‘THE ANTI-GROCERY- STORE GROCER’
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
J&P is much more than a neighbourhood grocer. It’s part of a movement that began in downtown Kitchener over a decade ago, just after I’d uprooted from the city to Guelph. A movement that has seen Kitchener’s downtown core transform from a place we tended to ignore as kids to a global destination for talent. And innovation. And entrepreneurship. A place in which visionary thinking is not only encouraged but supported by like-minded folks who are collaboratively re-animating the core – seemingly one old factory at a time. A place John Kent and Sarah Pepper – the ‘J’ and ‘P’ of ‘J&P’ – call home. At their nest on Victoria Park. And at their business, too – a 5,200 square-foot space that used to house the old Goudies department store. J&P Grocery.
‘We’re like the anti-grocery-store grocer,’ remarks co-owner Sarah Pepper as we sip Americanos together at the coolest little café perched high up on a century-old mezzanine. Inside the grocer. Every grocery store should have one of these, I think to myself, relaxing into my chair. ‘Pretty awesome, eh?’ It seems that Sarah reads my mind. She continues: ‘We created J&P for moments like these – and for folks like us.’ She nods towards her husband and business partner, Johnny, who’s seated with us. ‘For folks who chose to live and work downtown but – until now – didn’t have a neighbourhood grocer where they could do a full grocery shop.’ I peer over the mezzanine at shoppers below. Young professionals and mothers with strollers treading up and down the aisles. Seemingly biding their time. Enjoying the process.
‘When we first started talking about opening what would become J&P,’ Johnny adds, ‘we were driven by very particular influences and inspirations. West coast independent grocers, for instance, that all seem to have cool mezzanines and comfortable cafés. And European grocery stores, where folks tend to visit – by foot or by bike – more than once a week to pick up the essentials. Places and spaces we’ve loved visiting on our travels – and that we think fit well into the vibe of our emergent downtown scene.’ A vibe that’s been driven primarily by Kitchener’s ever-expanding tech sector: a sector whose workplace aesthetic is informed in equal parts by an ode to the city’s industrial past, and by playfulness, and child-like wonderment too.
An aesthetic that’s evident from top to bottom at J&P. Nestled at the end of Goudies Lane in downtown Kitchener with one entrance facing onto the lane and the other onto the back of a nondescript parking lot, the place seems less grocer and more secret clubhouse. Happen inside and a hip vibe pervades the space. The splendid hardwood floors. The soaring interior expanse that’s punctuated by the upper level mezzanine outfitted with the grocer’s café – the cobranded Smile Tiger at J&P. (Yep. That Smile Tiger.) The minimalist, airy shelving stocked with unique, local products. Products that Sarah and Johnny are so very proud to discover and curate. ‘We love showcasing – and moving – local makers’ creations. Like West of Seoul Kimchi. And Essen Soups. And other amazing products that excite us.’
And then there’s the grocer’s commercial kitchen – an integral ingredient of J&P’s recipe for success. ‘Chef Brendan Gingrich and his team are awesome,’ rhapsodizes Sarah about the grocer’s in-house kitchen crew. ‘What he’s been able to do for our catering program is invaluable to the sustainability of the business. From barbeque to classic French cuisine, J&P is becoming a fixture on the local catering scene.’ A scene whose clients include Kitchener’s largest tech and innovation firms. Like Vidyard, for instance – the grocer’s neighbour next door.
‘They’ve been phenomenal to us,’ Johnny says of the uber-successful tech firm. ‘Even before we opened, the company committed their support for us – laying out what we could expect from them, and from their employees. It’s become a common theme – ongoing support from downtown businesses and business leaders who work to ensure each others’ success.’ Sarah chimes in: ‘It’s actually been incredible how much help and continued encouragement we’ve received from folks who really don’t owe us anything. Our landlord, Frank Voisin, for instance, has been fantastic – always asking us how we’re doing and what we need. And Craig Beattie from Perimeter Development,’ she adds, ‘continues to check in on us – even though we didn’t end up leasing one of his buildings.’
Community support. It’s a common theme that runs through the J&P narrative. Support for the downtown community by Sarah and Johnny who saw the real need for a neighbourhood grocer. And support for Sarah and Johnny by the same downtown community that has a strong desire to see J&P Grocery thrive. A community determined to see this downtown movement through to the end. Driven by talent. And innovation. And entrepreneurship. And, now, by a killer downtown grocer, too.