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Toronto Mall Turning Into Asian Food Mecca

I predicted this a few months ago, but never expected anything like it to happen for at least a few years to come. Now, I hear that one former downtown Toronto mega-mall is shifting its identity to Asian Food mecca…

T&T at Fairview - © 2023 Karon Liu
T&T CEO Tinja Lee, visiting the under-construction new

T&T Asian Grocrey at Fairview Mall in Toronto.

Fairview Mall was once one of the shopping mega-destinations of central Toronto. It advertised its plethora of shops – high- middle- and low-end – all across southern Ontario. But like other malls, the Internet and direct-to-home delivery have made the mega-mall concept redundant to society’s needs.

But rather than just sit there empty, an almost organic process is turning Fairview into a new Asian-themed destination with a rich selection of Asian grocery stores, tea shops, bakeries, noodle shops and restaurants.

T&T Supermarket, perhaps the leading Asian grocery in Canada with 28 outlets from Vancouver right across the country, was first to take over a former big department store space (Sears) at Fairview, and a rich mix of other Asian-style retail businesses have followed month by month.

It’s a natural evolution

“Food continues to be a steady draw for customers and something people look for in a neighbourhood. We’re on the transit line. We get commuters, shopping traffic, nearby residents. (The mall) has been a local landmark for more than 50 years, but the neighbourhood has changed so much that we’re constantly looking to find that balance of retail and food for everyone,” Daryl Clemance, general manager of Fairview Mall, told the Toronto Star.

Fairview is owned by Cadillac Fairview (CF), the real estate firm that also owns Toronto Eaton Centre and Sherway Gardens. In fact, CF owns a lot of empty-mall space across Canada. If the T&T move into Fairview works – in Toronto, the country’s toughest retail market – I can see an ending to this big (retail) screen action-adventure tale that looks a lot like the final scene of Casablanca, where Mr. Rick and The Prefect of Police stroll off into the foggy darkness predicting it could be ‘the start of a beautiful friendship’.

T&T already has lots of experience

“We’ve gone into closed Target spaces, Sears, Toys R Us. As the big boxes are shedding their space, we’re coming in,” says T&T CEO Tina Lee, adding that in the last five years she’s seen more demand for grocers to open in malls. “It [used to be] about getting another department store because it’s easy to execute, but now a lot of retail developers are asking how else you can repurpose a defunct department store. We’re one of the most expensive stores to build.” Plumbing, electrical and structural improvements must all be made to accommodate heavy equipment such as batteries of coolers.

Lee points out that other types of retail businesses will still be essential for the ongoing success of the new food-themed Fairview, but the new mall concept will always pivot on its Asian Food Destination identity.

Mall aren’t dying…

Stone Yu, CEO of Lucullus, the Hong Kong-style bakery and café at Fairview Mall, says his grand vision for his family company has always included he always opening in malls as a way to expand the brand beyond Chinese communities. Yu and his family actually have several new locations on the build. New food options are a way for the mall to survive, he observes.

“Are malls dying? I don’t think so,” Yu says. “It’s a location [destination] to go to, just like a park, but you can also come here on a rainy day.”

~ Maggie J.