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Into the West

From the coast to the prairies, a roundup of great grocers

Western Canada isn't just home to majestic mountains, stunning shorelines and expansive prairies, it’s also where you’ll find outstanding grocers. From large regional players to single-store operators, we’ve compiled a snapshot—by no means an exhaustive list, but as many as we could squeeze on these pages—of some of the best the West has to offer.

Buy-Low Foods


Location: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan
Number of stores: 50 stores under four different banners
What’s new? Recently acquired Choices Market

Buy-Low Foods has come a long way from its early days as a single store in Vancouver in 1966. Part of The Jim Pattison Group since 1995, the company now has 50 stores under the retail banners Buy-Low Foods, Nesters Markets, Meinhardt Fine Foods and Choices Market, which Buy-Low Foods acquired earlier this year. Through its Associated Grocers and Van-Whole Produce wholesale divisions, Buy-Low Foods also supplies nearly 2,000 independent grocers, produce markets and small restaurants in the West.

As a community-oriented grocer, Buy-Low Foods prides itself on being in touch with customers on a personal level. “Customers’ wants and needs change very frequently—and what they need in a grocery store can vary from one visit to the next,” says president Dan Bregg. “With our unique setup of store formats, we’ve got something for everyone—whether it’s a hot meal, the ingredients for a home-cooked dinner from scratch, or fast and convenient healthy choice options, we are focused on delivering the quality products customers are looking for.”

The company has a number of new stores in the pipeline across Western Canada, but none have been announced just yet. However, acquiring 11 Choices Market stores was a big win for the company, allowing it to expand its reach in Western Canada. “ are well known as fine health and wellness-oriented supermarkets, and have been leaders in offering local, organic and specialty natural food items in a warm, welcoming environment for 27 years,” says Bregg. “We’re very excited to join forces with them.”

Calgary Co-op

Calgary Co-op-0113

Location: Calgary and surrounding area
Number of stores: 24 food centres, 24 pharmacies, 30 gas bars, 24 car washes, 28 liquor stores and three home health care centres
What’s new? “Everyday Awesome” marketing campaign

Calgary Co-op is not your average local grocery chain. As a retail co-operative, it’s owned by the very people who shop there—more than 460,000 of them, in fact. “We don’t just have members; we have member-owners who share in our profits and have a voice in how we run our business,” says Ken Keelor, CEO of Calgary Co-op.

First established in 1956, the co-op has now grown to include 24 food centres, 24 pharmacies, 30 gas bars, 24 car washes, 28 liquor stores and three home health care centres, all located in Calgary and its surrounding area.

Keelor says the co-op has been able to thrive for the past six decades—even successfully weathering storms like Alberta’s recent economic difficulties—by offering exceptional customer service and remaining dedicated to the community. This March, it launched a new marketing campaign called “Everyday Awesome,” which encapsulates Calgary Co-op’s strategy in this regard. “In a world of service reduction and increasing automation, we believe what our team members do to personally go the extra mile to service our customers makes us stand out,” explains Keelor. “Some examples of how we add value to our customers’ experiences with a personal touch include full-service gas (even in the extreme cold weather of the Calgary winter!), free delivery on prescriptions, grocery carry-out, and a free cookie or piece of fruit for kids to munch on while mom shops.”

With more than 3,850 employees, Calgary Co-op was recently selected as one of Alberta’s Top 70 Employers for 2018 (the second year in a row it has achieved this honour). “The real secret to success is our people,” says Keelor.

49th Parallel Grocery


Location: Vancouver Island
Number of stores: Four
What’s new? Exploring additional locations

Over the 40 years the Richmond family has owned it, 49th Parallel Grocery has managed to do better than merely fend off its bigger competitors—it has grown.

Named after the original store’s geographical latitude, 49th Parallel Grocery has expanded from its first location in Ladysmith to the neighbouring communities of Cedar, Duncan and Chemainus on Vancouver Island, adding a flower shop and café to the mix along the way.

