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12/20/2021

Culinary convenience: Hanamaru Market and Bento offers a fresh take on c-store foodservice

New Toronto-based c-store epitomizes the rise of specialty convenience stores that tap into cultural products, from shelf stable items to snacks, drinks and foodservice, that attract a diverse food-centric audience.
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Outside of Hanamaru Market and Bento on Pape Avenue
Photos by Suech & Beck

As Japanese author Sayaka Murata wrote in her award-winning novel, Convenience Store Woman, her first to be translated into English as well as multiple other languages, convenience stores in Asia are designed to be more than a place for people to quickly pick up necessities and their favourite confectionery. She observes: “It has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like.”

That ethos has made its way to Canada, with the rise of specialty convenience stores that offer cultural products, from shelf-stable items to snacks, drinks and freshly made food, all waiting to be discovered by a diverse customer base. One of those new stores is Hanamaru Market and Bento, in the Pape Village neighbourhood of Toronto.

Opened in February 2021, it is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team, Teddy Park and Susan Lee, who immigrated to Canada from Korea eight years ago. Until their new venture, Park had worked in retail and Japanese restaurants in Toronto, while Lee, who has a culinary degree, was a chef at various restaurants for both Western and Japanese cuisine.

Stepping into Hanamaru, visitors come across items they’re unlikely to find anywhere else in the neighbourhood. There are DIY sushi and hamburger meal candy kits by Japanese manufacturer Kracie; honey butter chips by Korean manufacturer Haitai; the yogurt-based drink, Bikkle, by Japanese drink giant Suntory; and frozen Korean “pancakes” in flavours like brown sugar, leek and green onion.

With the colourful packaging displayed against the small store’s all-white walls, an experience at Hanamaru is also a feast for the eyes.

“We wanted to introduce Korean and Japanese products to those who want to try it, and we figured there was no store doing that in Toronto’s east end,” says Park. And repeat customers can always make new discoveries, whether on shelf, or in the frozen or refrigerated sections. “There are many distributors which carry Japanese and Korean products in Toronto, but it is difficult to get products regularly from suppliers right now because of COVID-19,” he says. “That’s why I always try to get new items to substitute items the suppliers may no longer have for us.”

While the pandemic necessitated that they be flexible with merchandising from the outset, the strategy has been perfectly suited to the Asian c-store concept of discovery. Plus, as Park notes, “not one or two items are big sellers on shelf—all the items are steady sellers.”

It is not that these snacks, pantry items and frozen foods can’t be found elsewhere in the Greater Toronto Area, but residents of the Pape community would have to venture out to a busy Korean or Japanese supermarket, situated mostly in the GTA’s ethnic neighbourhoods.

Where Hanamaru makes its biggest impact, at least in terms of sales and local buzz, however, is in its foodservice. “Many convenience stores in Korea and Japan serve a variety of grab-and-go food, which we think is suitable for a fast-paced environment and for post-COVID in Toronto,” says Park.

Early each morning, from a modest-sized kitchen at the back of the store, Lee makes Bento boxes with side dishes, called banchan in Korean cuisine, as well as sushi rolls and maki platters, which are then displayed in a “grab-and-go” refrigeration near the cashier. She also prepares pick-up orders that are phoned in, submitted through their website or via online delivery app Ritual (which takes a small commission).

During COVID, most customers opt for take-out, but Hanamaru has set up a standing bar at the front of the store, where two different people or a single family can eat, in keeping with social-distancing protocols.

On the day of our visit, it is quickly apparent the store’s foodservice has made Hanamaru a community favourite. While looking at the store from across the street, a passerby stops to recommend the fresh dishes Lee prepares.

“You have to try their tuna onigiri and chicken karaage,” says Jo-Anne Wilson. “What I’ve learned is you have to get there early, because by 12:30 it is usually all gone.”

Wilson, who works at Club Sandwich, an organization that delivers sandwiches to local missions, says “many of my neighbours and friends hope for Hanamaru to stay for many years to come,” and calls it “a welcome addition to the Pape Village strip.”

Whatever grab-and-go items Hanamaru still has left by 3 p.m. each day gets discounted by 30% to ensure no food waste. That may seem early in the day for a markdown, but as Park notes, “it is really because we’re thinking of the freshness for customers.”

The founders have also listened to customer feedback. “What we learned after we opened Hanamaru is that there are many vegetarians in this area,” says Park, “and so we now always consider a vegetarian alternative to an item with meat.”

With its one-year anniversary approaching in February, Park humbly says the store has been gaining momentum. “We feel the support of customers from around Pape Village,” he says, “We are getting busier than when he started.”

 

OPERATOR INSIGHTS

Thinking of getting into foodservice? Take these cues from Hanamaru Market & Bento.

    BE ABOUT FRESHNESS

    At 3 p.m. Hanamaru discounts any food made fresh that morning, ensuring the product doesn’t roll over into the next day. You don’t want to turn off customers with food that has been sitting there all day and losing its freshness.

    HARNESS SOCIAL MEDIA FOR MORE AWARENESS

    Freshly prepared food is a huge category on Instagram, and Hanamaru has been able to build a following with foodies by highlighting its sushi, maki platters and bento offerings, while still making posts about packaged snacks and other categories c-stores are known for. At press time, Hanamaru had built up more than 1,800 followers.

    PLACEMENT IS KEY

    Hanamaru features its grab-and-go Bento boxes, sushi and other dishes from its kitchen near the back of the store, close to the cashier. The high visibility captures the attention of all customers, regardless of what they are picking up.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 Foodservice Issue of Convenience Store News Canada

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