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MONTREAL (FNS) -- Supermarkets here in Canada's most multicultural city are installing ethnic destinations in Center Store to meet the needs of diverse customers.This French-speaking capital of Quebec has nearly 3 million inhabitants, with well over 300,000 who are neither French nor English Canadians. The largest segment of the "allophone group" (as opposed to anglophones or francophones) is Italian.

MONTREAL (FNS) -- Supermarkets here in Canada's most multicultural city are installing ethnic destinations in Center Store to meet the needs of diverse customers.

This French-speaking capital of Quebec has nearly 3 million inhabitants, with well over 300,000 who are neither French nor English Canadians. The largest segment of the "allophone group" (as opposed to anglophones or francophones) is Italian. They number about 40,000, followed by some 30,000 French-speaking Haitians. Vietnamese immigrants who speak mostly French and Portuguese immigrants also call Montreal home, as do people of at least 60 other nationalities, including American.

Catering to these varying tastes presents a major challenge for area supermarkets, which scour the world or even ethnic neighborhoods for products.

"It's difficult to find a lot of these products," said Pierre Cregheur, owner of an IGA store in the predominantly Italian suburb of St. Leonard. "One customer asked me if we carry frozen banana leaves. I have to check out local specialty stores to find out the name of their suppliers in order to get some of these products."

The 32,000-square-foot store now carries frozen banana leaves at 85 cents ($1.29 Canadian) per pound. Indeed, of the four stores visited by SN -- an IGA store and Loblaw, Metro-Richelieu and Provigo units -- IGA offers the widest selection and most prominently displayed array of ethnic products. Cregheur estimates these items account for about 20% of his annual grocery sales.

The ethnic section is located in the middle of the store, marked by the flags of the 18 countries represented in the product mix. The international section is clearly visible from the store entrance. Italians represent about 27% of customers, Haitians 7%, and South Americans 10%, according to Cregheur.

At the front of the store, ethnic products are displayed on floor stacks. These sale items are rotated every two weeks. During SN's visit, two 5-ounce packages of Milano lady finger biscuits were on sale for $1.04; Ionia espresso ground coffee from Italy was priced at $1.77 for 8.8 ounces; and Bertollini Italian style peeled tomatoes were offered at 45 cents for a 28-ounce can.

Fruits and vegetables run from the front of the store to the back, taking up a third of the space. The ethnic section is next to the fruits and vegetables, along 64 running feet. Placed vertically next to the main section are two additional aisles of Italian groceries, which occupy about 200 running feet. Clic coarse bulgur wheat was priced at $1.37 for a 2-liter bag when SN visited. Small fava beans listed at 71 cents, and black eye beans at $1.70, also in 2-liter bags. The same products were available in 11-pound bags ranging from $3.09 to $7.71.

Other ethnic groceries include items like Cortas Lebanese rose water, Laboratoire del Pueblo Florida water cologne and Cortas chick pea dip. The section also features Mexican Embassa tender cactus; and Foco jackfruit in syrup, coconut juice, quail eggs in water and Aray-D bamboo shoot tips, all from Thailand.

A separate ethnic frozen-food section near the front of the store stocks Goya pigeon peas, Goya mamey-pulp, Brown Betty yuca and Yol Haitian beef rolls, priced between 78 cents and $1.97.

Cregheur said each week he sells a pallet of 18-pound bags of Ox Head scented rice at $8.57 per bag, and two pallets of 2-liter bottles of Ques Queya soft drinks, 85 cents per bottle, to his Haitian clientele.

The Metro-Richelieu outlet visited by SN is located in the bedroom community of Brossard, about 10 minutes from downtown. The 27,000-square-foot store is the anchor tenant in a large shopping mall off a major thoroughfare. About 15% of the store's clientele are ethnic shoppers -- mostly Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.

The ethnic grocery section, located in the back of the store, takes up about two-thirds of an aisle and features products from 26 different countries, according to store manager Gerard Villeneuve. The section is identified by a large Tour du Monde (Tour of the World) sign and flags from various countries. There are a few private-label ethnic products made locally under Metro-Richelieu's Selection Merite brand.

"Because of space limitations, some ethnic products are mixed in with regular products, but we plan to consolidate and expand our ethnic [area] by about a third this year," said Villeneuve. However, some imported products -- such as Italian olive oil, mustard and jams from around the world -- will remain shelved with domestic products, because shoppers expect to find them there.

Imported bulk groceries are stacked along 15 running feet behind the checkout counter and rotated every month. During SN's visit, specials included a 22-pound bag of Clic brand rice at $7.90, regularly $8.90. A 19-ounce can of Clic chick peas was listed at 58 cents, down from 72 cents, and a 14-ounce can of coconut milk from Sri Lanka was on special at 92 cents (regularly $1.04).

The Tour du Monde ethnic section stocks the usual collection of imported canned goods, sauces and packaged pasta. It also includes a few unusual items, such as of House of Tsang Mongolian fire oil, Buderim pickled sushi ginger and Ceres litchi juice from South Africa.

An additional frozens section, in doors along 9 running feet, stocks items like spring rolls, egg rolls, soups and burritos.

An endcap off the ethnic section featured three 85-gram bags of Korean AGP Ramen instant noodles for 66 cents, a two-can package of shrimp salad with vegetables from Seafood Express of Thailand for $3.16, 227 grams of Haiku rice vermicelli from China for 66 cents, and a 200-gram package of Werner's potato dumplings from Germany for $3.55.

Toronto-based Loblaw is a recent arrival in Quebec, with a handful of new stores in the Montreal area. The one SN visited is a 70,000-square-foot, freestanding corporate outlet off an expressway in the industrial suburb of Ville St. Laurent. The store caters to the affluent neighborhood of Town of Mount Royal.

The ethnic grocery section consists of a single aisle in the middle of the store, with 44 running feet dedicated to kosher products and 32 feet to Asian products. There is no specific signage pointing shoppers to the section apart from a regular aisle sign. However, there is a 60-foot frozens section, in upright cases at the back of the store, flagged with a semicircular "Cacheres" (French for kosher) sign. During Passover, the store opens a complete section of holiday grocery items.

"About 40% of our clients are Jewish, Asian or Arabic," said store manager Bernard Boileau. Kosher specials are advertised in the weekly neighborhood newspaper, he noted, while Asian specials are featured in a flyer distributed door to door. The kosher and Mets Chinois (Chinese food) section stocks items like Kedem apple juice, Putter's sour pickles and Season Passover Matzo Farfel.

To compete with Loblaw, the Provigo outlet on the Town of Mount Royal side of the expressway spent $600,000 on renovations and increased its 5,000-square-foot unit to 30,000 square feet. Still, Provigo has lost about 20% of its business to its newest and bigger rival, according to store manager Andre Leroux. (The Provigo chain was recently bought by Loblaw.)

The Provigo store that SN visited has 24 running feet of kosher products in one of its seven grocery aisles.