Perspectives on the Whitehorse Extra Foods (aka Yellow Store) Renovation

I usually keep a cool head in chaos.

This was not the case one fine Friday when I stopped by the Whitehorse Real Canadian Superstore (Superstore) after work to pick up a few things for dinner.

Superstore is a large Loblaws-brand grocery store, and since the closure of Extra Foods (the only other large grocery store in downtown Whitehorse) for renovation, Superstore has become, at times, chaotic.

This was one of those times.

It seemed like everyone in the Yukon was waiting in line, carts overflowing with cans of Stagg chili and outhouse-sized packages of toilet paper. There were four clerks checking out groceries for hundreds of people.

I lost it.

I went into fight, flight, or freeze mode. My over-tired body (faced with a long line-up under fluorescent lights in the din of check-out pandemonium) decided flight was the best option. Head high, I confidently walked through the automatic doors without paying for the contents of my little gray plastic shopping basket. As I popped my (ahem) hot dinner items into the backseat of my vehicle, I heard a voice gently say, “Ma’am, could we see your receipt please?”

Emerging from flight mode, I introduced myself, and explained to the two security guards that I walked out without paying, due to the chaotic store atmosphere.

We strolled back into the store where I paid for the contents of the little gray basket at the customer service desk under the watchful eye of one of the security guards. We shook hands; I thanked him for his kindness and understanding; he thanked me for my honesty. And I left the store without waiting in line.

Aside from nicking the odd gumball as a tot, I’m not typically a thief. My low-key botched robbery of Superstore was symptomatic of my case of acute missing-Extra-Foods syndrome. I avoid shopping at Superstore because I can’t handle the too-obviously corporate vibe. Conversely, I enjoyed shopping at Extra Foods because it felt more gracious: the employees seemed happier to be at work, I knew where to find stuff, and the produce was reliably well-stocked and miraculously fresh.

But now, Extra Foods has closed for renovation and will reopen as Your Independent Grocer.

Loblaws Company Limited (LCL) is the corporate operator of both Superstore and Extra Foods, and they keep careful watch on who is writing what about their company. Here’s a statement on the change from their publicity department at the head office:

With the transition of the Extra Foods in Whitehorse to a Your Independent Grocer, our goal is to bring a great overall shopping experience to our customers in Whitehorse. We will increase assortment and variety in the store and focus on new fresh programs such as our salad and juice bar, full service bakery and deli departments, fresh in-store cut and prepared meat and seafood and easy meal solutions both hot and ready to heat. 

This statement was too impersonal for me, and food (and shopping for food) is personal. Over the course of about three weeks, I negotiated with LCL for permission to interview Extra Foods manager Mark Wykes. It might be easier to score a personal interview with the Prime Minister. After the LCL public relations representative decided I was (relatively) non-threatening, I was able to ask a few more personal questions about Extra Foods and the man who has run the store since the early 1990s.

With 25 years of grocery experience, Store franchisee Mark Wykes looks forward to continuing to service the Whitehorse community as his store transitions from an Extra Foods to a Your Independent Grocer. Wykes also looks forward to adding approximately 30 full or part-time positions, bringing his colleague-count to around 120.

Wykes moved to the Yukon from Nova Scotia in 1973 at age three when his father, an Environment Canada employee, was transferred to Whitehorse. After living and studying in Vancouver as a teen, Wykes returned to Whitehorse in 1991 and worked at the grocery store Super Value, as he did as student in B.C. In 1993, when Super Value became Extra Foods, Wykes continued to work there (after a stint at the then-newly opened Superstore).

With this long-term experience, Wykes knows a thing or two about running a grocery store north of 60.

“ I truly love my job because of the people I see everyday; the grocery store is a social hub in a small community, and as manager, you can become part of that,” says Wykes, “It’s also harder than people think; it’s not just about buying a case of beans and putting it on the shelf with a price on it.

“ I enjoy the challenge of trying to consistently bring fresh food to the Yukon.”

Fresh food is on everyone’s mind, especially as it’s not unusual to find the produce aisle at Superstore unpleasantly picked over or empty. I asked Wykes why Extra Foods always had great veggies when, presumably, they used the same suppliers and shippers as other Whitehorse stores.

“ Because Byron Marks, our produce manager, puts his 40-years of produce experience and a lot of pride into his business.”

Good news everybody — Byron Marks is staying with team and will work for Your Independent Grocer.

Which is a store name that doesn’t roll off the tongue easily. But LCL made the change because, according to Wykes, “Loblaws is transitioning their banners nationwide, and Extra Foods is a dying banner.”

According to Wykes, LCL researched the Whitehorse market and determined that Your Independent Grocer was the best banner choice for the area. For those of you who aren’t fluent in corporate lingo, “banner” in this case means “logo” or “brand”.

What will the new store be like?

Wykes says it will “be even more focused on fresh — offering fresh slices from chubs in the deli, an in-store butcher available for custom cuts, hot soups, in-store pizza, and an out-of-this-world-bakery.”

And while many Yukoners are pining for Extra Foods, Wykes says, “I’m so excited about the new store. Customers often said to me about Extra Foods, “don’t change a thing”, but we were fighting battles with old refrigerators and things that just weren’t working well anymore in the old store.”

I think the old store will live on.

Whitehorse residents tend to call new places by old names. For example, the Taku Building is still so-named, even with the legendary bar is itself long gone, and we routinely give people directions to “the old Canadian Tire”. My family has always called Extra Foods simply Yellow Store, and I think for us, that name will continue onto into this new grocery shopping era.

The Your Independent Grocer grand opening is planned for December 12, 2014 in Whitehorse. 

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