New Food Desert Opening in East Hamilton

The irony is that Loblaw is making this short-sighted move at a time when the hot housing market is moving into the eastern portion of Hamilton's lower city.

By Paul Weinberg
Published March 08, 2016

At my house I am often faulted for not scribbling down a shopping list before I set out on Saturdays to shop at the local No Frills supermarket in our eastern neighbourhood. I end up relying on my memory for what is missing in the fridge or the cupboard as I move from aisle to aisle, basket in hand.

As a result, I invariably have to head over again during the week to the same store to purchase ingredients which it turns out we do not have. And I usually find myself standing in lengthy line-ups at the cashier again, with those similarly laden with groceries, in those late afternoons.

Of course, it is easy to be a steady customer if the only other supermarkets available are situated a little over a kilometre away. The Metro store at Barton and Ottawa, for instance, in Centre Mall requires about a 30-minute walk with a bundle buggy to load up on food if you are like me and don't have a car.

That's why I was puzzled this week to read in the Hamilton Spectator that our No Frills was slated to close as of April 9 because of its "underperformance," as a business. Huh? With all those people shopping daily at this store?

Suddenly, Main and King next to Gage Park is turning into what planners call a food desert where residents do not have an easy access to groceries in their community.

No Communication with Customers

Strangely enough, there was no sign at No Frills announcing the closing when I went there this Saturday to do my usual shopping, or thanking us (the customers) for our loyalty.

When I tried to get information from No Frills staff, I was told that employees had been required to "sign a waiver" which barred them from publicly discussing the closing. One person wondered out loud whether the store really would be closing on April 9, while another revealed that all 90 employees working there would be losing their jobs. Apparently these employees can apply for openings in other No Frills outlets and hiring will be based on seniority.

The No Frills stores are run by individual franchise operators. They were set up by Loblaw in the 1970s to provide low-cost groceries in warehouse settings by offering consumers the basics at a time when everyone was worried about the rising costs of groceries (sound familiar?).

Over time they have morphed into something more sophisticated as customers have demanded frozen vegetables, meat and more recently vegetarian products and organic foods.

Short-Sighted Decision

The irony is that Loblaw is making this short-sighted move at a time when the hot housing market is moving into the eastern portion of Hamilton's lower city.

In our area of the city, the range of customers who shop at No Frills is quite diverse. They now include the working poor, middle class professionals, and artists.

So, it would seem a bit counterintuitive for a major food conglomerate operation to suddenly abandon an area that many predict will experience even more positive changes in the future - especially once the east-west LRT is constructed.

It appears that Loblaw has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution - unlike Nations Fresh Foods. Back in 2012, the city was considering offering a financial incentive to encourage the opening of a supermarket or grocery operation in the downtown core as a means to revitalize a depressed area.

Instead, with a great deal of foresight, Nations arrived on the scene and set up shop with its own money in Jackson Square to great acclaim.

Nations Fresh Foods, entrance from Bay Street (RTH file photo)
Nations Fresh Foods, entrance from Bay Street (RTH file photo)

The company recognized the need for a grocery store in an area where there is the potential of shoppers from the condominiums springing up.

Let's revisit pre-Nations the argument made by Tim McCabe, the city's former top planner, for a new store that offers a broader range of goods and services not available at either the Hamilton Farmers' Market or specialty food retailers like Denninger's.

"The desire and need for a supermarket in the Downtown area is often expressed by local residents and investors. A lack of basic amenities such as a full service supermarket can impact quality of life in a community, and can affect population growth required to help revitalize inner city neighbourhoods, in particular, which impacts the City's ability to meet growth targets established in the new Urban Hamilton Official Plan," wrote McCabe, then General Manager for Planning and Economic Development.

What McCabe suggested in 2012 could be applied today to east Hamilton with its bleak retail strips along Main, King and Barton.

Urban 'Re-Colonization'

City planners could also control the number and location of supermarkets, as suggested by writer Ian Wylie, in a recent article in the Guardian.

Wylie writes that large supermarkets in the UK are controlled by what he calls the "big four" conglomerates that tend to bunch up in affluent urban areas. At the same time, he notes, formerly abandoned parts of town, especially in city centres, are "experiencing a re-colonization" with the establishment by these large entities of smaller food convenience stores under 3,000 square feet, which compete with independently-owned groceries.

This is a unique British situation but there is a lesson for people on this side of the pond. "That might mean setting rules for where supermarkets can open, like in San Francisco, where chain stores must provide evidence they are appropriate for the neighbourhood," says Wylie.

"Until then, the food supply of UK cities - and the character of our neighbourhoods - will be subject only to the law of which supermarket locations are most profitable per square foot."

