Fittingly, freshly squeezed orange juice was on the tables, and platters of cold cuts, bread, pastry, fruit and vegetables lined the side table of the upstairs community room.
The topic was kosher food, and the focus group had a lot to say as they gathered, December 3, at Loblaws College Square on Baseline Road.
There had been a limit set of 30 attendees, but six tables of six enthusiastically embraced the three themes of “experiences,” “products,” and “Going Forward” and shared their wide-ranging insights for two lively hours.
Facilitator Michael Walsh said the gathering was exceptional for many reasons.
“There is a very limited appetite for developing ethnic markets in corporate Canada,” he said. “They don’t know how to do it, or are afraid of the cost.”
Loblaws College Square, on the other hand, has created a “candid and sincere opportunity for people to have a real dialogue,” said Walsh.
Loblaws assistant manager Paul Payant has been at the store just five weeks. He said he was brought in “to address the issues of the kosher department.”
“What I want from today,” Payant said, “is to move forward and get as much information as possible. We want to be your one-stop shop. I’m very happy with the turnout.”
Walsh asked the group, “How many communities with 14,000 Jews do you know in North America? How about Buffalo, San Antonio, Albany, New Orleans? They all have populations bigger than Ottawa. You know what? It’s hard to eat kosher in Buffalo.”
He said that because Ottawa has a small Jewish population “we have to look after ourselves. We have to be creative.” By comparison, there are 185,000 Jews in Toronto and 95,000 in Montreal. “Ottawa was 6,000 Jews in 1975. We’ve more than doubled.”
There were plenty of “dittos” all around as the groups agreed with each other’s comments.
“Jen (Robillard, the kosher manager) is the benchmark,” said Walsh to much agreement. “We need more Jens… The customer experience has never been better.”
Each of the three themes elicited a round of thoughts on everything from the location of the kosher department (positive) to the frozen food in three different locations (negative), selection (positive), even sometimes “too much – do we really need so many kinds of candies?”
Participants wanted to be notified when new products are available, were frustrated at head office decisions, and happy with product “except before the holidays.”
Recording for one of the tables, Rabbi Levy Teitelbaum, director of the Ottawa Vaad HaKashrut, said “meat trim at the store level would be a help,” and noted “it’s a 24-hour store! Where else can you get kosher food at 3 am?”
Walsh said central ordering systems are usually electronic.
“Paul is kind of stuck in a system we need to appreciate. How do we get a handle on product, quantities and lead times in a way that is manageable?” asked Walsh.
Suggestions poured forth. Participants want Loblaws to bring back the kosher sushi, have enough quantity when they put items on sale, track trends through the inventory system every year on the holidays, never run out of Cholev Yisroel milk, and put health products in a special section in the kosher area.
They want quality, quantity and reliability; healthy food, low salt, low sugar. They want to encourage the next generation to keep kosher, and they want Loblaws to have community initiatives. And they want more options in meals-to-go, and rewards like more PC Points on the holidays.
“Paul and Jen, when you look at all the suggestions, could you make us aware of what you can do in the short term, and in the long term?” asked Walsh. “Draw our attention to how you’re addressing our needs.”
To applause from the group, Walsh said in 35 years “it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone reach out to us and say ‘I want to improve the relationship.’”
Payant said he will gather all the information the six table facilitators will be sending him, and then he’ll be able to “speak of some timelines and get some information out.”
He will be discussing the results of the focus group in an upcoming issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.