Small footprint, quality food at Donald’s Market

By now we’ve all heard the big news; Donald’s Market is coming to the River Market at the Quay. However if you’re like me (and everyone else I’ve spoken to except one person), your first reaction was, “What’s Donald’s Market?”

A selection of food from Donald's Market. Photo: Matthew Laird.
A selection of food from Donald's Market. Photo: Matthew Laird.

I had to take a field trip to answer this question. So over the past two weekends I jumped on the Skytrain, shopping bags in hand, to visit each of the Donald’s locations. First up, Commercial & 8th Avenue.

The first thing I noticed upon entering was the vast selection of beautiful produce. For a market its size they were very well-stocked. Typically there’s an inverse relationship between price and quality for produce, but a few quick spot checks revealed very reasonable prices. I was particularly impressed by the wide selection, having some non-traditional items for North American grocers such as enoki mushrooms and garlic stems (items I typically have to head toT&T for).

I began wandering the store exploring what other wonders it held. It’s a small store, packing a lot in to a small footprint. Knowing the size of the River Market building and making a guess about how much Donald’s will take up, this is a good sign that this merchant is willing to maximize space usage. Too often, small store size means small selection. Not here. Every inch of space was used; staff were continually wandering around restocking shelves.

Going down any aisle typically involved a polite “excuse me,” while sucking in your gut to squeeze past (some of us more than others these days. I’ll definitely take advantage of the opportunity to walk home with my groceries). But again, here I noticed the difference from your typical Safeway or Save-On-Foods: a lot of specialty items and organics.

The Asian food aisle was like a T&T highlights mini-store – almost everything I use when cooking the other half’s cuisine. The Italian section … I’ve never seen such a large selection of whole grain pasta. It was difficult to spot one that wasn’t either whole grain, organic or both. But this didn’t mean huge mark-ups either. Turning around to the opposite side of this aisle, there was an amazing selection of sauces, pestos, antipastos – everything you’d need for an authentic Italian meal. I know there’s a balance between 100 mile and supporting authentic, non-industrial producers of products that may not be made locally, but I won’t get in to that discussion at this point.

The next weekend I went to visit their other store on Hastings at Nanaimo. This store is about twice the size, giving a little more space in the aisles and a lot more shelf space. I’m sure the security guard was wondering why this guy was slowly walking up and down every aisle, examining every product. As someone who’d have become a chef in another life, I was like a kid in a candy store.

The first thing I noticed was the hot food counter. I remember Mark Shieh from the River Market said Donald’s customizes its stores for the local neighbourhood. The Commercial Drive store had more of an Italian feel, but this store with its hot Chinese food, sticky buns, and such counter had more of an Asian feel. Makes me wonder what localization the New Westminster store will have.

This store was also busy! That doesn’t mean crowded, but like the Commercial Drive store it was unquestionably popular with the neighbourhood. This didn’t slow the checkout lines, however. Both stores had enough staff at the checkout, typically with line-ups no more than one customer long. A nice change! I also noticed a lot of people carrying bike helmets, which I hope we’ll see at the River Market store.

But the thing that made me squeal for joy the loudest was the fact that Donald’s carries Island Farms products. Don’t ask me why, but I just find Island Farms milk tastes better. I’ll quote my father on how he describes milk from the other main regional dairy (which I shall not name), “Sometimes it tastes like they forgot to rinse the cleaner out of the tank.”

I’m not going to give a 100% positive review. Despite all this good, there was one item glaringly missing: a butcher. There was packaged meat, as you’d expect from any grocery store, but there wasn’t a butcher or fish counter with products such as thick-sliced  bacon or fresh-carved fish fillets. However, having heard Mark’s vision for the River Market, I’m sure this is an item that will be addressed either through Donald’s or through separate butcher and fish vendors setting up shop in the market. I need to find a closer source of the pork belly for my Chongqing recipe that goes along with the garlic stems mentioned before!

I was already excited about getting our market back, but after seeing for myself this shop which my one witness had raved about, I’m even more excited! Donald’s will be a fantastic addition to the Quayside and Downtown neighbourhoods.

9 Replies to “Small footprint, quality food at Donald’s Market”

  1. Great review, Matthew! I'm so excited about the River Market's re-opening and about Donald's Market's presence here in New West! Can't wait to try it out…and yes, I would also love a great butcher and fishmonger either in Donald's or in the River Market.

  2. Matt,

    thanks for the review. I laughed when I thought about how they would set up the market to fit the local “Quayside” community: Lots of Geritol and 100% Bran? …just kidding!

    so far, it sounds great: Lots of produce variety, Island Farms dairy, high diversity of “ethnic” products… I also hear through a little birdie that the market is trying to integrate on-site composting for their food waste are trying to support a small local “community garden”. I agree all we need is a good butcher with organic alternatives to fill a gap in New West, and I may be carrying lots of heavy bags up the hill every week. Actually, Tig will probably do most of the carrying….

  3. I LOVE Island Farms. I don’t know what they do differently than the other dairies, but the taste is far better.

    As for the butcher, we head over to the Queens Park Meat Market whenever we need good quality meat.

  4. Thanks for the review.
    I’m fairly new to the beautiful City of New West and love it.
    Donald’s sounds like a welcome addition to the city, but I support several of the small shops here already. After living in Asia for many years, I like to shop at different places for my food.
    I will be sad if there is no fresh fish section at Donald’s. That is what is missing here! Mr Webster at the Uptown Market offers some excellent meat choices (his bacon is yummy and low-priced). Not too impressed with the veg there tho.
    The “organic” food I have seen in Canada is not only over-priced, it is often of inferior quality, IMO (ie, it often looks like compost fodder).
    I rarely use ready-made/prepared foods because of their high salt content and poor overall taste. It is so easy to make home-cooked sauces, soups, or whatever. Just freeze and you have mike-ready meals.
    I do look forward to visiting the new Donald’s, but as Pat noted, I will not relish lugging my grub up the hill.

  5. We love Island Farms as well – so much that, until a couple of years ago, every time we came back to New West from our other home in Sidney, we’d stock up on Island Farms milk, cheese and yogourt to bring back.

    Then we discovered that IGA and Thrifty’s carry the full line of Island Farms products and Save-On carries a partial line. It’ll be great to be able to get it at Donald’s Market, but you don’t have to wait ’til then.

    If there are other local stores that carry Island Farms I’d love to know about them since IGA and Thrifty’s aren’t on my regular flyway.

  6. Go Donald’s!

    I was literally jumping up and down yesterday after reading that Donald’s will be opening a flagship store at the new river market. I live in New West but work near the Donald’s on Commercial so I shop there all the time. I have always ‘wished’ that there was a Donald’s close to home. Now there is! As for the rest of the community, there is no doubt in my mind that they will all enjoy this gem of a market:)

  7. When we moved to New West two years ago, I sent Donald’s a couple emails suggesting they take up shop somewhere uptown… the Q is close enough!

    We used to live just off Commercial Drive and Donald’s was a daily staple. I hope they don’t change the formula that makes them unique. Tightly packed aisles and just the right amount of selection. They almost always have whatever you’re looking for despite the small footprint of their stores.

    Yes they don’t have a butcher but the meats they do carry tend to be very good quality and yet inexpensive.

    I’m starting to think that New West is starting to catch up in terms of attracting the right kinds of businesses (small/independent) to bring a neighborhood feel similar to that of Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, Main & Cambie Street.

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