If Caren McSherry wasn’t the owner of a popular, successful gourmet store, she could be a candidate for the job of Energizer Bunny. When not traveling the world on buying trips for her Vancouver, BC store, The Gourmet Warehouse, McSherry is teaching cooking school, making weekly radio and television appearances, writing cookbooks (her seventh is due out this fall), raising money for local charities and running her other business, Continental Importers, a gourmet food sourcing and distribution company.
It would seem that buying for a store that houses more than 28,000 SKUS on a typical day would be enough work for one person, but McSherry admits to being genetically predisposed to staying busy. “I get it from my mom,” McSherry says. “She is super energetic.”
You can add accepting awards to McSherry’s to-do list. In addition to winning a Global Innovation Award (gia) from the International Housewares Association this year, she has also been honored by the Vancouver Board of Trade and named to the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame, among other achievements.
She comes to her love of gourmet food via her training as a professional chef at the Cordon Bleu in London, and has also taken courses at the Culinary Institute of America, The Thai Cooking School in Bangkok and Japanese Food Art in Tokyo.
With that education in hand she founded Caren’s Cooking School in 1978, which remains one of Canada’s longest running cooking programs, and started The Gourmet Warehouse in 1997 when she couldn’t find affordable gourmet food and supplies.
Her boundless energy came into play as she transitioned from running a cooking school to a large retail store with thousands of products. She was one of the first retailers in Canada to offer both specialty food and kitchenware. McSherry says her goal with The Gourmet Warehouse was to get rid of the “snob appeal” and high prices associated with gourmet foods stores.
“I wanted to make gourmet food approachable for everyone,” she says. Being in “not such a great neighborhood” has helped by keeping building expenses down; McSherry bought the space years before the real estate market in Vancouver “blew up,” as she puts it.
“I am my own landlord, so I am ahead of the curve,” she says of the soaring retail rents there. The big, industrial space has become a destination trip for Vancouver’s foodies. Product is stacked from the floor to the ceiling, and staff is on hand to help guide customers.
“You don’t browse here,” McSherry says of her store. “You have a list. This is not your neighborhood grocery store where you pop in for something.”
The merchandise mix favors food items, with over 121 different vinegars, 98 different oils and nearly 300 spices and spice blends. But kitchenware, cutlery and tableware also are an important and growing part of the assortment: The Gourmet Warehouse is the top seller of Le Creuset cookware in Western Canada, for example. There is also a significant gift basket business, and of course the cooking school.
“It all goes together,” McSherry says.
Her culinary training comes into play every day as she teaches and plans buying trips. “I understand how to use every single product,” she explains, adding that buying decisions hinge on whether the product fits the cooking culture of Western Canada. “We buy according to a product’s usefulness and how well it fits into our local cuisine.”
No matter where in the world she travels, home is always on her mind. “We are very involved in the community.” To hear McSherry tell it, having the means to give back to the community is one of the most important benefits of her business success. Her charity event, The Chocolate Challenge, pits eight of Vancouver’s best chocolatiers against each other in a competition to create the best original chocolate. Guests sample and vote on their favorites.
All event proceeds go to The Strathcona Backpack Program and Project Chef, local charities aimed at helping children. The Strathcona Backpack Program works to ensure local children have access to nutritional food on weekends and feeds over 275 children weekly. Project Chefs is a school program aims to teach younger children about healthy food choices.
“We give back, its good karma,” she says. “Have a presence in the community, make friends with other retailers, give back. That’s a good business calling card.”
For more information about the gia (IHA Global Innovation Award) program, the co-sponsors, or participating in 2017-2018, contact Piritta Törrö. Additional information on the gia program is also available online at www.housewares.org/show/gia-retail.