Canadians love good food, and Vancouverites are true epicureans, with their love of fine and gourmet foods, the very freshest produce, and high-quality specialty and ethnic items. Vancouver offers myriad choices for procuring food: open-air-style markets, farmer’s markets, big and small-chain supermarkets, high end and gourmet markets, organic and natural food markets, ethnic markets—the possibilities are literally endless. Many of the big-box North American stores have locations in Vancouver, allowing you to save on your grocery bill. It is even possible to source food yourself, from local farms, providing the opportunity to obtain the freshest possible food, at wholesale prices.
For the American expat, Safeway, Wal-Mart, and Costco in Canada are much the same as their American counterparts. Obviously, product selection will vary, and these stores sometimes source locally grown produce in order to ensure freshness and quality. There are over 15 Safeway stores in the Vancouver area, 5 Costco warehouse stores, and 1 Wal-Mart supercenter in Vancouver (there are other Wal-mart stores in the area but these are not supercenters).
Canadian supermarkets are much the same as grocery stores in the States and around the world. Typically, selection and quality are good, and you’ll find that a significant portion of the produce for sale is grown on regional farms and/or is imported from the U.S. and Mexico. The Overwaite Food Group operates several grocery store chains, with the biggest two in Vancouver being Save On Foods and Price Smart Foods. Urban Fare, a leading gourmet supermarket, is also operated by Overwaite. Loblaw’s is Canada’s largest food distributor, and operates Vancouver’s largest supermarket/warehouse grocery store, Real Canadian Superstore. Superstore offers low prices on bulk goods, yet it is possible to buy in smaller quantities, as in regular grocery stores. Loblaws recently acquired T&T, Canada’s largest Asian supermarket, and also owns a rock-bottom discount supermarket called No Frills.
Ethnic markets abound in Vancouver, with T&T at the top of the list for all things Asian, and there are various smaller specialty grocery stores such as the Parthenon, a Greek specialty market in Kitsilano on the Westside, and Fujiya, a small, Japanese grocery store on the Eastside selling exclusively Japanese products (most Asian markets sell a variety of good from various Asian countries).
Vancouverites are known for their green efforts, eco-consciousness, and environmental sustainability; thus, natural products and organic food are important considerations for many. Vancouver offers a good selection of organic grocery stores/markets, the biggest of which is Whole Foods, a U.S.-based natural/gourmet supermarket chain. Whole Foods operates two stores in the area under its own name, and 2 additional stores under the name Capers Community Market, with which it merged in 2007. Famous Foods is an independently-owned natural supermarket with one location on the Eastside offering cheaper prices than either Whole Foods or Capers. Choices Market is a regional chain of natural supermarkets, with 7 locations in the lower mainland.
Open-air/public markets/farmer’s markets are popular with Vancouverites, and are a weekend ritual for many. The largest of the public markets is Granville Island Public Market, which is a somewhat eclectic, colorful indoor array of food and produce stalls, selling anything from local honey to original artwork and jewelry. Farmer’s markets run year-round, and in the summer, operate at various convenient outdoor locations throughout the city.
Shopping for food in Vancouver is not complicated, but there are a few basic rules to keep in mind. Shopping carts are usually coin-operated, although some markets use smaller carts that are not. Some coin-operated carts require a quarter ($0.25) to run, and others require a looney ($1.00 coin). You simply place the coin in the indicated slot and push it in with the attached key. When you’re done with the cart, you return it to the cart area, use the attached key of the cart in front of yours to push the coin back out. You now have your coin back. The system can seem bewildering at first, but it is really simple once you do it once or twice. The challenge is in remembering to bring coins with you to the supermarket. Supermarket parking is usually free, but some urban supermarkets (and other stores) have underground parking facilities that require you to procure a ticket upon entering the garage, take it with you into the store for reimbursement (you get the cost of the parking taken off your grocery bill), pay for the ticket once back in the garage using one of the ticket machines, and then deposit the ticket into the designated box when exiting the garage. It isn’t a terribly complicated system, but it can seem like a lot of steps if you’re not used to this kind of parking.
Many supermarkets offer a club card that can be used to earn rewards points and gain discounts every time you shop. Signup is free and easy to do, either online or at the customer service counter in the store.
Although Canada is part of North America, and many people feel that it is similar, culturally speaking, to the United States, it does have a rather distinct culture and the commonly used terminology can be quite different, depending on the part of the country. When shopping for food or dining out, it can be helpful to familiarize yourself with some of the more commonly used food-related Canadianisms:
- “Homo milk” is whole milk (3.25% or higher butterfat)
- “Whole milk” is non-homogenized milk (straight from the cow, non-processed, harder to find)
- “Brown bread” refers to whole-wheat bread (“brown toast” is whole-wheat toast)
- “pop” is soda (carbonated beverage)
- “icing sugar” is powered sugar
- “Back bacon” is Canadian bacon
And for those coffee breaks:
- “Double-Double” is coffee with 2 creams and 2 sugars
- “Butter Tart” is a locally-loved sweet pastry, like a miniature pecan pie without the pecans
- “Beaver Tail” is a Canadian favorite, a fried whole-wheat pastry topped with butter and cinnamon sugar, or sometimes chocolate or other sweet topping
- “Whitener” is non-dairy powdered creamer (for tea or coffee)
- “Coffee Cream” is 18% butterfat cream commonly offered along with half-and-half (10% butterfat) and milk
And finally, the reusable shopping bag. Because Canadians, and Vancouverites in particular, are so environmentally conscious, they are keen to avoid the use of plastic, disposable grocery bags. All major supermarkets offer reusable bags for purchase (or sometimes you can get them for free with your rewards points), and some will charge you a small fee for every plastic grocery bag you use. Some cashiers will ask, at the start of check-out, how many plastic bags you will be needing (you must estimate if you didn’t bring your own or don’t wish to buy reusable ones). On the other hand, some will offer you a discount for bringing your own bags. Some stores also carry paper grocery bags, and you can request these instead of plastic bags at no additional charge. It is a good idea to bring your own bags with you when shopping, or to acquire reusable ones while shopping. If you purchase one or two per shopping trip, you will eventually have a sufficient quantity. There are quite a few local stores that sell uniquely crafted reusable shopping bags. Not only will you be helping to save the environment, you can accomplish it all in a stylish manner.