A couple of weeks ago, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Eric McLean of the local cheese, meat, and gourmet foods institution that is McLean’s Specialty Foods. Between hellos and how are yous and eager requests for specific cheeses, Eric told us the store’s origin story, about the beauty of bucatini pasta—the slight give of the hollow pasta before you hit the air—and the pub visit that gave the Old City Quarter its name.
Prior to becoming the local cheese expert we know him to be, Eric worked for large food brands in both Vancouver and on the island. This year marks the store’s 25-year anniversary, and over that time Eric and his fellow Old City Quarter business owners have played pivotal roles in the growth of Nanaimo’s now beloved shopping district.
Read on to learn more about Eric, the store, and the Old City Quarter.
You’re celebrating a big milestone this year. Can you tell us a bit about how McLean’s Specialty Foods got its start, 25 years ago?
When we moved here 25 years ago, you have to remember there was no Food Channel, and in fact, nobody knew what balsamic vinegar was yet. Not even in Canada in general; I had to go to Little Italy, to Commercial Drive, and get cases of vinegar sent over on the bus. Nobody was distributing it. In Nanaimo, which was at that time at about 60,000 residents, you couldn’t buy proper cheese. You couldn’t buy good Italian pasta.
I was the first in Nanaimo to carry San Pellegrino. When I first opened the store, I carried San Pellegrino in three flavours—limonata, aranciata, and chinotto—and a Scottish drink called Irn-Bru. These were among the things you could not buy and in a town the size of Nanaimo, I just felt there should be a good cheese shop. Also, olive oil. No one carried good olive oil. Extra virgin was an unknown thing. And the time was right, and it had to be done.
With these good gourmet ingredients, I was quite well received right off the bat. We managed to build up a strong client base, and we’ve also had kids coming in with their parents, who ended up working in the store. That’s really how it got started, and it’s just kept going since there.
Below, Eric on the concept drawing:
When I was about to open the store, I did that sketch, and I had it by the side of my bed before opening the store. I was going down to Victoria to Vancouver to talk to people to find out who were the good suppliers, who had the best quality product.
The Old City Quarter offers so much to visitors. What are some of the significant changes you’ve seen there since you put down roots?
I’m the president of the Old City Quarter Association, and because of my business experience with large conglomerates, I understood co-op advertising. It was kind of sporadic, so we decided to form a separate BIA.
We also decided we needed a name. We were sitting at the pub, where most of our strategic planning took place, when Dee from Damsels said, “yah well in New Orleans they have the Latin Quarter, the French quarter. We could have the Old City Quarter.” And bingo!
We realized the power of branding—it wasn’t called branding in those days, but that’s what it was. Some of the changes we’ve seen here are people constantly discover the area and like it, but we had a lot of challenges in getting people to come here. Highway 19 wasn’t here when we opened, so the road came up and just kind of ended. When you were down on Commercial Street, you couldn’t turn left to cross the bridge. When the first cruise ships came, they didn’t come over, so our association got some shuttles to come up. On the bridge, we’ve now got banners.
The Old City Quarter has become a very strong brand. There wasn’t always an Old City Quarter; it has been and continues to be a bit of a challenge. We have a very strong board of directors, and have had since the very beginning.
The brand of the Old City quarter has become quite established. So much so that people blocks from here say they live in the Old City Quarter. The residential area used to be called The Bowl, and that’s not exactly a catchy name. “I’m in the Old City Quarter,” sounds a lot more hip.
And here’s another great thing. Life in the OCQ pins. The brains behind that was Russ from Electric Umbrella, the tattoo parlor; he came up with that. It’s a testament to how powerful and recognizable the brand is.
There’s no denying you have quite the selection of delights. What’s the oddest product you have on hand?
A lot of people have never seen some of these products. They probably can’t imagine that people actually eat these things. The average person is used to what they see in the grocery. So, so far as weird, probably the peeled grapes.
In the 70s, in the UK, there was a dish called Sole Veronique, and one of the ingredients was peeled grapes. And, of course, there’s the song popularized by Diana Krall, Peel Me A Grape. “Mink me, don’t outthink me, just mink me. I’m getting hungry, peel me a grape.” The reason they’re there is not because I want to sell them necessarily; if a customer comes in here, and they’re looking around and they see peeled grapes, what it tells them to some degree is that if they can get peeled grapes, maybe they have the marinated camel eyelids they’ve been looking for! Sends a message.
Other items, squid ink in a jar, squid ink pasta. My older brother and his wife were living in Montreal when I was about to open the shop, and my sister in law wrote me a letter. I still have the letter. She said we should try to get some squid ink pasta. It wasn’t available, and it was very difficult to get at the time.
You host a few events throughout the year, like product tastings. Do you have anything exciting on the books for this year?
We’re doing Mother’s Day Tea May 13. We did high tea last year because it was the Queen’s birthday. We had three sittings and ladies were encouraged to wear their hats and fascinators. It was brilliant. We’ll do that again for Mother’s Day.
Note: The Mother’s Day tea is reservations only. Please call McLean Specialty Foods to see if there is availability.
Let’s talk the best of the best. What are your top 3 menu recommendations?
The BLT: our bacon, lettuce and tomato. The bacon is a British bacon; as the English call it, proper bacon. None of that streaky stuff. We sell a lot of the proper bacon. That’s the basis of our bacon butty.
The butty in England is basically a buttered bread; you can have a chip butty, with chips on it and Heinz HP Sauce. You have a crisp butty, with potato crisps. Our butty is bacon and one of our signature buns.
I created these buns and called them panini; I needed to get something when I was starting up, and I had been in the Canary Islands and I used to get this Spanish style bread, but I couldn’t find anything like it, so I tried to replicate it. I’m not a baker! I had no idea. I tried to get the right weight and the right size. I finally settled on the right weight. Our panini bun weighs 110 grams unbaked, which is heavy, and over the years I’ve taught our different chefs how to make it. Our current chef, Richard, has got it down really well.
The other bread we do is our version of a focaccia; it’s basically an olive bread. Sliced kalamatas, fresh rosemary, chopped very thin onion and kosher salt.
When I was visiting my brother in Houston, the same one who lived in Montreal, we visited a deli there. Houston is a hell of a place; huge city. No downtown. Devoid of character. Just towards the outskirts of downtown we find this deli, really old place, and wow, it was great. They did a sandwich which was prosciutto and brie. We fiddled around with that idea and we decided to do a prosciutto—we were the first ones to have prosciutto in Nanaimo—and camembert. We do it open faced and we serve it with our chutney, which we make here, and it’s very popular.
We also do homemade soups, and everything is made from scratch. Probably our best, most popular soup, is a creamy cauliflower with grated cheddar on top. The other one that our chef really knows how to make is an amazing tomato basil.
What do new shoppers need to know when visiting your store?
We love cheese and food in general, and customers are encouraged to taste many of the products that we carry. We can help you pick different items for your party or entertainment in general. Yesterday for example, a lady came in. We spent a lot of time with her because she was having a party. We probably spent about 20 mins to half an hour with her sampling different things, and she was over the moon when she left..
When you’re not in the shop, where around Nanaimo do you like to spend your time?
Piper’s Lagoon, Westwood Lake, Neck Point, and my backyard.
Interested in learning more McLean Specialty Foods? Check them out on Facebook or visit them in person at 426 Fitzwilliam Street in the Old City Quarter.