Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Early Dominion presidents Robert Jackson and William J. Pentland. Dominion: Sixty Years of Dependability by Ted Wood (Toronto: Dominion Stores, 1979).
Legend has it that the Dominion grocery empire was born on a golf course in New Hampshire, where businessman Robert Jackson was playing a round of golf with a visiting Canadian. The guest noted that, based on the number of A&P stores he had passed, Americans must have had a deep love affair with tea. The two men discussed the grocery business and Jackson learned that Canada lacked any chains equivalent to A&P. Sensing a business opportunity, Jackson journeyed to Toronto to get a sense of the market. Upon returning to New Hampshire, Jackson contacted several investors and hired William J. Pentland, the manager of A&P’s stores in Connecticut, to provide the know-how for running a grocery chain.
On May 23, 1919, Jackson and Pentland launched their first store at 174 Wallace Avenue (though based on a contemporary issue of Canadian Grocer and architecture, a frontage a block east on Wallace might have been the location). According to Jackson, “We had such a crowd of customers that I took off my suit coat and put on a white jacket and waited on them myself.” A second store opened a week later at 779 Queen Street East and by the end of the year the newly incorporated Dominion Stores Limited purchased eighteen more from local grocer Theodore Pringle Loblaw. Pentland was paid a bonus of three dollars a week for every store in the chain, which motivated him to open new locations rapidly. By the end of Dominion’s first year of business, the company operated sixty-one stores.
Advertisement for Dominion’s ninth anniversary. The Globe, September 11, 1928.
Early Dominion stores were small, full-service operations where clerks filled a customer’s order. Meat and fresh produce were rarely, if ever, part of the merchandise assortment until refrigeration units were introduced in the mid-1920s. Most of a store’s inventory was staples like coffee, flour, and sugar that were bought in bulk and could be measured out easily. Floors were old soft pine planks oiled each weekend. Wooden shelves were regularly shellacked. Stores operated six days a week, with hours running as late as midnight on Saturdays.
For its first half-decade Dominion rented several facilities around the city to operate its offices and warehouses. By 1924, the company had secured the old Weston Bakery at Soho and Phoebe Streets to consolidate its operations. Dominion had high hopes for its new headquarters, even if, as an article in the June 15 edition of its corporate newsletter, The Link, noted, some employees would have to adjust their sleeping patterns: “Our being closer to the centre of the city will be a convenience, although those employees living in East Toronto will have to get up fifteen minutes earlier in the morning.” The on-site warehouse was pressed into service sooner than anticipated, thanks to a fire at a rented grocery warehouse on Don Roadway on July 10. All of the stock held there was lost, but buyers quickly hit the phones, impromptu offices were set up at the new headquarters, and the new warehouse was fully stocked in less than a week. The next edition of The Link offered thanks and apologies:
We wish to thank all the managers and superintendents for the many expressions of their sympathy and for their every evident co-operation. While we are still upset and the service to the stores still leaves much to be desired, everyone is doing their utmost and we feel sure that in a very short time we shall be back to normal. Just keep on giving us all the help and co-operation you possibly can and if mistakes are made (as no doubt they will be) just bear with us for a short time. Remember, “Business as Usual.”
By 1929, Dominion seemed to be flying high in the face of increased competition from new local and American chains. That October, shareholders approved a proposal to buy 51% of the chain T.P. Loblaw had started after selling his initial slate of stores to Dominion a decade earlier. Eight days after a vote was taken, the stock market crashed, and the financial uncertainties that created brought an end to the deal. It was an omen of the bad luck that plagued Dominion over the next decade. Jackson went bankrupt and was eased out of the company, while Pentland was killed after his car hit a cement safety island at St. Clair and Arlington avenues two days after the 1933 general meeting. A revolving-door of replacements for Pentland clung to full-service locations after the competition switched to self-service and had to answer to a government commission that was investigating shady pricing practices in the industry (among the charges Dominion faced was altering weights to benefit their bottom line).
Old and new stores in front of Dominion headquarters on Rogers Road near Keele Street, 1950s. Dominion: Sixty Years of Dependability.
It wasn’t until J. William Horsey was named president in 1939 that modernization began in earnest. Within a few years, full-service stores were closed or converted, accounting practices were overhauled, wages were increased, and employees received benefits like paid vacations. Horsey played a key role in ensuring the company was held in Canadian hands when Dominon’s major stockholder looked into selling their stake to American interests (likely Safeway) in April 1945. Horsey had a tight option deadline and contacted financier John A. “Bud” McDougald for help. McDougald promised Horsey he would find the money, a quest that led to Dominion becoming part of McDougald and E.P. Taylor’s newly formed Argus Corporation. Later that year, Dominion purchased the York Arsenals on Rogers Road near Keele Street and began work on a corporate headquarters. The new head office was described by the Star thirty years later as “strictly utilitarian,” a place where tractor trailers jockeyed with the company’s president for a parking spot. The cafeteria at the front of the property was converted to a store that lasted a decade before a new “mammoth” store was built on the site.
Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, February 12, 1952.
Years of consolidating stores into larger locations had dropped Dominion’s store count from 572 outlets across Ontario and Quebec in 1931 to 195 by 1954. New locations were greeted with great fanfare…especially if they were close to the residences of the owners, as this account of the launch of the store at York Mills Road and Bayview Avenue in February 1952 from Paul Nanton’s book Dominon Stores Limited: The First Sixty Years 1919-1979 testifies:
The opening ceremony almost had the elegance of an opening night at the Stratford Festival. E.P. Taylor, whose home Windfields Farm was only a mile or so away, received the guests in style as they came to the entrance, many of them arriving in chauffeur-driven limousines. Inside, a string quartet in white tie and tails, played lively music, orchids were presented to every lady in miniature containers to the keep them fresh, and—without doubt—it was the finest store opening in company history.
By the 1960s, Canadians were told repeatedly that they shopped at Dominion “mainly because of the meat.” A consumer survey found that the chain had developed a good reputation for its meat department, which seemed like a starting point for a campaign. The phrase was devised by advertising director J. Scott Feggans who, according to his successor, “came in one morning with the words on the back of the proverbial envelope.” A radio jingle was written by Feggans, with music by Don Hahn:
Why do more Canadians
Shop at Dominion?
More than any other store?
Why, it’s mainly because of the meat!
Mainly because of the meat?
Yes, mainly because of the meat!
The campaign did the trick: by 1979, nearly two decades after the jingle was launched, Dominion sold three million pounds of beef, one million pounds of pork, and over three hundred thousand pounds a bacon per week.
Advertisement, the Toronto Star, February 19, 1964.
The demise of Dominion Stores was a lengthy, messy affair. The 1970s saw inflation and discounting wars with its rivals take a toll on the bottom line. By the 1980s, the upkeep of many stores was failing, earnings dropped, relations with suppliers were as chilly as the TV dinner section, and pieces of the company were sold off amid a seemingly endless series of corporate reorganizations at Argus under the eye of Conrad Black. Competitors like Loblaws took advantage of the confusion by building modern stores that lured younger consumers away from their local Dominion. As the Globe and Mail’s John Allemang noted when the store at 550 Eglinton Avenue West closed in early 1986, “to the young and able-bodied, the closing of the neighbourhood Dominion store did not make much difference. The small supermarket….had lost their business long before. Compared to the 24-hour Miracle Mart or the cathedral-ceilinged, computerized Loblaws a few miles away, the tired greens and slow checkouts at Dominion seemed a relic of the undynamic past. “ This closure angered local elders, whose rage was summed up by Castlefield Avenue resident Grace McCarthy: “I almost think we older people are being driven out of the area. I’d like to have Mr. Conrad Black by the nose.”
Attempts by Dominion management to compete with new formats like the Food Bazaar (complete with giant salad bar and pineapple slicer) that opened at Eglinton and Lloyd Manor in Etobicoke in 1984 didn’t seem to matter to the chain’s corporate overlords in their quest to milk the company for any value it contained. In Toronto, the proverbial nail in the coffin was hammered in when ninety-three Ontario stores, many trademarks, corporate headquarters, and the large distribution facility on West Mall were sold to A&P Canada in February 1985. Dominion maintained a handful of stores in the city, which were allowed to continue operating under the banner for a year after the sale, though many were soon converted to non-unionized Mr. Grocer stores to cut wages. Black drew further ire from the remaining employees when he pulled sixty-two million dollars from the Dominion pension fund in early 1986 to pay down losses and the cost of closing stores. Black shot back in the press, saying that laid-off employees who expected severance pay didn’t deserve it due to the millions of dollars worth of inventory they had stolen over the years (Black was quoted as saying, “It’s sometimes difficult for me to work myself into a lacrimose fit about a work force that steals on that scale”). Litigation over the pension fund, honouring union protections of employees hired at Mr. Grocer stores, and other controversial decisions Black made for the company made lawyers rich for years to come.
Dominion store on Queen Street West, 1940s. Dominion: Sixty Years of Dependability.
The last remnants of Dominion Stores, renamed Domgroup, were sold off before the decade was done. A&P retained the Dominion banner for its stores in the GTA until the name was dropped in favour of new owner Metro in 2008. If you still want to shop at a Dominion you’ll have to trek to Newfoundland, where Loblaws operates stores under the once-proud moniker.
Additional material from Dominion Stores: The First Sixty Years 1919-1979 by Paul Nanton (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1979); Dominion: Sixty Years of Dependability by Ted Wood (Toronto: Dominion Stores, 1979); the May 30, 1919 and October 1984 editions of Canadian Grocer; the June 15, 1924 and July 15, 1924 editions of The Link; the January 31, 1986 and February 10, 1986 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the February 25, 1933, August 9, 1975, and April 2, 1982 editions of the Toronto Star.