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Family grocery business returns to the North Shore

Stong’s Market set to open at new Northwoods Village development

Cori Bonina doesn’t know what it’s like to not work in the grocery business.

The longtime Blueridge resident is a fourth-generation grocer, the great-granddaughter of Carson Stong, who started Stong’s Markets in Toronto in the 1890s and went on to open one of the earliest open-air markets in Vancouver in 1931. The first Stong’s storefront opened in Vancouver’s Dunbar area in 1955 and, although it has moved from its original location and will move up the street later this year to make way for a redevelopment, the business has remained a neighbourhood fixture for 60 years.

As a youngster, Bonina’s family vacations involved visiting grocery stores in other towns and cities to check out the different floor layouts and product offerings. At age 10, she cleaned the Stong’s offices. At age 12 she moved on to counting coupons. When she turned 16, she started her first official job in the meat department and she’s stayed on staff with the family-run food business ever since.

Today Bonina is president of the independent grocery store, which is expanding from its sole Dunbar location and opening a second store at the end of this month in North Vancouver’s new Northwoods Village development on Dollarton Highway.

This will be the first expansion for the grocer in more than 25 years and it marks a homecoming of sorts. When Bonina’s father was at the helm of the company, there were four Stong’s Markets on the North Shore: Edgemont, Deep Cove, Lynn Valley and Dundarave. All of those shut down by the early ’90s. Still, years later, it’s obvious to Bonina those North Shore stores left a lasting legacy in the communities they served.

“Everyone remembers Stong’s. They all have a story, whether their mother worked there, their grandmother worked there, they worked there,” she says.

At a time when large supermarket chains are merging and acquiring one another, Bonina says Stong’s sets itself apart by maintaining a strong community focus.

“That’s where our forte is. We listen to our community, we listen to local people, we support local,” she says. The grocery store makes a point of sponsoring youth sports teams and raising funds for local schools. And if Bonina wants to stock a new product, perhaps at a customer’s request, she can get it on the shelf the very next day – no need to wait six to eight weeks for a board of directors to approve her proposal.

Bonina is also open to sampling products from local suppliers. She recalls the time chef Lesley Stowe, the creator of Raincoast Crisps, called her up and asked if she could bring in her artisan crackers before she even had packaging for them. Bonina agreed. When the Dollarton location opens its doors, shoppers can expect to find a salad dressing on the shelves made by the Village Table eatery in Deep Cove.

The grocery business has certainly changed since Bonina’s days behind the meat counter, not just because of the impact of technology on bookkeeping and inventory, but also because of the way customers shop.

“People shop completely differently. Everyone is aware of nutrition, labels, everything. They want to know where it comes from. Sustainability is huge, local is huge,” she says. “Everyone cares about what they’re eating. Everyone cares about what they’re putting into their bodies.”

The new 20,000-square-foot Dollarton market will employ about 120 people, one of them being Bonina’s 22-year-old son, Carson (named after his great-great-grandfather), who will represent the fifth generation of the Stong family as the new store manager.

Stong’s Market is holding a grand opening celebration on Saturday, May 28, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at 2150 Dollarton Hwy., North Vancouver. There will be live music, face painting, a magician, dancers, food sampling and a prize draw.