Grand Union

By Jamie Bradburn, originally published February 9, 2011

Few remnants remain of former grocery store chain

Grocery store design isn’t a form of architecture that immediately comes to mind when thinking of heritage properties. As stores expand or move into new locations to provide customers with a wider selection of products and services, innovative designs that were once used to lure customers are buried under facelifts or destroyed altogether. Among the few survivors of 1950s suburban supermarket design in Toronto is the graceful arch found at the Metro store at Parkway Mall (originally Parkway Plaza) on the western edge of Scarborough. This store, which was listed on the inventory of heritage properties in 2009, has carried a number of nameplates during half a century of operation, which ranged from an American chain making a brief foray north of the border to a Quebec powerhouse brought down by family bickering. The Grand Union, Steinberg’s and Miracle Food Mart names have long departed from this store and the rest of the city, though combined, they were key players in the cutthroat grocery trade for four decades.

Parkway Plaza Grand Union Ad: The Toronto Star, September 3, 1958

In May 1953, growing New Jersey-based supermarket chain Grand Union purchased Carroll’s, a Hamilton-based group of grocery stores. Their first major Toronto location opened, with the lure of a free puppy, in Crang Plaza at the northwest corner of Jane and Wilson in August 1954 (currently a Food Basics). By the end of that year, the company announced its participation in a multi-million dollar development at Ellesmere and Victoria Park, which opened as Parkway Plaza on September 4, 1958. Grand opening festivities provided many distractions for shoppers checking out the new supermarket and its fellow tenants, including a forty-six-piece marching band, bagpipers, clowns, and live radio broadcasts by CHUM and CKEY. The curved roof used for the Grand Union was a hot style for grocery stores of the period, perhaps best exemplified by Safeway’s “Marina” design. A similar arch was used further west at Grand Union’s Yonge and Sheppard location, though later renovations squared off the front of that recently-demolished store.

Parkway Plaza was the last grocery store to open in Metro Toronto under the Grand Union banner. Deciding to focus on expansion south of the border, Grand Union sold its thirty-eight Canadian stores to Montreal-based Steinberg’s in June 1959. President Lansing P. Shield felt the sale was “a natural move which will benefit stockholders and employees of both companies.” Over the next half-century, Grand Union alternated between periods of expansion and contraction until several bouts of bankruptcy under a revolving door of owners reduced the chain to a handful of small towns in the northeast. Within a week of the sale, Steinberg’s announced a $7 million, ten-store expansion plan for the Toronto area, including four sites already procured by Grand Union. The first of these stores opened its doors at the northwest corner of Bathurst and Sheppard in July 1959 (currently Metro). One of Steinberg’s first promotions saw handbills distributed near the Yonge-Sheppard store for one dollar off a ten dollar purchase, which resulted in a coupon war with other grocers. While most competitors doubled the offer, Honest Ed’s triple-dog-dared Steinberg’s-as an ad claimed, “Honest Ed’s a bum-steer your way to Bloor and Bathurst where there’s no ‘beef’ about the bargains.”

In January 1969, all Toronto Steinberg’s stores changed their banner to Miracle Food Mart, a name that incorporated the name of the company’s discount department store chain to convey a new lower price policy. A Steinberg’s spokesperson told The Globe and Mail that the changeover was a “direct response to the needs of the majority of today’s food consumers and the problems they face in meeting the rising cost of living.” That rivals such as Loblaws saw their sales rise after dropping expenses such as trading stamp promotions probably provoked the move more than a feeling of sympathy for shoppers. The new moniker saw two decades of local expansion, charges of false advertising, recurrent labour strife and never-ending price wars.

By the end of the 1980s, Miracle Food Mart needed a miracle. Its local market share decreased sharply after A&P purchased most of Dominion’s Ontario assets and Oshawa Group picked Safeway’s Toronto locations. Ownership squabbles among the heirs of Steinberg/Miracle founder Sam Steinberg, specifically sisters Marilyn Cobrin and Mitzi Dobrin, spelled doom for the chain (newspaper reports suggested only their mutual hairdresser knew the true depths of their long-simmering jealousies). By 1989, with the intervention of the Quebec government, the corporation was sold to a consortium led by Socanav and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec to prevent a sale to Toronto-based Oxdon Investments, who only intended to keep Steinberg’s real estate interests (the province wanted the corporation to remain whole and in Quebec hands). Naturally, the new owners carved up their acquisition. After several months on the block, the Miracle Food Mart division was sold to A&P Canada in July 1990, who gradually let the Miracle and Ultra store brands fade away.

Thorncrest Plaza picture, circa 1956: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 213, Series 1464, File 1, Item 16

Besides those stores previously mentioned, buildings that once housed Grand Union locations still stand at Islington Avenue and Rathburn Road (now a Foodland in the curving, petite Thorncrest Plaza) and at Browns Line and Evans Avenue (now a Top Food supermarket).

Additional material from the June 11, 1959, January 14, 1969, and February 16, 1988 editions of The Globe and Mail and the July 8, 1959 edition of The Toronto Star. Portions of this post originally appeared on Torontoist (http://torontoist.com/2009/02/historicist_from_a_grand_union_to_a.php).

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