Paul Weinberg wishes to thank the Ontario Arts Council Writers Reserve program for assistance in the research for this article.

Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton-based freelance journalist and the editor of an upcoming collection, Reclaiming Hamilton: Essays from the Ambitious City. He is also a member of Environment Hamilton.


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By highasageorgiapine (registered) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 09:04:21

this has been a problem in the east end for quite a while, and there has been some weak efforts from public health to address the food security problem. there doesn't seem to be much interest from the city otherwise.

i'll also comment that it isn't necessarily a short-sighted move. the movement of more affluent people to the area tends to change food purchasing power. people who can drive are more willing to shop elsewhere for cheaper or better quality food. sure, there are still numerous people living in this area who have yet to be pushed out by the housing bubble and are unable to drive, but it's the higher end grocery items which make the most money and it's not low income people buying them.

Comment edited by highasageorgiapine on 2016-03-08 09:09:58

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By mcpherc (registered) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 09:59:03

There are a lot of seniors who live in this area who no longer drive as well as artists ans those on low incomes who can't afford cars. They along with the wealthier members of our community deserve to have a decent grocery store in our area. City planning needs to consider the diverse needs of a community - rather than continue to be "driven" by cars. Walkable communities where services are available within an easy walking distance for most residents is also a healthier community and the way of the future.

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By stone (registered) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 10:01:33

This No Frills is always busy but it's an old one which means it has a very small footprint compared to most modern stores, that's why it it is considered to be under performing, it's not pulling in the dollars that it could be with more square footage The owner is closing up shop and opening a new giant No Frills at Queenston and Nash in the old Target.

The old building is mostly useless but the Delta location is pretty fantastic, too small for another grocery store but would be a good location for a Shoppers Drug Mart(also owned by Loblaws)

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By mcpherc (registered) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 14:08:43 in reply to Comment 116897

Interestingly there will be 3 supermarkets at the corner of nash and queenston once the new no frills store is opened.

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 10:53:05

Joining the long-running amenities desert between Barnesdale and Gage.

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 11:10:08 in reply to Comment 116900

Actually, Ward 3 as a whole is pretty "opportunity-rich" and generally starved of walkable amenities. (Between Wellington and Ottawa, you could argue that that Barton scores higher than King or Main.)

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:20:06 in reply to Comment 116901

I've noticed new places popping up on King faster than Main: - Kitchen Collective - Limin' Ridge - Vintage Roasters

And now a new restaurant opening next to Vintage Roasters soon.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 12:18:14

I was told that to have a successful grocery store in eastern Canada you have to have the volume to lower profit margins between .5-.75% per item. To do this your store must have no less 200,000 sqft. of actual shelf space. Not a store of 200,000 sq.ft but a shelf area of 200,000 sqft. This means for most places, you need very large stores. Unless a company is willing to raise the profit margin per item and thus its prices, you can't have older smaller stores. If the market is good I guarantee someone will move in.

Keep in mind all of this is outside of the Walmart issue. Its very difficult for any store to compete against a very large retailer that doesn't have to pay union wages. Most other Canadian Grocery stores have to do this and thus are at a financial disadvantage. Forcing Walmart to unionize won't work either, make no mistake, Walmart will leave Canada if it has to unionize its operations and said this as a threat to anyone thinking about it. This would be devastating to most communities in Canada at least in the short term. Devastating not just to store customers but the many, many food and goods suppliers that they use whom rely on them for their very survival.

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By mcpherc (registered) | Posted March 09, 2016 at 08:14:02 in reply to Comment 116903

No frills could increase their square footage by building up. Re Walmart - I think many people would be happy to see them go....

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 12:19:30

January 2002: The Barn supermarket closes at Hess and York.
July 2013: Nations Fresh opens at Bay and King.

Too bad that the City's $650K supermarket incentive was reallocated. Hopefully it doesn't take 11 and a half years to plug Ward 3's grocery donut.

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By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted March 08, 2016 at 16:04:42

Sounds like a good opportunity for an entrepreneur or two and some small corner markets with fresh produce.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 21:03:29 in reply to Comment 116908

For years I've wished we would see some local Rabba locations in Hamilton

All through the GTA, both city and suburbs, they have many locations in neighbourhoods. Would be perfect at the Delta and areas like Concession Street, Westdale near Mac etc....

Comment edited by JasonL on 2016-03-08 21:03:40

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By stone (registered) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 23:03:57 in reply to Comment 116914

Rabba is all Toronto used to have for the most part, the real problem in Hamilton is finding enough space for stores now as they need to be huge + parking. Delta Secondary is the only thing in the neighbourhood even close enough in size for most places to consider putting a store. Loblaws did a nice job on Maple Leaf Gardens, maybe they could rework that school.

