It’s all well and good to talk about the awesomeness of our summer dining options, but the fact is most of us get the bulk of what we eat from grocery stores, not restaurants. Restaurants are a convenience and a treat – a splurge, even – while grocery stores supply us with the ingredients we eventually toil over to turn into everyday meals, right? Not any more.
Until recently, the distinction between restaurants and grocery stores was pretty clear, but anyone who has been paying attention has probably noticed that grocery stores increasingly blur that line.
The Rise of the Grocery Store Meal
Grocery stores have always provided convenience meals (which are typically frozen and generally gross). But now, depending on the store, the fresh, prepared snacks and meals you can buy are anywhere from pretty decent to really great.
According to Ken Woo, vice-president of food centre operations and merchandising for Calgary Co-op, the demographics of Calgary make the market ripe for focusing on quality fresh-to-go meals. “Half of Calgarians are aged 25 to 54, and this younger population is time-pressed. Mom and dad are working, the kids are busy with activities, so they’re looking for options,” says Woo, adding that the customers are also savvy about quality, so not just any prepared meals will do. “We used to call it ‘brown food,’ but we don’t deep fry anymore. We’re roasting and braising … our chefs are Red Seal [certified], preparing restaurant-quality meals, which are about $10 and include two sides. And the sushi has really taken off, too.”
The Not-So-New Trend
What the mainstream grocery stores have picked up on recently, Community Natural Foods has been doing since 1977. Community focuses on high-quality, local and organic ingredients in the meals and snacks it sells and serves in its in-store caf, which underwent a major renovation in 2011 and has both eat-in and to-go items.
“It used to be that we were the weird tree-huggers, and we had to convince people,” says Bruce Martin, general manager of Community Natural Foods. “Now they come looking for it. But it’s not enough now just to offer chickpea salad. The bar is being raised. The good news is there’s more capacity in the market so there’s room for that growth.”
Whether you’re heading out for a picnic or home from work and don’t have time to cook, remember that grocery stores aren’t just for groceries anymore.
Our Favourite Grocery Foods to Go
Curry Bar (butter chicken, tikka masala, chicken vindaloo, chana masala, naan bread)
Sushi (assorted regular and deluxe rolls, sashimi and sushi made in-store)
Meat loaf with mushroom sauce
Sandwich bar (generously made-to-order with a large selection of breads and toppings)
Roast beef (a family-sized roast, though sides are extra)
Ginger chicken pasta salad with grapes
Selections vary and may not be available at all locations.