New Loblaws no blah blah

Maple Leaf Gardens has been resurrected with new life.

“The Gardens”, as we locals call it, was built in 1931, constructed in a little over 5 months. From 1931–1999 it was home to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Growing up I didn’t attend hockey games. We were a baseball family, first with season’s tickets to the Toronto Blue Jays at Exhibition Stadium, then at the Skydome (now called The Rogers Centre) for a number of years. In fact, it was only in the last five years when I went to my first hockey game, at the Air Canada Centre. The Gardens also hosted other sports leagues over the years. A concert venue, Wikipedia says that it was also one of the few venues outside of the U.S. where Elvis performed. I only went to Maple Leaf Gardens once before it closed down, when I was in high school and went to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

For years after the Leafs left for the ACC there was talk about what to do with the building. Owners Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. refused to sell Maple Leaf Gardens to anyone who proposed to use it as an arena in competition with the Air Canada Centre. Loblaws, Canada’s largest food retailer, purchased the Gardens in 2004. They originally intended to convert the interior to accommodate a Real Canadian Superstore with parking. I remember this because I was living in the neighbourhood at the time and remember a sign outside saying something like, “Our baker has been given a time out for icing.”, with Superstore logo. Then the signs were taken down and the building continued to remain abandoned. It took years for the supermarket to be built.

When the Superstore announcement was made there was criticism that the conversion of the building to retail uses diminished its heritage value, and that Maple Leaf Gardens should continue to serve as an arena in accordance with its rich history and traditions. Others argued that the structure had been deteriorating for years, and that its ongoing use for minor league sports and events would not generate sufficient income to secure the building’s preservation and restoration. In 2008 and 2009 some events were held there. Over the years movies and television shows were shot there. I once saw Dan Aykroyd outside the building on my way home from work once.

In September 2009, Loblaws announced it had entered into discussions with Ryerson University regarding the possible future joint use of the arena. Subsequently, construction began to convert the arena into a Loblaws grocery store and Ryerson University athletic centre. After many delays including finding a creek running though the basement (!) and a time capsule (!) the new Loblaws store opened last week, on November 30, 2011. So, now it’s Loblaws’ new flagship store (or as I called it as a young child, “Bloblaws”, kind of like “Bob Loblaw” from TV’s Arrested Development).

I didn’t go to the grand opening on the first day. I couldn’t make it to the blogger event after work due to previous commitment, it wasn’t particularly convenient during the day, and I have no interest in going to a crowded store earlier in the day just to be “the first”. While listening to the radio in the morning I heard about the lineup to get in for the 8am opening. At 7am there were already 250 people. The first person in line had been there all night. It’s almost as if Elvis was performing again – back from the dead.

I heard that there was a whole lot of sampling going on during the first day. There was also some sampling on day two when I went.  I was in the neighbourhood, it was convenient. Owner Galen Weston was there.

I watched as a line of people 18 deep waited patiently for what looked like samples of mini peameal bacon on a bun.  I sampled some orange juice and was told that they’ll juice virtually any fruit from the produce section upon request. I ran into a friend who works in a mid-town restaurant kitchen and said she was back for the second time in two days. Then she urged me to sniff her cheese, “drunken goat cheese”, which is a firm cheese washed and soaked in red wine. Intriguing.

Drunken goat cheese

Drunken goat cheese

The wall o’ cheese, an 18-foot-tall fridge that showcases 400 varieties, really is impressive. Cheese is available by full wheel, half wheel or chunk and can be cut to desired size. It’s part of a 85,000-square-foot store with an enormous amount of features.

Ace Bakery has a full factory within the space that will function as a testing ground for new products intended to roll out to other stores. A 2,000-square-foot kitchen creates everything for the ready-made counters and overlooks the produce sections below.  There is a bakery for breads of all kinds but also a patisserie for cupcakes, cakes, handcrafted chocolate that chiseled from a giant block of chocolate, and more.

Ace Bakery at LoblawsCredit: Designalmic

pretty cupcakes

pretty cupcakes

There’s a butcher and a meat counter, charcuterie hanging from one. A Tea Emporium counter has tea needs covered. There’s a gelato counter that of course claims to be “best in town” (most gelato places seem to make that claim). Upstairs there’s an LCBO outlet and a 8,500 square foot Joe Fresh outlet.

Tea Emporium Loblaws

There’s also free WiFi and tables to sit at if you want to stay and eat your prepared take out meal. It kind of reminds me of Longo’s at Maple Leaf Square but more corporate. Not that Longo’s isn’t corporate, it was the feeling I got when I visited the stores. One of the employees mentioned to me that most of the products that this Loblaw’s carries are their own President’s Choice line, and many of the remaining products are owned by the Westons.

The place is beautiful. Little remains of the old Gardens. I forgot to get a photo of the  3D sculpture created from reclaimed stadium chairs in the shape of a Maple Leaf. The old Centre Ice is aisle 25, next to the spam. A red dot on the floor marks the spot. Murals provide an homage to the building’s history.

The store serves a potential market of about 100,000 people, who live in the area, and another 25,000 to 30,000 workers in the surrounding office towers and retail outlets. I wish it was there when I lived near the neighbourhood. My options were limited.

The new Maple Leaf Gardens is worth checking out. After I left I took a peek through an ajar door that was part of the building and not the store. Ryerson University’s new athletic centre is still in progress.

Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens
60 Carlton Street (at Church St.)
Hours: Monday – Sunday 7 a.m to 11 p.m

I took more photos than are here but if you really want good photos, click the link to the Globe and Mail’s photos, below. I only had the camera on my phone because the store visit wasn’t planned.

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