Peter Richmond, president and CFO, chalks up the company’s success to a number of things including outstanding customer service, which his parents
Wayne and Harmina established as a priority when they took over the business in 1977. Good selection and value, a deep involvement in the four communities 49th Parallel Grocery serves, and loyal, empowered employees are also part of the winning formula.

“We offer a good career for a lot of our employees,” says Richmond. “Quite a few of my staff are running their own shop; they get to decide where they buy their oranges from and what price to set. I’m not telling them what to do and that makes the job more fun for staff—they tell me that on a regular basis.”
While Richmond says there are no plans to have “20 stores up and down the island,” he is looking to expand the operation to new locations where it makes sense.

Fresh St. Market

Location: Vancouver area (West Vancouver and Surrey)
Number of stores: Three
What’s new? Becomes part of the Georgia Main Food Group, a new subsidiary of H.Y. Louie Co., when H.Y Louie restructures in late March 2018

As the name suggests, fresh food is front and centre at Fresh St. Market, the newest banner (introduced in 2013) from a company that also operates a few dozen IGAs in British Columbia.

The Fresh St. Market concept is Georgia Main Food Group president and COO Gary Sorenson’s vision. Last year, when Canadian Grocer profiled the newest store, in Surrey’s fast-growing Panorama neighbourhood, Sorenson said the inspiration for Fresh St. Market came from a visit to Whole Foods Market’s flagship store in Austin, Tex.

At the Fresh St. Market, dried goods are moved to the side aisles to allow fresh foods to shine in the centre of the store. In fact, the traditional grocery ratio of 60% dry goods and 40% fresh has been reversed at Fresh St. With fresh meat and seafood, an array of ready-to- eat meals, a bakery brimming with rustic breads and a produce department with plenty of local items, there’s lots to satisfy foodies and families alike.

Freson Bros.


Location: Alberta
Number of stores: 15
What’s new? Announcement of two new stores (For Saskatchewan and Edmonton); the launch of a new digital version of its loyalty program; and a new line of private label products

With its network of 15 grocery stores (and counting) across Alberta, Freson Bros. has come a long way from the tiny butcher shop Frank Lovsin set up in the town of Hinton back in 1955.

As a nod to its heritage, Freson Bros. still places a big emphasis on fresh Alberta meat today, with all stores having butchers on staff. It’s also a detail that helps the independent grocer deliver its promise to serve up “a unique Alberta food experience,” which also includes using as many local, clean ingredients as possible in its extensive range of house-made products.

“What sets us apart from the competition is our commitment to traditional food processes,” says Doug Lovsin, part of the second-generation of Lovsins (along with brothers Mike and Ken) running the business. “We consider food and shopping for food an experience.”

In 2013, the chain launched its Freson Bros. Fresh Market banner in Stony Plain. The new concept amped up the fresh experience with hot kitchens, hot food buffet, from “scratch” bakery, and a smokehouse along with an in-store restaurant. New stores in Fort Saskatchewan this year and later in Edmonton (the company’s first foray into a major urban market) will continue to deliver the best of the Fresh Market with some “new ideas” thrown in.

Greens Organic + Natural Market


Location: Vancouver (Kitsilano neighbourhood)
Number of employees: 30 to 35
What’s new? Exploring the possibility of a second store

From the 100% certified organic produce department to the impressive sustainably-raised meat section, everything about Vancouver’s Greens Organic + Natural Market screams local, sustainable and community focused

Opened in 2010 by T Senthivel and Norm Chan, two friends who met as students at the University of British Columbia, Greens is a 7,000-sq.-ft. store located in the city’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. The small size was a deliberate sustainability-related choice. “The smaller footprint allows us to be agile enough to serve the local community needs and preferences,” adds Chan, who says the residents of the Kitsilano neighbourhood “tend to be health-and fitness-focused and at the same time progressive and excited about food.” The owners strive to provide a place where their customers feel at home. “We are truly a local neighbourhood store where our staff knows your name,” says Senthivel.

