“People were used to shopping at areas where you had three checkout counters and here you’d have 30,” says Jim Olson, a former Oshawa high school principal. The meat counters of the Knob Hill Farms supermarkets were one of the most notable details. “On this counter that was the length of a football field, you’d find full rabbits or the head of a pig.” Oshawa’s store had, according to Mary Bull of Oshawa Express, a 330-foot meat counter and 46 checkout registers.
Steve Stavro created Knob Hill Farms, a former grocery store chain that used to be the biggest in Ontario, his ten warehouse chains each taking up tens of thousands of feet. It Oshawa’s Knob Hill Farms was located between Simcoe Street and Ritson Road. The abandoned building proves that even the businesses thousands of square feet big and thousands of customers are vulnerable to failing.
Many Ontario residents still remember Knob Hill Farms: the line-ups to get into the parking lot, the gigantic piles of produce and the mile-long set of registers. If it were still in business, its size would be comparable to Cost Co. The Oshawa store was 21,000 square feet. “It would draw people in from Bowmanville, Newcastle, Port Hope, even Peterborough,” said Keith Jones, a retired Geography high school teacher. “A grocery store could do that because they could stock up on these huge quantities.”
Stavro, his brother Chris, and his father managed to open the first store under the name in 1953. By this time, Stavro had been working with his father in the retail business after dropping out of high school to do so. It was a small fruit store in Markham.
By 1954, Stavro was operating the first Knob Hill Farms supermarket on Danforth Avenue. By the late 50’s, he had nine stores across Toronto. Then he put the smaller stores to rest in 1962 to build the first Knob Hill Farms food terminal at Woodbine Avenue and Highway 7 in Markham, the biggest grocery store in the country. As the years went by, he expanded it to nine more “food terminals” in total.
It was an unconventional business. Stavro wanted to cut down on frills as much as possible, like packaging and selling several different brands of the same food. He also did his best to buy produce straight from the farmers. The result was a store that, in Oshawa’s branch alone, would ship 2,500 watermelons and have them all bought in three days.
According to Keith Jones, an Oshawa resident who brought a group of Indigenous youth to Knob Hills on a field trip, Steve Stavro had a motto of “Bulk Buying, Bulk Selling”. Jones says it was “like warehouse distribution, like the Costco model, buying in quantities, selling in quantities.”
Knob Hill didn’t use today’s plastic bags in checkout. Portions made them too impractical. Knob Hill used reusable and take-home cardboard and plastic baskets, which had eco-friendly limited-to-no packaging, and were beneficial to the quantities. “Knob Hill introduced basket shopping, so you’d put all your items in baskets and then when you went to the checkout, they’d take it out of the basket, transfer, and then take the basket home. Basically, that was the start of reusable shopping,” said Olson, who was at Oshawa’s Knob Hill Farms opening in 1983.
Before its closure, there were a total of ten warehouse-style stores employing about 800 people. That’s 80 employees per store. In 1991, Stavro’s chain was at the peak of its success, sharing more than 3 per cent of the Ontario market. But it had to close.
Its closure stemmed from Stavro’s other line of work.
He became the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team themselves in 1990. During that time, grocery stores were beginning to catch up to the large scale of shopping Knob Hill Farms put in place, such as Cost Co and Loblaws, but Stavro was unable to keep the required attention on his enterprise, remaining CEO while working closely with the hockey team.
Not only that, but Stavro did not want to be subject to change. These stores had, during an age where power shopping and supermarkets were supersizing, no scanners at the check-outs. Not only that, but competitors added bar code reachers and scales at cash registers.
“We don’t need a computer log to tell us when to order goods from a central depot,” said Stavro in 1983. “Everything’s on the floor. All we have to do is look at the shelves to determine how much new stock we need.”
Combined, those two problems presented a gradual decline in customers, from $500,000,000 annually to half that, and it ended up earning less money compared to its new competitors.
“He basically invented the warehouse store format in Canada and for a long time had the market to himself,” says Richard Talbot, a retail consultant, according to an article from the National Post. “But he got stuck, frozen in time and unable to change when change was all around in an incredibly competitive sector.”
As a result, Stavro decided to close the properties.
He did not take the closing of his business with dismissal. His business began on his own terms and was a part of most of his life. “This is a very difficult personal and business decision,” Stavro wrote to his employees, suppliers and customers in 2000.
“Knob Hill Farms has been a large part of my life. It is the foundation of everything for my family. But times have changed. I have decided, regretfully, this is the right time to close the doors at our grocery outlets.”
Stavro closed the stores on Sept 30. He passed away six years later.
What makes Oshawa’s 21,000 square-metre store different from the other nine is that since its closure, the building itself has remained standing empty. The others have turned into appliance stores and grocery stores. In 2000, a liquidation centre and a flea market opened in the Oshawa terminal, which didn’t account for the entire building, and a year later, both businesses left the building. This is the only building of the ten to remain waiting for a new occupant.
Today the building is fenced off, but not fenced off tight enough to keep out vandals. There are weeds and trees growing around the fences and through cracks in a parking lot that used to be able to hold hundreds of cars. The windows are boarded up with wood and there’s a lot of chipped paint. However, the individual letters spelling “TERMINAL” for the delivery trucks and the main logo are still held up. The logo even looks still in mint condition.
It is also expected to finally have another business under its roof. In 2014, Metrolinx was able to earn the rights to utilize the property. It is expected to be constructed into one of four new Oshawa GO train stations by at least 2024. “You’re gonna see a cycle track, and those paths, one of which goes up near Durham College, those paths are gonna be very significant movers of people, like students in multi-transportation. That whole area is going to change very soon,” said Jones.
Knob Hill Farms was known as the biggest grocery store in Ontario, one of which was “the largest in the world” and yet the company met a downfall. Message: Pay attention to your company, and in the economy, anything can end up bankrupt. “As I end this chapter of my life,” Stavro’s letter concluded with, “I would also like to thank a wonderful country that made it possible for an immigrant kid from the east end of Toronto to realize his dreams.”