particular, are signature recipes of McEwan’s wife, Roxy.
“People just don’t seem to have the same amount of time to cook so they are very happy to buy quality prepared foods at a good price, buying only what they need for the day and come back for the next day.”
McEwan visits the Don Mills and TD Centre locations every day. His dedication to promoting excellence goes beyond the stocking of shelves. He’s always looking for ways to improve his stores by greeting his customers, spending time observing the operations of the store and interacting with his clients.
“I’ll get very nosy sometimes,” admits McEwan. “I’ll ask why they chose one thing over another and just make sure they are happy with their experience.”
McEwan is very thankful for the support and the environment that continues to make an effort to understand what McEwan’s clients need. The McEwan family is also very involved in the management of his many ventures.
“Everybody is the real keener,” says McEwan. “I have a great team and they keep things going.”
McEwan is still brimming with ideas that could continue to change the Toronto retail grocery scene. The chef-entrepreneur is looking to continue expanding the McEwan empire into the busier Bloor-West village, Yorkville, and possibly another location in the city’s core. There are a total of six new locations that McEwan would like to see go up over the course of the next 10 years.
“We are very excited about the whole potential of retail and just selling great food,” says McEwan. “I’d like that story all day long.”