Greens boasts a nose-to-tail butcher, meaning the store buys the whole animal and uses every part. This allows the butcher to offer any cut the customer wants, and also boosts the sustainability factor as very little is wasted; they even make all their own patés, sausages, charcuterie, deli meats, stocks, stews and dog food in house. Green’s also has a kitchen/deli where everything is made from scratch, including soups, salads, sandwiches and breakfast burritos. “We have world-class butchers and chefs that are constantly creating amazing value-added product,” says Senthivel, who notes they are looking into the possibility of opening a second store.

Italian Centre Shop

Italian Centre-Calgary

Locations: Edmonton and Calgary
Number of stores: Four stores with 509 employees
What's new? Actively seeking new locations in Calgary and other areas

Taking over the family business was not part of Teresa Spinelli’s master plan, but when her brother (the intended successor) passed away, followed by her father a few years later in 2000, Spinelli found herself with a grocery store to run.

While it was a bit of rough start, Spinelli soon developed a passion for the business and set about finding ways to grow the Italian Centre Shop.

“When I took over, we were at $8 million in sales with 30 employees,” says Spinelli who has expanded the operation from one to four stores. “Today, we’re at $70 million in sales and 509 employees.” The store was also listed on the 2017 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.

What’s behind the Italian Centre Shop’s success? Part of it, says Spinelli, is always being ahead of the game. “At one time, we were the only store that sold panettone, an Italian Christmas bread. Now, of course, Costco sells it and Walmart,” she says. “We have to always be thinking about what’s going to make us different.”

And what sets her stores apart is an extensive range of European specialties, in-house cafes and impressive delis— which at the Calgary location includes a “cathedral of cheese.” Most importantly, though, Spinelli says the Italian Centre Shop is more than a grocery store. “We’re a gathering place; people feel at home, very connected to their roots, and they just like to hang out here.”


save-on foods

Locations: 164 stores across the West with one store in the North (Whitehorse)
Number of employees: +17,000
What’s new? Plans to open 10 new stores across the West in 2018

A key ingredient to Save-On-Foods’ success is listening to its customers, according to Darrell Jones, president of the Overwaitea-owned banner. “Each store is customized to suit the neighbourhood in every respect: from the product mix we carry that suits the tastes of the population base, to the special local items we carry that customers tell us are important to them,” he says.

Nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit amongst all staff is also an important contributor to Save-On-Foods’ success. “Collectively, we have a real passion for continually looking for ways to evolve our business and deliver what our customers are looking for,” says Jones.

One big achievement on this front is online grocery shopping, which the grocer has offered since 2014. “We were the first major grocer to offer home delivery as well as the click-and-collect option,” he says. With nearly 80 communities already being serviced, the company plans to roll out online grocery to a “significant number” of new communities, adds Jones. The 164-store chain is also expanding its brick-and-mortar footprint, with plans to open 10 new stores across the West in 2018.

Save-On-Foods is also big on giving back to the community. The retailer is a supporter of children’s hospitals ($30 million since 1986), food banks and school nutrition programs.

Stong’s Market


Location: Vancouver
Number of stores: Two
What’s new? In-store “Cooking with Cori” program

More than 85 years after Carson Stong set up shop in Vancouver during the Great Depression, Stong’s Market is still going strong. And it’s still a family affair, now helmed by the founder’s great granddaughter Cori Bonina, while her son Carson Bonina manages the North Vancouver location.

While Stong’s has opened and closed stores in different parts of the city over the years, there are currently two locations—Dunbar and North Vancouver—and both are thriving. The North Vancouver store, in fact, recently won the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers’ Independent Grocer of the Year Award (medium surface) for 2017.

Stong’s has been on the cutting edge of online delivery with its Stong’s Express service. It first launched online delivery in 1998, far ahead of most of the industry. “We recently invested in a new website and upgraded our online shopping service,” adds Bonina. And in a time when “experience” is being touted as a way to keep customers coming back to physical stores, Stong’s just launched an in-store “Cooking with Cori” program.

Often the pilot store for small, local suppliers that want to launch their products, Stong’s has advantages as an independent, says Bonina: “We have the ability to react to current and emerging trends right away and offer a huge variety of unique, gourmet and natural products that are often not found anywhere else.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s March/April 2018 issue.

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