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About Sickkids
About SickKids

May 18, 2018

One of Main Street’s mainstays: Specialty Food Shop, then and now

You may not realize it, but every time you walk down Main Street from the Atrium to the Annex, you pass by not only a little bit of SickKids history, but a plethora of nutrition knowledge and a smorgasbord of expertly selected allergen-free products. In addition to those with common food allergies, the Specialty Food Shop proudly serves Canadians with more specialized conditions such as celiac disease and phenylketonuria (PKU).

May is Food Allergy and Celiac Awareness Month, and we’re taking a walk down memory lane with one of Main Street’s mainstays; the Specialty Food Shop, which has been offering not only the goods you can’t find in a regular grocery store, but plenty of guidance to children and adults with special dietary needs for over 35 years (officially).

Photo of the Specialty Food Shop entrance
The Specialty Food Shop refreshed their brand in 2016, in keeping with a more modern look and highlighting the unique combination of “goods and guidance” the store provides.

Origins of the store

In 1976, SickKids opens the ‘Special Food Dispensary’ with a counter in the 5Fifty5 Shop as a joint project of the Junior League of Toronto and the Women’s Auxiliary. After a few months, the counter was moved to another area of the hospital after the original setup was deemed “unsatisfactory.”

Early descriptions of the store describe parents of children with special dietary needs as the hunters and gatherers of the twentieth century.

The store aimed to be a one-stop shop for those who required special diets for medical reasons, “special diet foods are often very expensive and difficult, if not impossible to obtain… they are forced to visit several outlets, even to order from foreign distributors to get the required foods. Some give up in despair and fail to adhere to the diets” (from 1976 edition of What's New, a SickKids publication).

Historical pic of specialty food shop
Photos included in the 1976 edition of What's New show a mother making a purchase with her child (left) and Dr. Richard Hamilton, Medical Consultant for the service, outside the shop's first location at the 5Fifty5 Shop.

In 1981, The Special Food Store opened at Toronto General Hospital, run by The Hospital for Sick Children Foundation and the Women’s Auxiliary, presumably leaving the counter concept behind.

The true history of the story is somewhat confusing, which is why we’re celebrating the 35th anniversary – we’re counting from the time it was officially back at SickKids as the Specialty Food Shop in late 1982.

In the summer 1994 edition of Kaleidoscope, a SickKids magazine, the convoluted history of the shop is described. “The Specialty Food Shop has had a few homes. Most recently, it was housed in the retail mall at College Park [until] the business was purchased by The Hospital for Sick Children and it has now opened up in the north end of the combined Family Care Pharmacy/Specialty Food Shop.”

Article from The Globe and Mail from Dec. 16, 1981.
Article from The Globe and Mail from Dec. 16, 1981.

The business grows as the food landscape changes

The industry of allergen-free foods has exploded in the past few years, with a new abundance of gluten and dairy-free alternatives to our everyday favourite foods.

“I remember when I started working here as a nutrition associate all the packaging was drab and boring. The shelves were filled with things you had to eat, and not necessarily things you were excited to eat. Food for special diets has come a long way in the past few years,” says Lori Franklin, Retail Manager, Commercial Services.

For some parents, visiting the store is an opportunity to normalize their child’s experience with food. “I remember one mother telling me, when I asked why she didn’t order online, that she wanted to bring her daughter to the store so she could look at the shelves and pick out what she wanted to eat. She just wanted her daughter to have a normal shopping experience, which she can’t have at your average grocery store,” recalls Lori.

The articles covering the opening in 1982 brings to mind how significantly the retail landscape has changed in the past 35 years. One article notes that interested customers can request a price list by writing to the shop, followed by the store’s mailing address. These days most staff at SickKids likely couldn’t tell you the hospital’s postal code.

The store’s focus on providing food items that are gluten-free, allergen-friendly, low-protein and free of dairy is maintained today, as is the importance of providing advice. The store’s staff all have backgrounds in nutrition, or are students currently completing their degrees in nutrition and food-related areas of study.

Photo of specialty food shop staff
From left: Wendy McClean, Diet Technician, with over 15 years experience at Specialty Food Shop, Kevin Claveria, Senior Nutrition Associate and Olivia Reddick, Manager. Kevin and Olivia both started at the store as Nutrition Associates.

‘From all parts’: specialty foods shipped from coast to coast

The Specialty Food Shop was one of the first of its kind when it opened. A 1976 Globe and Mail article notes, “letters requesting such things as gluten-free biscuits for individuals with allergy problems and low-protein desserts for those with kidney disorders have come in from all parts of Canada since the hospital’s gift shop opened its special foods section in February.” Since that time, the Specialty Food Shop has continued to serve Canadians from coast to coast and proudly stocks as many Canadian-made products as they can source.

One thing that has changed drastically are the volumes the store manages. In the early days the service was sending 10 orders by mail and serving twenty-five clients in the store in one week. In the past year they have shipped over 3,500 orders, and that’s just the online and over the phone business!

Photo of desk at specialty food shop
Wendy answers the phone at the large service desk located at the rear of the store, for questions regarding enteral feeding. In addition there is a call center in the back room which the store Nutrition Associates manage daily. While a lot of business is done online, many customers prefer the personal touch of speaking to someone on the phone, particularly when they have very specific questions about their diets and product needs.

“We’re excited to keep growing the store by bringing in new, local brands you can’t get elsewhere,” says Olivia Reddick, Manager, Specialty Food Shop. “Stop by regularly to see what’s new and don’t hesitate to ask a staff member if you have a question!”

Stop by the Specialty Food Shop on Main Street, browse their website, follow them on Instagram or sign up for their eNewsletter.