Monika Sidhu: Chalo! FreshCo Is A Threat To Local Independent South Asian Grocers
Small business owners and industry experts fear for the fate of South Asian-owned and operated grocers as corporate big-box operations like Chalo! FreshCo encroach into communities
July 7, 2021 | 4.5 min. read | Original Reporting
Since 2015, Punjabi-heavy neighbourhoods in Brampton, Mississauga, Surrey, and Edmonton have seen the emergence of Chalo! FreshCo, a big-box supermarket chain owned by Sobeys that is aimed towards the South Asian community.
Many shoppers have grown grateful for a place where they can buy everything they need often at a cheaper price and without having to potentially make multiple trips to different retailers. However, small business owners and industry experts fear for the fate of South Asian-owned and operated grocers as corporate big-box operations like Chalo! FreshCo encroach into communities.
Thiara Supermarket is a family-run business that has been around since 1993 and is a staple in Mississauga which provides a real connection for many to Punjab. Sunny Thiara, 29, is the manager for the store which he also grew up being around.
“When I went to India… and I would go to those hatti [convenience stores] around in the pind I would see all the products we have back home in our store. Seeing that, it made me feel like I was right back at the store, I was right back at home. So if I can feel that, I’m pretty sure any student, anyone that comes from [India], they come here and feel close to our people, our community, it just gives them a sense of belonging,” he said.
He shares that for many, his family’s business has functioned as a store to get everything the South Asian community could need—from everyday spices to a bag of chips.
Thiara recognizes the value of Chalo! FreshCo - a convenient big-box supermarket catered to the South Asian community, similar to what Marche Adonis is for the Middle Eastern community or T&T is for the East Asian community.
However, supermarkets like Adonis, while now owned by Metro, and T&T, which is now owned by Loblaws, were founded by members of the communities they serve, and the original owners maintained senior management roles post-sale to external corporations. Chalo! FreshCo, or its parent company Sobey, has no such roots or origin story in the community.
While there is no Chalo! FreshCo close enough to Thiara’s to jeopardize their business at the moment, Thiara said they have run into instances where suppliers and vendors did not have enough product to distribute because they sold to supermarket chains.
“Some people will say our prices are higher but the fact is, now this is where Chalo! FreshCo and all these stores like Metro and Superstore impact us. All of these suppliers we have, they will give to these other stores but they’ll give them at a reduced rate. The price we get is always at a higher rate,” he said.
He acknowledged that larger supermarkets get reduced rates because they can make much larger purchases. Sobeys, the parent company, is a $25.1 billion dollar company so Chalo! FreshCo has buying power that far surpasses independent owners.
Not every grocer is pessimistic about the presence of Chalo! FreshCo.
Munish Dutt is the owner of Indian Frootland, a Brampton-based grocer that has been around since 2015. He has a lot of confidence in the success of their business which now has three Brampton locations with another one on the way.
The original store is nestled in a Brampton suburb and Dutt feels that many people would still choose this convenience over going into a larger supermarket. Dutt’s stores are closer to the supermarket, but he said his business has continued to thrive despite competition.
“I know the competition is there. I know every corner they’re opening up Chalo! FreshCos. Where we are right now you can find two No Frills…[but] we are surviving and doing business here,” Dutt said.
“[Business is] going to be impacted, that’s for sure,” he said. “But, if somebody is doing a great job...and we are providing customers with good service, good stuff— no I’m not saying better prices, I’m saying moderate pricing to them—people still come.”
Experts and industry watchers, however, do not share the same optimism over the longer term and are worried about how independent grocers will be affected.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is the senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University and has expressed his views on the fate of independent grocery stores openly; one of his main concerns being that independent grocers are a dying breed.
Speaking with Baaz, Dr. Charlebois said independent grocers have always been valued for the innovation they have brought to the industry.
“A lot of the innovation that actually we see in Canada, have come through independent grocers because they have to think outside the box, they have to be different,” he said. He explains that smaller startups can find homes in independent stores much easier than bigger grocers.
But even seeing the worth of these stores, Dr. Charlebois says he is not overly optimistic about the future of independent grocers.
“Independent grocers, most Canadians don't realize it but, they do play a very vital role in the food retail economy. In Canada overall they represent about 35% of sales retail right now in Canada,” he said.
“But that portion is shrinking every year, unfortunately.”
He said staying competitive with big grocery stores is becoming more and more challenging.
So far, Chalo! FreshCo has opened up some jobs for Hindi and Punjabi-speaking members of the community and they have donated to Seva Foodbank. They also created space for small businesses such as Aman Meat Shop, Al Marwa Sunrise Meats, and Starfish Market. However, it all still falls under Sobeys and currently, three of nine locations are run by white men.
Baaz made multiple attempts to reach out to Sobeys media department but they referred readers to their website.
In the meantime, small independent South Asian grocers will be left wondering how a Chalo! FreshCo might impact their business.
Monika Sidhu is a journalist based out of Brampton. She covers topics of arts, culture, and social justice. More recently, she graduated with a Master of Media in Journalism and Communication from Western University. You can find her on Twitter at @MonikaSidhuu.
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