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By jeffzuk (registered) | Posted March 08, 2016 at 20:31:36

Thanks for the article. This is definitely a loss in the walkability column for Hamilton. I too shop at this No Frills, often walking after dropping off kids at school. Now we’ll have to do it in a car, which is an option we’re fortunate to have but not everyone does. I feel for folks who will be even more affected by this store closure, who will either have to walk much farther to Metro or Walmart, take the bus, which isn’t easy with a full load of groceries, or pay for a cab.

One of the comments in the Spectator article about this suggested that the No Frills owner was hurt finanically by the Barton Centre opening of Walmart, which of course now sells groceries. If that's the case, Walmart's gain and the neighbourhood's loss.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted March 09, 2016 at 12:43:07

Dear Mr. Weinburg,

So sorry to read that you now have to schlepp your groceries from over a kilometer away. Have you considered a cargo trailer? The Wike Cargo Buddy Trailer costs only $290 and is made in Guelph. If you don't want to spend a day riding to Guelph and back to get it, a $20 delivery fee will get it delivered right to your door.

I use this trailer myself and have found it very convenient for shopping for myself, my wife, three children and two dogs. You may read my article about this experience at:

Note: Wike has reduced (yes, reduced) the price of the trailer since publication of this article. It is now $290 as stated above.

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By DavidColacci (registered) | Posted March 09, 2016 at 19:41:33

development opportunity? LRT....

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By ScottForbes (anonymous) | Posted March 14, 2016 at 10:49:37

I live a block from that No Frills and at times I forget that its even there. The store is so horribly stocked and they are severely understaff in the cashier department. It really is a nuisance to go all the way to the Mustard Seed for decent product. The space is too small for what Loblaws is doing now with their Fortinos and No Frills banners. Hopefully something along the lines of Fresh Mart opens in its place. Or better yet, the building gets sold to someone who knows how to serve the community.

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:22:50 in reply to Comment 116999

The NoFrills building is less than one-third of the land, given the parking lot.

Not saying I necessarily want it -- but the space of the land is huge enough for a REALLY HUGE flagship Fortino's if you follow the double-decker system and/or underground parking.

In the 90s they Loblaws did the "demo-rebuild" in my old Sandy Hill neighborhood in Ottawa on Rideau Street, and the results was actually fairly impressive for its era, considering this is 20 years old now.


I used to live near this urban Loblaws in Ottawa. Can you find the half-underground parking garage? It's VERY well hidden. The Loblaws became massive yet didn't tower (raised half a floor higher) and the parking was underneath the supermarket (half a floor underground), and the landscaping balanced the community concerns. That way, the new Loblaws didn't tower, since the main floor was only raised a few foot above to accomodate sunken single-level parking underneath.

This Loblaws I used to live near, occupies less land than the Gage NoFrills, yet its shopping floor is similar in size all the Fortinos we see elsewhere in Hamilton. The old small one shut down, construction occured, and a much bigger Loblaws arrived in the same land.

The size of the Gage NoFrills space is not a problem for a super-sized grocery store if you do a demo-rebuild with sunken or underground parking. In fact, the square footage of the nearby Walmart Supercentre building is actually roughly identical to the square footage of land that the Gage Park NoFrills is on -- when you include the large surface parking lot. You'd have a slightly odd-shaped building to have a Gage grocery superstore matching the Walmart square footage, but I've also visited large odd-shaped Loblaws elsewhere in Ontario too. Even if you remained rectangular, you'd still have about 2.5x single-level square footage as the building today.

Just because the NoFrills underperforms, doesn't mean a demo-rebuild of a flagship will not underperform. The size of the shop was its chief disadvantage.

That said, given the income levels of Ward 3, I'm not 100% sure if Fortino's is the right brand. (Myself, I'd definitely shop at a Fortino's in this location, though). Just saying, there's more than plenty of room for a huge supermarket that blows away anything at Centre, if one is perhaps inevitably coming.

Comment edited by mdrejhon on 2016-03-16 11:58:17

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By stone (registered) | Posted March 17, 2016 at 11:43:56

Heard this is going to be an LRT stop, apparently they are going to be like little stations and not just bus shelter type stops. It does leave a pretty big area without a walkable grocery store though.

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By No LRT (anonymous) | Posted March 19, 2016 at 21:29:05

A food desert. Wonderful. You can bet the greedy price pumping realtors in this city fail to mention that when they are laying it on thick while selling over priced, bed bug filled east end dumpers to Toronto investors. Investors who then turn around and raise the rents to Toronto prices. Great area, really up and coming. You can buy crack and get a hooker but you cant get any groceries. Ah but the LRT aka the Billion Dollar Trolley to nowhere will fix all that.

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