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After years of searching, our blogger finally finds "her" Vancouver grocery store.
Some people hate to grocery shop, but I love it almost as much as I love to cook and eat. If it’s the right store, that is.
Growing up on Quadra Island, I spent plenty of time at Quadra Foods, where you could find everything from organic veggies to natural cosmetics, to prepared deli foods, to books, to bulk tea in big glass jars.
Although, back then, I didn’t appreciate the store’s variety and healthy stuff. See, the kids who ate tofu and carob were taunted in school, and the more chemical-laden your snacks, the more popular you were. So I went there to buy pop, chips and candy, found in the aisle labelled, perhaps with some judgment, “Junk Food.”
Despite its selection, Quadra Foods was a no-frills place. Before its subsequent renovations, it was dark, a little dusty, its windows plastered with sale signs hand drawn by a local artist. It wasn’t strictly a health-food store, a supermarket, or a neighbourhood gathering spot. It was a little of all three.
1595 Kingsway, Vancouver
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Years later, after I moved to Vancouver, I began an unconscious search to find the city’s version of Quadra Foods. The store’s founder, Russell Precious, was also the founder of Capers Community Markets, the Vancouver natural foods institution. And years ago, when I lived in Kitsilano, Capers partially filled the void. The logo, designed by the same Quadra Island artist who had created the Q-Foods one, was a small comfort, even if the high-priced organic produce and lack of certain brands (so what if feel like Old Dutch ketchup chips?) was not.
But on my student budget, I couldn’t afford to shop at Capers regularly, and so, Safeway it was.
As I moved around back and forth between the Eastside and the Westside, I shopped at whichever chain grocery store was nearest. But I never felt at home in any of them. The slick advertising, the excess packaging, the insincere attempt at being neighbourly: It all felt wrong.
Meanwhile, my eating habits improved. I expanded my cooking skills. I bought more organic produce. I became obsessed with cooking Indian and Thai dishes. Then, when I moved to the Kingsway and Fraser area, I finally found it, just down the street: “my” grocery store. And it sold the foods I wanted to eat.
Famous Foods calls itself “the original natural food store,” but, like Quadra Foods, you don’t have to be a health nut to find all you need there. You may have seen their ads on buses around the city, but despite the name and its long history (the first location, at Clark and Hastings, was opened in the late 1960s, and moved to the current location in 1983), Famous Foods is still under the radar. It doesn’t even have a website. But it doesn’t need to: neighbours, bulk-food lovers and no-frills types from all over the city inevitably find it.
At first I was skeptical: It was small, basic-looking. With unadorned, off-white walls and the signs scrawled in marker. And while the uniform-free staff were helpful, there were a few sullen, hoodie-wearing young cashiers who “let” you bag your own groceries. After the chain stores, it was a culture shock. But I was impressed with the selection, and the place grew on me—and it became my store.
After four years and one move, it’s still the only grocery store I regularly shop at. It’s small, but it has nearly everything I need. Not to say it’s perfect: Some items are well priced, and others are not; and the produce isn’t as varied as I’d like.
But the store’s interior aisles, which nutritionists often tell us to avoid in most grocery stores, are not to be missed. That’s where you’ll find Famous Foods’s signature store-packaged bulk foods: fruit, nuts, chocolates, oils, grains, legumes, snacks, flours, extracts and spices, plus ethnic, imported and organic brands, and lots more.
Now when I meet people who shop at Famous Foods, it’s like a kindred-spirits connection. Recently, a friend told me she and her husband vowed to stop eating factory farmed meat and now go out of their way to buy chicken, beef, pork and wild meats at Famous Foods because they were impressed by the prices and quality. I’m a vegetarian, but that warmed my heart.
There are chain supermarkets in the Lower Mainland that attempt to replicate the natural environment with the sounds of mooing cows in the dairy case and rushing waterfalls in the produce section. But that’s all just noise. If a grocery store sells real, healthy food, plain walls and markered signs will suffice. The food will speak for itself.
Vancouver singer-songwriter-storyteller-extraordinaire Dan Mangan loves Famous Foods so much, it serves as the set for his video “Sold.” (via Twitter: @VIAwesome)
[Updated: 4 Feb 2010]