Cover Story: Urban Fare’s careful expansion

This article was the Cover Story in Canadian Grocer Magazine.

Cover Story: Urban Fare’s careful expansion

In Calgary, not a lot of neighbourhoods can trace their origins back over a century. The city has it’s roots, sure, but few of those original neighbourhoods have retained their original character and historic charm like Mount Royal, in the city’s southwest quadrant. With a proud past, and particular architectural character, it was a challenge to integrate a huge new commercial development into the neighbourhood known for its walkable charm and vintage vibrancy.

Langley, B.C.-based Save-On-Foods recently accepted the challenge and opened the doors on its first Urban Fare concept store in May, 2019, the third store it’s opened here just in the last quarter.

“We really wanted to make sure we integrated with the neighbourhood,” says Todd McMullen, Store Manager of the new Urban Fare Calgary. “Our whole design here is a modern twist on the Queen Anne revival architectural style that the neighborhood has. We’ve got the Devonish building across the street; one of the older buildings in Calgary. They way we tried to design the store is definitely meant to compliment the architecture of the area.”

The Urban Fare store, located just off the city’s popular 17th Avenue at 906 16th Avenue SW, has achieved its goals; stately brickwork is visible through the floor to ceiling windows, and it naturally draws the eye to a vibrant bar area situated prominently at the front of the store. This is Urban Fare’s first-ever wine and charcuterie bar concept, added to make the store not just a place to shop, but to stay and enjoy the surroundings.

“We’ve brought in a number of things we wanted to try out, into the new Calgary store,” enthuses Darrell Jones, Save-On-Foods president. “We looked at the Calgary marketplace and at the Mount Royal neighborhood, and that’s why you see some of the things you see.”

Shoppers will definitely notice a different feel inside the store; a huge selection of fresh, ready-to-eat foods takes up the front of the store, and weaves into the produce area near the centre. The store eschews the typical grocery store layout where the produce section is to one side near the entrance, with aisles running parallel. At the Calgary Urban Fare, the store is long and narrow and seems designed to draw you back, and in. Here, the grocery aisles run perpendicular to the produce and deli departments, creating the effect of several unique marketplaces all under one roof.

“We wanted to boutique the groceries at the back of the store and we did that deliberately because we want to focus on the fresh side of the business. We want the customers to see the fresh side, any time they come out of the grocery aisles,” explains Jones. “The whole concept of the store is ‘from gourmet to everyday’ and what I mean by that is there’s gourmet food and a gourmet feel, but things like Tide laundry detergent are the same price as at any other store in Calgary. The prices in the grocery store are what you’d normally pay, but the environment is special.”

Making customers feel special seems to be a key value of the store. Unique shelving like LED-lit endcap displays helps unique products stand out, and there are a number of them; from fresh Wagyu beef in the meat department (and available sliced from the deli), to grill-ready Beyond Meat sausages and burgers, to pre-cooked sous-vide meats like duck, osso bucco and chicken that are ready to be brought home and heated for twenty minutes. An army of sandwiches lines one glassed-in case, adjacent to a fresh Napoli-style pizza counter where recipes have been crafted specifically to appeal to this hip urban neighbourhood known for its high end restaurants.

Offers McMullen, “Mount Royal is an important market for us. 17th Avenue is the place to be. Drive down here and it’s very vibrant and there’s so many restaurants; it’s all about food, and it was a natural fit for Urban Fare.”

One of the newest and most popular trends in food is also making its debut at Urban Fare Calgary; a fresh poke bar where customers can scoop up pre-made fish and veggie bowls to go, or have one made to order featuring sushi-grade fresh salmon, and albacore or ahi tuna.

“The poke bar is a brand new program for us and we thought it’s a natural fit here. We’ll probably roll it out to some of our other stores as well,” says McMullen.

While Urban Fare is making an investment in some new concepts at the Calgary store, it’s also making a strong investment in the city as a whole. The Urban Fare store comes on the heels of two other Save-On-Foods store openings in Calgary in just the last few months, all as the city struggles to find its identity in an economy that still hasn’t fully recovered from the oil and gas downturn.

“We see Calgary as a city with a bright future,” reveals Jones. “The time to invest is when times are tough. When things start to take off again, you’re already well established. It’s been a good opportunity for us to get great locations. We’ve been eyeing this location in Mount Royal for about five or six years.

Customers seem bullish, too, on Urban Fare. The response in just the first two weeks since opening has been so strong, more employees were hired, and Jones says sales have been better than the company anticipated.

“Urban Fare is a unique banner that needs a specific neighbourhood. You have to have high density and an income level that works. We will open more Urban Fares but we need to find the right locations for them.”