Department store luxury food halls, long a fixture in other countries, are finally popping up in Canada
Until now, Canadians have mostly been denied the simple pleasure of having a distinct and delicious meal inside department stores. Imagine slurping a dozen fresh oysters with a side of bubbly smack in the middle of the hum and chatter of shoppers crisscrossing between well-groomed sales people and curious purchasers.
When done well, the department store food hall can be a beacon of civilization. In cities like London, Paris and Tokyo, the food hall is often a department store’s main attraction. Smaller cities, too: Take Fenwick’s department store in Newcastle upon Tyne in northeastern England, for example. I fondly recall being treated to small plates of sashimi sliced up by a Japanese sushi chef just a few steps from the Yves Saint-Laurent makeup counter. He laid out the portions onto delicate plates, and then onto a conveyor belt that went round and round. As I sipped on white wine, I watched diners size up each dish, deciding whether to snatch it before it was conveyed out of reach. The buzz of Fenwick’s customers around me faded as I got lost in the enjoyment of a decent meal.
Restaurants and food purveyors have previously existed in large store chains within Canada, the Holt Renfrew café being one notable example. But in decades past, the offerings were typically bland and settings drab.
At last the dream of great department store eats has become a reality for Canadian shoppers (at least in Toronto for the time being), now that Saks Fifth Avenue has launched its first-ever Food Hall by Pusateri’s inside Sherway Gardens on March 7. The 18,500-square-foot expanse offers all the deluxe food you’d ever want to take home, from baskets full of crisp French baguettes and a wall stacked with imported English tea to ethically sourced and antibiotic-free meats and carefully presented shellfish.
You can also eat while you’re browsing, at one of several food-and-drink stations: there’s a sparkling wine bar, a sushi bar and a prosciutto bar that proudly hands the drying, curing hind legs of hogs.
Pusateri’s, Saks Fifth Avenue’s partner in the venture, has long been a go-to shop for food enthusiasts. The 50-year-old family-run firm knows how create a food market – one that entices well-heeled shoppers to shell out for premium products – with two largely successful stores already in operation, located in tony neighbourhoods in uptown and midtown Toronto. (A third Pusateri’s food hall is set to open in RioCan Oakville Place this spring.)
For U.S.-based Saks, joining up with a partner that has local knowledge echoes a model that we’ve seen elsewhere recently: For example, Jamie Oliver enlisted Toronto chef Rob Gentile of renowned Italian restaurants Buca and Bar Buca when launching Jamie’s Italian restaurants in Canada.
When it comes to the Saks experience, past visitors to London may hope that the king of all the food halls, the basement at Harrods department store, will serve as the model. When it opened in 1834, Harrods was a grocery store specializing in tea. It’s fitting then, that even though the retailer has evolved, it still houses some 18 departments dedicated to food – caviar to go, stuffed aubergine from the fourth-floor Mezzah Lounge and a quintessentially English (and pristine) tea room. At Paris’ Le Bon Marché department store, meanwhile, you’ll find madeleines, macarons and pastries galore. But not only that: Spanish jamon iberico, sections dedicated solely to butter or truffles and a foie gras island (think: a food-lover’s heaven). And in Tokyo, at the Takashimaya chain’s flagship 14-floor store in the Shinjuku area, the top two floors house restaurants, but the basement is where visitors flock; a food hall comprised of 130 stations of Japanese food (lots of mochi, which are Japanese sweet rice cakes), Chinese delicacies and French baked goods, which the Japanese relish. (Other Japanese department stores follow a similar model: restaurants on top, liquor and luxe groceries in the basement.)
Back in England, the Fenwick’s food hall where I enjoyed top-notch sushi has since undergone a multi-million-pound refurbishment, and reopened in September 2015 armed with buzzy new fare including Southeast Asian street food, a wine and charcuterie bar, and café and patisserie.
The Saks-Pusateri’s teamup likewise results in a blend between global culinary influences – reflected in globally sourced groceries – and local products. But In late April, when the even larger (25,000 square foot) food hall comes to the Saks at the Eaton Centre – which is both a tourist hub and shopping haven for locals – can the food hall succeed in becoming a destination? Will the offer of grab-and-go prepared foods, or an afternoon of wine paired with charcuterie, or a deluxe grocery shopping experience reel in the customers in Toronto, as in London and Paris and Tokyo? Based on what we’ve seen at Saks Sherway, the food hall becoming a phenomenon in Canadian department stores seems promising. But only time will tell: You can lead a customer to locally sourced chardonnay, but you can’t make her drink.