In a Nutshell: A Lost Opportunity

Is Shopper’s the new Starbucks?

I’m starting to think so. Even before Loblaw purchased Shopper’s Drug Mart the company had started rebranding and implementing an aggressive expansion plan much to the chagrin of Rexall, their direct competitor. Rexall tried a counter attack by proclaiming they were a drug store first and foremost. No superficial cosmetics and convenience store milk cartons for them. That didn’t work very well. Shopper’s had OTC drugs and a pharmacy, but also offered customers a one-stop shopping experience with a beauty boutique, late hours and bonus Optimum points. Moreover, through new real estate acquisition Shopper’s was marking its territory in and around Toronto like an alpha-male and strategically taking advantage of newer condo-centric neighbourhoods. Now it’s coming to the heart of our neighbourhood… again.


There are 3 Shopper’s Drug Marts along King Street West already. When Dollarama opened on King West many residents were outraged and thought it cheapened the neighbourhood. I also didn’t see the point when there was a long-standing outpost to spend your loonies and twonies nearby at Adelaide and Spadina. Similarly, I don’t see the point in opening a Shopper’s at King and Brant when there is one a short 2 blocks away at King and Peter. With this one literally at my doorstep, I can dash out in my pyjamas if I wanted to rather than walking east (338 King St. W), west (761 and 901 King St. W), or north to the 4 along Queen St. West. But I don’t want it.

In mid-2013 Loblaw announced that that space was going to be the location of Nutshell, its new whole foods and healthy lifestyle retail store. It was to be a “convenience-based fresh food led drugstore model” and target customers of Whole Foods Market and the like. The Press Release continued: “Nutshell live life well will offer healthy food and living ideas and feature a strong core grocery offering with integrated natural options, a broad vitamin and supplement assortment, professional in-store health and wellness services, a pharmacy that balances traditional services…with prevention and support, and health and beauty products, with a focus on natural skin care.” A year later the plan was no more.

A Brief Timeline of Events:

  • Pilot project Nutshell announced mid-2013
  • 9,000 SF space laid out and opening planned for Fall 2013
  • Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and Shopper’s Drug Mart reach an agreement for $12.4 billion takeover – July 2013
  • Loblaw cancels Nutshell store plan. Eventually its Facebook page Nutshellonking shuts down – January / February 2014
  • 500 King Street West storefront windows concealed during this time
  • Shopper’s Drug Mart acquisition by Loblaw complete – March 2014
  • Shopper’s announces that it will have a larger food selection, including fresh vegetables. President’s Choice items noticeably appear in the stores – early 2015
  • Shopper’s Drug Mart sign at 500 King Street West revealed – March 2015

What bugs me is the lost opportunity here. It may be a less risky and practical business decision on the part of Loblaw, but what about innovation? Nutshell was a compelling concept and, as a pilot project, exciting for the neighbourhood. The trend for healthy living is still on the upswing. Furthermore, there is no Whole Foods Market in sight. The only one downtown is nestled between Avenue Road and Hazelton Lanes in posh Yorkville. A few years ago I heard rumours that there might be a Whole Foods opening near Bathurst and Front, but in 2017. While Whole Foods is in expansion mode in Canada, at this point some of the locations are still just rumours. Whole Food’s sister-store Fresh and Wild at King and Spadina is a little shop of pricey organic foods, but without the lifestyle and pharmacy aspect of Nutshell or Canadian ownership. And look at how successful Joe Fresh has become when Loblaw took that giant step towards the fashion market.

I have nothing against Loblaw or Shopper’s. In fact, I’m a regular customer. I shop at the Loblaws at Queen and Portland and get my prescriptions and personal toiletries from the Shopper’s at King and Peter about 90 percent of the time. I have a points card for both of them. Now these two successful Canadian brands are under one umbrella. Applause applause.

As a resident, however, it pains me to see Shopper’s signage above the door already. Each time I pass 500 King Street West I think what a wasted opportunity not only of a great concept but also of an historic gem of a building in our neighbourhood. The industrial character of our neighbourhood is well-known and these are among the oldest industrial structures in the city. This structure spanning Brant Street to almost Spadina Street is the former Gurney Stove Foundry (now home to multiple tenants and owned by Allied REIT since 2003). When the Gurney brothers expanded their Hamilton-based stove making business to Toronto in 1883 they set up business along King Street West. The buildings that remain from the original complex showcase an exterior of red and yellow brick and an interior of original oak floors and massive wooden beams of old-growth Canadian pine. The heritage building is really beautiful and it would have been nice to see something more unique go inside its walls and perhaps more sympathetic to the character of the building and to the upmarket aspect of our neighbourhood.

Is this Shopper’s going to be different? Will the team behind the urban-cool atmosphere of the newest downtown Loblaws stores reinterpret this Shopper’s with Pharmacy written across the wall in graffiti? I certainly hope not. Or is it going to be like Starbucks, the same look and offerings stalking me at every half city block?

