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The Innovators: L’OCA Quality Market sets the stage for discovery

President Josh Thatcher says the in-store experience will be comparable to the theatre, putting food artisans on display

Josh Thatcher studied for a career in computer science, but after working at restaurants throughout university he was never quite able to shake his love of food.

Now, after spending twelve-and-a-half-years with Whole Foods Market, he is president of L’OCA Quality Market, a hybrid restaurant/grocery store with a brand promise of “Do food differently” that is opening next spring in Sherwood Park, just outside of Edmonton.

L’OCA’s first store, slated to open in the spring 2024, will be approximately 45,000 square feet (plus three outdoor patios) and employ approximately 200 people. Thatcher spoke with Canadian Grocer about the concept, and why he believes that L’OCA—whose name is Italian for “goose”—might be poised to add some excitement to the grocery category.

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Artist's rendering of the L’OCA Quality Market exterior

Can you describe the concept of L’OCA Quality Market, and what separates it from other grocery retailers?

It’s an experiential artisanal market. If you were to take your best artisanal bakery; your favourite artisanal butcher; restaurant; coffee roaster; deli; specialty food retailer etc., and put them all in one place, that’s essentially what we’ve created.

What stands out first of all is that we’ll have the most comprehensive gourmet market and prepared foods offering in Canada. This is not just grocery prepared food—this is an exciting plethora of chef-prepared and restaurant-quality items conveniently located in-store. These meals are created by some of the best chefs in Canada. 

Everything we’re doing has the guest experience in mind. One thing we’re investing in is team member experience, because we know that those team members take care of our customers. It’s ensuring that we have an amazing group of talented, knowledgeable, and well-trained staff to engage customers.

Is there anything else that’s distinctive about the in-store experience?

The way we’re looking at category assortments is unique in the sense we’re looking to combine the best in local, the best of Canadian products, and the best products from around the world all together instead of keeping them segregated. You’ll be able to find an amazing Japanese beverage right next to a North American kombucha, [for example].

All of that is being wrapped up in a beautiful architectural space that is designed with theatre in mind. We’ve really baked the core values of “quality,” “[from] scratch,” “theatre” and “love” into everything we do, and theatre is about putting our [in-store] artisans on display. Our mission is to create joy, share love, and make life delicious by reconnecting people with artisanal food.

Our customers will be able to get a coffee, see the beans being roasted, turn around and look through a window and see bread being made, dough being laminated for the croissants, and when they sit down in the café they can look across and see our chocolatier making chocolates.

L’OCA Quality Market exterior shot

Why focus so heavily on the physical retail experience at a time when digital seems to be an increasingly important aspect of the modern customer experience?

Online grocery is an important part of the marketplace and there’s been an enormous amount of investment, [but] we’ve seen as a percentage of e-commerce sales that grocery was predicted to be 4%, and fell just shy of 3% in 2022. 

It makes sense to try and reach the consumer in the most convenient way. But, to me the more interesting statistic that gets me fired up is an increase in food consciousness among the younger generation.

If you look at culinary tourism, [it’s] valued at $1.1 trillion, forecasted to go to $1.8 trillion by 2027, so that’s a significant increase. If you look at the restaurant numbers in Canada, they’ve shot up significantly. What that indicates to me is that there’s this worldwide desire to engage with food in new and different ways. There’s a learning element to it, it’s pleasurable and fun, and we’re here to bring that excitement back to grocery.

I keep saying grocery, but an important part of this whole thing is that we have this cross-functional experience with two amazing restaurants [Pyro and Oro] that we’re planning—one’s an elevated experience, and the other is a more casual experience. It’s almost like you’ll be able to go and shop [for food] at Canada’s best restaurant.

Did you take inspiration from other retailers around the world?

There seems to be sprouts of this around the world. Even in Canada, on a very small scale, there are chefs who have been inspired to bring this passion to the market.

We’re drawing inspiration from iconic places, like the fruit markets of Spain, and the produce markets and charcuteries and small delis of Italy. There are places all around the world that have very inspiring traditions that they continue to perpetuate, but this is a modern take and a new way to breathe life into a large [grocery] environment. Nobody’s doing it to the scale we’re doing it.

What is your background and how did you come to this sector?

I originally went to university for computer sciences, but I did not enjoy that job very much. All the way through university I worked at restaurants, and truly enjoyed food and was passionate about food. Later on, I switched careers entirely and went to work as a chef.

Eventually, I sought out a job at Whole Foods Market—I really enjoyed the culture there and was impressed by how they execute their stores, the entrepreneurial spirit in their culture, and their excellence in retailing and passion for food, so I went to work for them in operations. I was there for a little over 13 years before leaving to begin this exciting project.

What do your growth plans look like for the rest of the decade?

We certainly have growth targets. We’re building a national chain here, and we’re already advanced on our second and third locations. I’m not going to tell you where right now, but we’re actively [exploring] other locations. We have an aggressive growth plan.

Do you anticipate that this might usher in a new era of grocery retail that goes beyond traditional store design, product offering, etc.?

Absolutely. I believe this is an opportunity for us to be at the forefront of where [grocery] is going and what the consumer wants. We want to breathe life back into more elements of our lives. Grocery has become such a…lifeless experience in a lot of cases. I’m not saying grocers aren’t out there doing cool things, but certainly not things that people get excited about. We’re here to make it exciting and breathe some new life into the industry.

There’s no shortage of innovation happening in the food industry. From fresh retail concepts to avant-garde products, Canadian Grocer is putting the spotlight on the people and businesses moving the industry forward in our new series, The Innovators. Have a pitch? Send your submissions to digital editor Jillian Morgan

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