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A Cornerstone of Strathcona Community Life is Reopening Under New Ownership

For the nearly 15 years that I’ve lived in Strathcona, Union Market, at 810 Union Street, has been a go-to for their diverse range of groceries – from everyday essentials like dish soap, milk and eggs, to special treats such as fried chicken, cod cakes and Portuguese egg tarts. It’s the sort of place where neighbourhood kids went for their first solo trip to the store, because parents were reassured knowing that owner “Auntie Gloria” would keep a watchful eye on them when they arrived at their destination. Obviously so much more than just a grocery store, the Union Market has also functioned as a community café and popular gathering spot for Strathcona residents, Adanac bike route regulars, and Vancouverites in general.

In autumn 2023, after three decades of service, Union Market’s owners (Gloria Bernardino and her son, David) announced their decision to retire. (For backstory, John Mackie wrote an informative story for the Vancouver Sun about The Union back in October of 2023.) This news became Strathcona’s main topic of conversation for quite some time, sparking concerns and speculations about the future of this community hub.

Enter Aman Loodu. Loodu, a first-time business owner with a love of baked goods and café culture, took over the 900-square-foot neighbourhood store in December 2023. With 600 sqft allocated to a retail/cafe area, and the remaining 300 sqft designated as a bakery, the space needed no structural changes; but to give it new life, Loodu has spent the past several months painting, cleaning, and rearranging the layout.

I recently met up with Loodu on-site to take a look around. Without the familiar pleasantly crowded and bustling ambience, and with the addition of low countertops, piles of comic books, a fancy espresso machine, and glass display cases (empty during my visit, but easy to imagine full of baked goods), the new Union Market appeared streamlined and sleek. I even spotted a turntable and accompanying stack of vinyl in one corner; a quick rundown revealed the likes of Neil Young, Stray Gators, Tame Impala, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Solange, and Vampire Weekend in the music mix. As different as it looks, that this new iteration of the beloved local landmark pays respect to its heritage is a big comfort: you can see it in the chalkboard drawings (hat tip to local artist, John Stewart), taste it in the tarts, and hear it in Loodu’s enthusiasm.

When I comment as much, Loodu explains: “Honestly, my friend Brent Cummings (owner of Home Run Designs) is great with this kind of stuff. He abhors the minimalism trend, so he kept hammering home that this is a beloved neighbourhood corner store, and in a world where it’s normal for people go in and gut beloved institutions without respect for the tradition and the history of the location, the number one priority for us was to avoid that. So if you feel that we maintained the spirit of the room then we’ve done our work. We did our research and had wonderful conversations over many months with the building owners (the previous operators of Union Market), David and Gloria, who also deserve credit for helping me keep Union Market here. The store has years of history on one of the first residential streets in Vancouver, and no stone was left unturned with regards to researching and understanding the neighbourhood. [Ed Note: The Bernardino’s were the most recent owners – they bought it in 1992 – but according to Mackie, the address was originally converted into a store by the Matsubayashi family in 1928.] The products might be different, but it’ll always be a place where you can grab some kitchen staples, baked goods, coffee, and enjoy a social gathering on the giant patio (which is the backbone of this business in our minds), all of that combined is where the spirit and soul of Union Market is being respected and maintained.”

Union Market’s kitchen will be led by Renata Muller, a chef with an impressive background in classic French patisseries and Michelin-starred kitchens. Despite her high-end expertise, though, the focus here will be on rustic, traditional home-baked fare rather than extravagant creations. As Loodu puts it: “No ‘designed for Instagram’ items here – just real/high-quality baked goods and snacks.”

The overall plan is to start small and expand based on customer preferences. Initial offerings will include good coffee (via Coffee Roastery Modus) and freshly baked focaccia, along with four types of cookies (from Loodu’s excited descriptions in conversation, I expect the chocolate chip cookies – with their crispy edges and gooey centres – and double chocolate lava cake cookies will be particularly popular), and the earlier alluded to pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tarts). “One thing we requested in the sale was the tart recipe,” Loodu confides, “We knew the community would want those tarts!” The usual grocery staples (eggs, milk, butter, cold drinks) plus locally sourced pantry goods will also be part of Union Market’s opening lineup.

Not a lot; but just the right amount, from Loodu’s perspective: “I don’t need this place to make me rich…There aren’t enough places in this city that promote a slower lifestyle, where staff and locals genuinely connect. Where younger generations can develop their skills in a safe and supportive environment. That’s what we need more of — not awards or huge profits, but genuine community.”

Though we’ve only just met, I find Loodu to be a focused, kind and grounded person – all traits I know that my fellow Strathcona residents will appreciate too. He also has a background in hospitality (pre-COVID, he ran operations at R&B Brewing) and a deep love of baked goods – get him talking about the specifics of what makes a “perfect” chocolate chip cookie, and you’ll find out what I mean! Loodu envisions Union Market as more than a shopping destination: it’s a venue for slowing down and connecting.

“Being a part of a community comes down to how we connect with people. Sometimes it can be as simple as cooking for others, checking in on your neighbours, or bonding over sports, etc, but for me it also matters who we connect to. Ideally our communities should encompass a broad cross-section of society but it doesn’t always work like that. Unfortunately due to overzealous zoning over the past century we’ve suburbanized our cities so much that it’s gotten to a point where many neighbourhoods’ demographics are relatively homogenous. It often feels like the concept of community doesn’t include its most marginalized members, and I think we’re poorer for it.

“I always had that in mind when I was searching for a location for a bakery or cafe, and when Union Market became available I jumped all over it. To get a cafe that’s nestled among houses within the city’s oldest neighbourhood, one that’s walkable and filled with people from all across the socioeconomic spectrum, it was a no-brainer. So far we’ve hired some of our neighbours to work here, nearly everything in here was reclaimed/reused/or recycled from the old Union Market, in fact we’ve also repurposed the countertop that was given years ago by a local resident (made with lumber from teardowns in Strathcona). Our hiring strategy is focussed on giving people an opportunity to develop and expand their skill set so we can help grow this area from within. Now the next step is to reconnect Union Market with the community to earn their trust so we can be a vital third space for the area again.”

If you’re still on the fence about the transition, then think about it this way: after 30 years of serving the community every day and building up their invaluable trust, it should come as no surprise that “Auntie Gloria” and David Bernardino would ensure that they are passing the torch to someone worthy of carrying on the tradition. If all goes well, then starting next Thursday, May 23rd you can swing by the new Union Market to say “hello” for yourselves (doors may even open softly over the long weekend). Hours will be 8am to 5pm to start.

Head Barista: Maria McGrath
Head Baker: Renata Muller
Owner: Aman Loodu
Designers/Creative: Brent Cummings and John Stewart
Contractor: Tamber Development
Opening Hours: 8am-5pm
Location: 810 Union Street
OPENING DAY: May 23rd, 2024

Union Market
Neighbourhood: Strathcona
810 Union St.

There are 4 comments

  1. I can’t wait until my housesit starts in Strathcona in mid September!!!Sharon

  2. Looking forward to checking it out! And I have a fondness for pasteis de Nata (aka Portuguese custard tarts)…

  3. Aman kindly offered myself, Arnt and Chris a tasty sample of the cinnamon buns! Absolutely delicious! So glad the bakery and the tarts are coming back. Love the artwork of my neighbour John.

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