A Modular Experience

There is no shortage of great coffee spots in the King West neighbourhood. If you frequent Bar Buca, Jimmy’s, Colette, Thor, Soma and Forno Cultura, you’ll know what I’m talking about. As much as I like to vary the venues for my outings I keep finding myself back at Portland Variety.

Replacing the now defunct KiWe restaurant, Portland Variety took up prime real estate along King West at the south west corner of Portland last year. Once I walked through their newly opened doors there I saw it for the first time with my own eyes. It was love at first sight. It was their Modbar.

Mod what? Modern? The 60s youth subculture in Britain that focused on music and fashion? Neither of those make sense in the context of a dark caffeinated beverage. So let’s try Modular. As in a modular espresso brewing system making urban cafes around the world that much sleeker and stylish.

IMG_1357 Before you think me crazy for falling in love with a machine note that I am deeply appreciative of good design, which for me is the attention to aesthetics without compromising function. You have to experience it to believe in it as the baristas working the system and the coffee connoisseurs do.

And what’s not to love? Firstly, instead of a honking piece of machinery I’m presented with sleek stainless steel taps flush with the counter top. From exotic hardwood lever handles for the steam, espresso and drip coffee taps to polished chrome and tantalizing accessories, it’s so darn elegant. The system’s technology is equally beautiful in design. It programmable, has a touchscreen and a power saving feature that finally addresses new methods of sustainability in cafe culture. Truthfully, to give true justice to the system one needs to study the manual.

Secondly, I can actually see what the barista is doing. I have an opportunity to notice that the barista is taking his or her time creating my espresso-based beverage of choice and topping it with a milky design during the final pour. All that machinery blocking my view and hindering a better customer experience is hidden underneath the countertop. If you think the mysterious allure of the barista lacks due to this expose, think again. This customizable system gives the barista tremendous control for enough wizardry that you’ll both see and taste.

Of course, with so many $4 gourmet coffee experiences in the city and the industry’s Third Wave of Coffee craze, so what? For me, breaking down the barrier between customer and barista gave for a mutually engaging and informative experience. That’s what I call value add. IMG_1372 Portland Variety is one of only two places in Toronto to have the Modbar and the only one in the west end – at 587 King Street West to be precise. 

A Cold Sunday Morning

On my way to the Tiff Bell Lightbox - not a lot of people out and about in this cold

On my way to the Tiff Bell Lightbox – not a lot of people out and about in this cold

On any given Sunday morning it will take a lot to get me out of bed. In fact, I’m just not a morning person period. Full stop. So what does get me up one Sunday every month during the winter months? What got me up this morning despite the extreme cold weather warning of bitterly cold arctic air combined with gusty north winds for a daytime average of -24 C that can feel like -40 C and freeze my face?

It’s what a small community of like-minded contemporary world cinema buffs like me do. We head to 350 King Street West – aka the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

So I bundled up, layer upon fleecy layer, just like any well-seasoned Canadian would do. I enveloped all those layers with the trusty and now ubiquitous Canada Goose parka, which I’d like to add I purchased well before it was seen on everyone everywhere. That parka was worth every cent! It may also be worth mentioning that I’m a summer person through and through perhaps making my little morning adventure all the more curious.

I’ve been a big supporter of the TIFF. I live and breathe art and culture. I love foreign films. So I treat myself to a full subscription to Reel Talk: Contemporary World Cinema for the 10:30am showing of a film that the TIFF’s top programmers select for us, but only reveal to us when we get there. Surprise!

They’ve become so popular that TIFF added a second screening last year. In the beginning there was only the 10am screening. You can imagine how grateful I was when they offered an option that enabled me to get an extra 1/2 hour of sleep.

So what was the surprise film today? I routinely picked up my hot coffee and fresh scones and then, once I peeled off the layers on me like an onion, settled in my chosen seat. The opening scene…a vast winter landscape with heaps of snow and a windy soundtrack to amplify the visual so I could feel it in my bones.

You can imagine my heightened sense of surprise. This was not going to be 2 hours of escapism to a tropic land. I added back one of those layers and sunk in my seat a bit more in quiet surrender of the inescapable winter.

However bleak, the engaging storyline and strong lead actor strung me along for 115 minutes. The film is called In Order of Disappearance (original title Kraftidioten). It is a 2014 Norwegian crime thriller-black comedy directed by Hans Petter Moland and starring Stellan Skarsgard. Alluding to different genres, teeter tottering between stark violence and the LOL ridiculous, and touching upon attitudes toward immigration, this film was well received when it had its premiere in the competition section of last year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The programmers said that there was a big round of applause after the Berlin screening despite the fact that the director and cast were not present – a rarity apparently. Don’t worry – there will be no mega spoilers here. Check it out if you’re interested. The average audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 91% and the critics give it 85%. The pacing and cinematography of a snowplough through the frozen landscape alone are well worth it.

All bundled again, I left the warmth of TIFF Bell Lightbox for the cold, deceptively sunny outdoors. The weather app on my phone read: Toronto -18, Oslo -1. I remembered one of the comments in the film that made me laugh – an observation that there are no hot countries with welfare, only cold ones.