Dunbar-Southlands: Stong's Market faces an uncertain future

Cori Bonina was by her grandfather’s side when he cut the ribbon and opened the new Stong’s Market on Dunbar Street in 1980.   

“I was in Grade 12, and I got to be out of school for the opening,” said Bonina. “It was very exciting. [My family] all worked in the store getting it ready, since there was a lot of clean up. The press was there and my whole family was there on the front lines.”

Even in those days, Stong’s was a fixture of the neighbourhood. Ralph Stong opened his first grocery in Dunbar in 1955. Over the years, Stong’s Market would move twice before settling in its current location at 4560 Dunbar St.
The family expanded the business in the 1960s into a chain of five stores around the Lower Mainland, but Dunbar was always their home base.  

Today, Stong’s is an outlier in the retail world. It’s a standalone operation, still owned and operated by a family that has been in the grocery business since the 1890s, and more than 100 of its roughly 130 employees are members of a union.

A grocery store is often the cornerstone of a neighbourhood. But people don’t always talk about a Safeway or a Save-On-Foods the way Dunbar residents talk about Stong’s.

“It’s amazing to find that variety and that quality of goods at a local store with just one outpost,” said Dunbar Resident’s Association President Jonathan Weisman, a longtime Stong’s shopper. “They do a fantastic job supplying the community.”

So it’s not particularly surprising that some residents are concerned major changes may be coming to Stong’s. The building predates the grocery’s 1980 arrival, and is currently winding its way through the redevelopment process.
Earlier this summer, the bright yellow rezoning boards went up outside the market, though a redevelopment had been rumoured since last year.

The current proposal from Henriquez Partners would see the site redeveloped as a six-storey building, with a new Stong’s location beneath five levels of residential units.

Eleven three-story townhouses would be built on the adjacent lot to the east. The store’s lease ends in 2015, said Bonina, which is part of the reason the landlord is pursuing the changes.  

The city has yet to approve the redevelopment, and a public hearing has yet to be scheduled. But already the Dunbar Resident’s Association has come out against the proposal, saying the six-storeys goes against height limits set in the neighbourhood plan. But of equal concern is the potential, though temporary, loss of the neighbourhood grocer.   

It’s a fear that Bonina has already heard at open houses on the issue. “There’s some hesitancy for change. That exists in all communities,” she said. “What we got from everyone is that they want Stong’s to be in the area.”

While Stong’s has signed a lease that allows the store a space in a redeveloped building, the next few years are uncertain. The hope is to find a temporary location for Stong’s in the neighbourhood, though it’s still too early to say where that might be.

“We feel it’s important to maintain a presence in Dunbar. It’ll be a smaller location, which comes with a whole lot of challenges,” said Bonina, adding a smaller building will likely mean a reduction in staff. “The community understands that when a store needs to be renovated, there are going to be temporary changes,” said Weisman. “As to whether people will flock back to Stong’s afterwards, I can’t really speculate.”

It wouldn’t be the first time the neighbourhood has supported the store in uncertain times. In the 1990s, Bonina’s father was forced to close the other four Stong’s locations in the face of increased competition from big box stores. The family pulled back to focus on the original location. Dunbar provided a unique mixture that allowed the store to survive.  

“The aim is to stay on Dunbar. That’s our intent and that’s our hope,” said Bonina. “But the future is out of my control at the moment.”

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