Oh Carolina Café & Grocery
- 580 East 12th Ave., Vancouver
- Open daily, 8 a.m. (9 a.m. on weekends) to 6 p.m.
Collective Goods Bistro & Grocer
- 3532 Commercial Dr., Vancouver
- Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
La Quercia Deli
- 3689 West 4th Ave., Vancouver
- Open Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.
On a balmy Sunday evening in early September, we pulled up to Oh Carolina Café & Grocery for a harvest dinner pop-up with The Acorn restaurant.
Most days, this new neighbourhood hybrid, squeezed into a sweet sunset-orange bungalow attached to the landlord’s home, serves the people who live nearby.
It’s a modern and timely rendition of the old-fashioned corner store – a place where parents can drop in for a Timbertrain espresso and Butterboom doughnut after dropping the kids off at school.
Or stroll over later, to take a break from the home-office desk, for a Two Rivers pastrami sandwich on Livia sourdough, pick up their weekly veggie box from Cropthorne Farm and maybe grab some Dumpling King pot stickers and a jug of milk for dinner.
But the Sunday night suppers, which operated all summer under special-event licences and will segue indoors on a smaller scale after Thanksgiving, attracted diners from far and wide.
When we arrived, the wraparound patio, elegantly landscaped with tall grasses in wooden dividers, was packed. So we lifted the cover on our pickup truck, pulled out a camping table and set up our own little tailgate party on the street.
Inside, the sommelier was selling bottles of juicy Morgon and pouring glasses of B.C. Pét-Nat chilled in an ice bucket.
We started a tab at the counter, placed our order and went back outside to wait for charred peppers with buffalo mozzarella and grilled zucchini with pine honey.
The barbecue corn with smoked cabbage lardons was so ambrosial, I asked The Acorn chef, Devon Latte, to sell me a takeout container of his amazingly creamy cantaloupe vinaigrette so I could try to recreate the dish at home.
When settling our bill, we picked up a pint of Earnest Ice Cream, wound our way out through a tangle of exuberant children and went home wishing there was something similar to Oh Carolina in our own neighbourhood.
Wishes do sometimes come true. And thanks to Vancouver city councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung, who introduced a motion in June (which passed unanimously) to support new small-scale commercial retail spaces, more 21st-century grocery-cafés could be coming soon to a corner near you. A report will be delivered this fall.
Beyond creating more walkable communities, social connection and easier access to diverse foods, the modern corner store has also presented new, pandemic-friendly opportunities to the restaurant industry, which is now busy reimagining its future.
“This is absolutely a product of COVID,” says Oh Carolina co-owner James Iranzad, who also operates Bufala, Bells & Whistles, Lucky Taco and, until it closed permanently last February, the acclaimed, fine-dining Wildebeest restaurant in Gastown.
“I didn’t have the heart to see it become a DoorDash version of itself,” he says, referring to Wildebeest.
“Everyone is working from home now. They’re drinking from home, doing things close to home. It just made so much sense to get out of downtown and move back into the neighbourhoods.”
Over on Commercial Drive, in a lively neighbourhood hub close to Trout Lake, Collective Goods Bistro & Grocer opened its chic lantern-and-shrubbery lined doors last month.
Inside, a small bistro, which isn’t fully operational yet, serves coffee, croissants and cheese scrolls.
A large cubby in the corner overflows with great wines and bottled cocktails, lovingly curated by sommelier Shiva Reddy.
The grocery shelves and fridges are filled with dry pasta, premium olive oils, house-made sauces and patés. Many items are packaged into easy, take-home meal-prep kits and feature popular ingredients from sister restaurants Say Mercy! and The Mackenzie Room.
“We’re definitely going a little more heavy on the proprietary items,” says co-owner Andrew Jameson. “If people are going to a restaurant to buy groceries, they might as well be buying the product that the restaurant makes.”
Collective Goods was also born during the initial pandemic lockdown, when Say Mercy! did a booming business with its take-home Staff Meals, which raised funds for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and inspired many other restaurants to jump on ready-made meals.
But the industry-wide staff shortage – “In 20 years, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Mr. Jameson says – delayed the Collective Goods opening by six months and is still hampering the build out.
Still, he believes the idea of restaurants selling groceries will grow. “I can’t see this not continuing, especially with the provincial liquor law changes that allows customers to purchase a bottle of wine with their meal. It may not be something of this size, but it wouldn’t surprise me if more restaurants started putting aside corners for dry goods and meals to go.”
At the venerable La Quercia in Kitsilano, co-owner Adam Pegg didn’t just put a corner aside. He turned the entire dining room into a deli on wheels.
By day, he sells fresh-rolled pasta, sauces, prepared meals, sausages, wild mushrooms, sandwiches, select pantry items and wine.
At night, he rolls the shelves aside, sets up a long table and serves family-style dinner for private groups of up to 10 people for $1,000.
Corkage is extra and, at $500, not cheap. But Mr. Pegg says customers are bringing in bottles that cost more than the dinner.
You can also buy wine off the shelves. And for a more casual option, L’Ufficio next door still has à la carte menus for dine-in seating.
“I’m not going back,” Mr. Pegg says. “The pandemic forced us to create a new business model and I really like this format.”
He says that before COVID-19, he was getting a bit too comfortable and “maybe not paying as much attention as I should have been.”
Now, he’s back on the line, cooking the private dinners.
He has three cooks (down from 10, prepandemic), who can easily handle the daytime operations and L’Ufficio. One tended a garden out back all summer, which provided all the fresh greens for the deli and restaurant, including staff meals the next day.
More important, everyone’s happier.
“The cooks don’t feel like cogs. I get to cook everyday. We take vacations. The customers are thrilled. If we have to close the restaurant again, we can stay afloat. And we’re making the same numbers with less volume.”
It’s a different approach to life, says Mr. Pegg, who was the first Canadian to earn a Master of Italian Gastronomy through the Italian Slow Food School.
And a better approach, he adds.
“I always wanted to do something like this, but never saw a way until the pandemic made me understand how it could work.”
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