Just around the corner

Convenience stores remain a staple within the Queen's community

Corner stores in the Queen's neighborhood continue to cater to an evolving student market.
Corner stores in the Queen's neighborhood continue to cater to an evolving student market.
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Today’s corner stores offer much more than bubblegum, as they must in order to thrive.

According to Steve Nikitopoulos, co-owner of Campus One Stop at Alfred and Earl Streets, the sustainability of neighborhood convenience stores hinges on their ability to diversify.

“Now, everybody sells everything, so you just have to make an effort to differentiate yourself, and be good at what you do,” Nikitopoulos said.

He feels that convenience stores have taken on a new face.

“We’re fortunate we are where we are, because we’re so close to the University, but you really have to differentiate yourself in order to succeed as a neighborhood corner store,” he said.

Campus One Stop doesn’t sell lotto tickets, and tobacco sales represent only a small portion of its revenue. Nikitopoulos said the sale of these items is insufficient for sustaining a neighborhood corner store, one reason he speculates residential stores in urban centers like Toronto have become largely extinct.

Instead, Nikitopoulos and his brother Jim, also a co-owner, focus on acting as more of a grocery store for nearby residents.

The store carries a carefully curated selection of quality brands, Nikitopoulos said, including the Mola Mola fair-trade line of coffee products the brothers own.

After researching fair-trade coffee in the inaugural years of their business, Nikitopoulos said he knew it was the perfect market for him and his brother to explore while they grew their company.

“I did a lot more research into fair trade, and the more I read about it, the more I thought it really expressed who we are more than anything,” he said.

The Nikitopoulos brothers bought the store 11 years ago from their uncle and father, preventing the property from leaving family hands. According to Steve, the storefront has existed since 1907, but has specifically been a grocery and convenience store since 1967.

Nikitopoulos said he views Campus One Stop’s role as integral within the Queen’s neighborhood.

“I think that our store is a part of the social fabric of this community,” he said. “As the kids get to know us, they realize that we’re a part of the neighborhood; we’re a part of their everyday lives, sometimes for three to four years.”

Campus One Stop has seen a growth in loyal customers over the years, and Nikitopoulos said that despite having certain changes in the area impact business, they have always found a way to make their business more dynamic.

“Our feet are planted,” Nikitopoulos said, mentioning how he and his brother are committed to the growth of their business for the long-term.

According to Nikitopoulos, the store has managed to either keep its prices stagnant, or, in the case of some products, even lower, over time.

Campus One Stop has recognized the value of progressing to meet the changing preferences of students, he said.

“There’s a lot more information out there, and a lot more awareness of what is and what isn’t good to put into your body,” Nikitopoulos said. “We used to have 99 cent bread specials on plain white Wonder Bread, and it would fly off the shelves. Now you can put plain white Wonder Bread for ten cents and no one will buy it.”

Nikitopoulos said it’s impossible for a business like Campus One Stop to thrive without catering to the needs of its audience.

“You really have to make yourself a total destination —something that people will go out of their way to come to.”

Over at Albert and Earl Streets, at Bedore’s Food Market, owner Joanne Kwan said she strives to keep her prices on par with major chains.

“My prices are very comparable to big grocery stores ­— that’s what I try to aim for,” Kwan said.

She said most students find it much easier to purchase from her, especially when their needs are not as expansive as a full household’s.

“Students don’t have a family here; they don’t cook a whole lot, and so they just need a little bit here and there, so they look for the convenience,” she said. “A lot of them don’t have a car, so convenience works for them.”

Kwan has found that some students value low prices more, while others value convenience.

While Kwan emphasized the importance of personal relationships with her customers, she said her price competitiveness is what she thinks keeps her many regular customers coming back.

Though the prices of keeping a business can fluctuate, Kwan’s adamant about keeping her prices low, and said she prizes her relationships with customers more than any profit.

“I’m comfortable; I don’t count the penny for my living here,” she said. “I just want to have fun.”

Kwan emphasized the inimitable sense of community surrounding her store as one of her favourite parts of her job.

“I think that this is one of the best jobs,” she said. “My customers give me smiles all the time and thank me all the time … I can listen to my music and then I can even dance … what else do you expect in your job?”

Kwan has enjoyed running Bedore’s since she and her husband bought the long-standing establishment seven years ago when they were choosing a way to round out their careers, prior to retirement.

“As far as I know, Mr. Bedore bought it from someone else, and Mr. Bedore ran it in the 1950s, 1940s,” Kwan said. “This store is easily 80 years old.”

Despite the age implied by its name, Old Farm Fine Foods arrived at the periphery of the Queen’s Ghetto just four years ago, when Nancy George and her husband relocated from the Kingston Farmers’ Market.

Since then, they’ve welcomed students in for local, seasonal produce, including meats, cheeses, breads, ready-made soups, sandwiches and pizza that Nancy herself cooks daily in the upstairs kitchen.

“It’s been a good step from the market to here,” George said.

According to George, it’s the close connection with their former Farmers’ Market colleagues that has allowed them to maintain such high quality inventory, with the appeal of locality and knowing exactly where the food is coming from.

“We know our ingredients because we make it here or we know who made it … if someone has a food issue, they can come in and ask about any allergies or things that are in the certain foods,” George said.

George acknowledged the growing student enthusiasm for local food, as well as seasonal food from Southern Ontario.

“A lot of the students have travelled or have lived in bigger centers and they’re used to more variety than what is being offered by a chain or a franchise operation,” she said.

With this in mind, George runs a business that caters to the specific needs and preferences of her customers.

“It’s convenience in a different way, in that we’re accommodating,” George said.

In addition to offering organic and gluten-free options, the ready-made offerings at Old Farm change daily, and George says the freedom to offer this variety was a major motivation for opening her store.

As much as George, Comm ’82, said she loves running her business, she mentioned the caveats to delivering fresh local foods daily.

“It’s almost insurmountable to track, when you have 10 farmers delivering in one day and you have to track the paperwork,” George said.

Nevertheless, her business has consistently been gaining traction and increasing in popularity among both Kingston locals and Queen’s students.

According to Jeff Williams, one of the store’s five employees, the response to their introduction of homemade pizza has been unexpectedly enthusiastic.

“We make it upstairs actually from scratch. Nancy had that pizza oven for years, so they brought it in, cleaned it up and it worked out really well.”

Jeff said pizza is just one example of how Old Farm’s selection of fresh, quality ingredients sets it apart from other neighborhood businesses.

Andy Williams, another proud Old Farm employee, said the store offers much more than food.

“Some people ask for recipe suggestions, so if they buy a piece of meat, Nancy has all these recipes floating around,” he said.

Williams emphasized the comfort of familiarity that compliments the comfort food sold at Old Farm.

“Compared to the stuff on campus, it’s a thousand times better,” he said. “I’ve eaten Sodexo at three different university campuses, and it’s the same thing everywhere.” “You know what you’re getting here.”

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