My Canada, 99/150: From Gardens to groceries

When I’m hosting visitors to Toronto, one of our top agenda items is a trip to the Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaws.

Now, dragging your touring-the-big-city friends off to a grocery store may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but it is mine. And so far, everyone I’ve taken has had a hoot.

Officially “Loblaws 60 Carlton Street”, this store is considered the flagship for the Loblaws grocery chain. Loblaws got its start in 1919 in Canada when business partners Theodore Loblaw and Milton Cork open a grocery store where — gasp! — customers picked items off shelves, rather than have their order filled by a clerk behind a counter. By the middle of the 20th century, Garfield Weston, president of the bakery company George Weston Ltd., bought out Cork’s shares and soon gained controlling interest.  Loblaws is now one brand of supermarket within the amassed retail Weston holdings.

Maple Leaf Gardens was built in 1931 to be the home for the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the “original six” National Hockey League franchises. The Leafs played there until 1999, when they moved to Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. The venue was also host to a who’s who of touring shows, from The Metropolitan Opera to Elvis Presley.

99 Loblaws interior
If you don’t look too closely, you might think it was just your usual urban grocery store. Photo: Kelley Teahen

The building post-Leafs sat unused for many years. Loblaws bought it in 2004 but initial plans to turn it into a Great Canadian Superstore (another Weston chain) fell through; the building’s previous owner, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, stipulated as a sales condition that the building not be used as an arena or sports venue that would compete with the new Air Canada Centre.

Then, in one of those brilliant ideas that look obvious in hindsight, Loblaws started discussions in 2009 with Ryerson University, whose location in the heart of downtown Toronto with almost no campus lands made it challenging for the former polytechnical institute to expand. Two years later, the former Maple Leaf Gardens was transformed into the first-level Loblaws and Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre in the upper half, which houses a fitness facility, studios, high-performance courts, and an NHL-sized ice hockey rink seating just under 3,000.

99.1 loblaws
Look! In the sky! It’s a giant maple leaf! Photo: Mark Mooney

The history and physical markers of the building’s past are interwoven into the grocery store. The east wall is exposed back to the old structural blocks; mounted to it is a giant maple leaf formed out of blue seats that once were installed in the arena.

In aisle 25, there’s a small red circle in the orange flooring: that’s where centre ice used to be. A large mural just inside the west door entrance depicts the Maple Leafs hockey team history — or at least the happy times when the Leafs were championship contenders, something that has not happened now for 50 years.

There are seating areas for people buying lunches or dinners from the store’s variety of prepared food counters and those tables are decorated with poster reproductions from shows hosted at the Gardens. Key Garden events, from concerts to boxing matches, are commemorated via painted pillars that run across the store aisles.

99.3 Loblaws
The Wall of Cheese. There’s also a cupcake wall and, in the pharmacy section, a vitamin wall. Photo: Mark Mooney

Some of the store’s display features have since been replicated in other Loblaws outlets, including an impressive “wall of cheese”, an 18-foot-high refrigerator that keeps cut cheeses for purchase within arm’s reach and large wheels of cheese yet to be cut stored above head height.

You can get grocery staples cheaper, day-to-day, at a No Frills or other discount chain within the Weston empire. But at this Loblaws, I can get Quebec blue cheese, Balzac’s coffee beans, decent fresh fish, and the opportunity to entertain visitors. Loblaws shot! Loblaws scored!

Main photo: Mark Mooney

 

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