Specialty food shops offer old world service and quality

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Discerning consumers shop for specialties

In North America, we don’t shop for food the way they do elsewhere. For most of us, it’s a weekly stop at the big grocery store for whatever meat, seafood, cheeses or baked goods we’re looking for. But this isn’t how much of the world brings food from supplier to consumer. Open air market stalls, roadside stands and small, independent shops abound in cities and towns across the globe, so it’s often as simple as buying fresh food near where it’s made, caught or farmed.

Just wander the stalls of the St. Albert Farmers’ Market to see commerce done the old-fashioned way. Patrons meet growers, farmers, bakers face-to-face, chatting about how a product is made or where it’s farmed. It’s the same premise at D’Arcy’s Meat Market in St. Albert. The long-time butcher shop (one of just two in the city), is still a surprising secret to many residents, according to D’Arcy’s owner Kyle Iseke, even with the store’s long history, solid reputation and recent move to a space twice its former size in Campbell Park.

“It was rough going the first year we moved, but we never had to lay anyone off,” says Iseke of his staff of some 15, including those devoted to full-time sausage making.

“Shopping at a specialty shop can be a perception of cost versus quality for some consumers. Our Alberta beef, pork, chicken and fresh, in-house-made sausages are top quality, as is the customer service – special orders, individually-wrapped cuts – and people definitely want this; they want to know where their meat comes from. But they want value too. That’s as important.”

D’Arcy’s ‘buy three, get three free’ sausage promotion is an example of the butcher’s nod to giving great value on a great product. Created on-site, big sellers include Greek, Italian and German sausages, breakfast links, smokies and even a Danish variety. With customers coming from throughout the region, Iseke says he’s selling about 1,000 pounds of sausages a week because customers know it’s a made-from scratch, quality product at a half-price value.

“It’s why we do annual promotions like our half-off beef tenderloin Valentine’s Day sale – even beating Costco on the price – but they won’t cut and wrap individual portions like we do. It’s a way to thank regular customers, but also to get more people to try us. I think everybody from Alberta should treat themselves to a local steak once in a while,” he says. “Normally, you might pay 10 or 20 per cent more for products, but you get twice the quality and better service with a small shop like ours. You know exactly where that steak comes from. And in this economy if your budget dictates that you get ground beef, you still get that superior quality and service with us.”

As with many independent entrepreneurs, Iseke supports fellow local producers and farmers. A big store map at D’Arcy’s shows exactly which farms and ranches all the meats are sourced from – pork from Morinville, beef from Legal, chicken from Grande Prairie (to name just a few). “The quality of meat is unmatched. The dairy cows that come from Lakeside Dairy, for example, have a wonderful, high level of marbling that creates amazing cuts. And buying from these producers around Alberta supports jobs in the communities.”

“Some people will never shop here – they’re set on getting everything at the big supermarkets, but we’re getting word out to young families, retirees – anyone looking to shop local and know where their meat comes from. That’s value right there,” he says.

Central Alberta may not be known for fresh fish and seafood, but small retailers and market vendors are finding innovative ways to get the freshest coastal products to prairie customers. Former Alberta oilfield worker Rob Tryon of Effing Seafood (he’s also at the St. Albert Farmers’ Market) is using his hometown B.C. connections to bring just-netted oysters, clams, mussels and more to the fish market, special events and area restaurants. It’s the same at Ocean Odyssey Inland, a specialty store in West Edmonton that has seen sales boom ever since Icelandair started including Edmonton International Airport as a regular stop on its North American routes.

Every Thursday, in-the-know customers head to the 167 St. shop for Arctic char caught just the day before on Iceland’s shores. Shop owners Pat and Darrell Batten are seeing a huge influx of customers looking for char and many other varieties of fresh fish and seafood that comes in on the weekly flight to Edmonton.

“Even if the economy is down, people are still looking for good food, and they’ll invest a bit more money to make it at home rather than eat in a restaurant,” says Pat, who is part of a network of small, independent food producers and retailers that frequent the city’s downtown market. “And just as importantly, we follow exactly where the fish comes from and how it is handled. We can even tell you the name of the boat and the fisherman who caught it. That makes a huge difference to customers – and for a specialty store like ours, it’s all about sustainability. We’re breaking sales records by leaps and bounds.”

As the first importer of fresh Icelandic fish in Western Canada, Ocean Odyssey Inland is tapping into nutritional trends too, appealing to consumers after a diet higher in Omega 3 fish oils. The shop’s biggest sellers are char, followed by haddock, cod and redfish. “Many customers are on a budget, especially these days, but fish still fits into the plan. People find cheaper varieties, or adjust portions, from eight to six ounces per person. But it’s still important for them to have the quality and know where the fish comes from.”

Steve Furgiuele, chef and salumiere, sells wildly-popular fresh-made sausages through spots like Ocean Inland Odyssey and at the new Alberta Ave-area restaurant Otto, which features his Fuge Fine Meats on its simple sausage-focused menu. Following a just-completed crowd-funding campaign that raised $20,000 for a walk-in curing refrigerator, the old world-Italian style chef/entrepreneur is finding success with the same formula: fresh and local.

“People are really loving the kielbasa, chorizo, Italian fennel, American endoui and more, but I’m always experimenting and developing new tastes – I’ve got a chicken sausage and one with Icelandic cod,” says Furgiuele. “I’m so proud to be involved in the local food scene; I feel like we’re all budding entrepreneurs. Tonight alone, I’ll make 400 pounds of sausage for Otto Restaurant. People there are loving the Turkish Delight – a lamb and beef sausage with ginger, allspice, raisins and walnuts. There’s a fun, vibrant, grassroots vibe among independent shops and makers – it feels like a great time to have a small business.”

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About Author

Lucy Haines

Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.