A reimagined Safi Fine Foods
“Imagine French bistro meets farmer’s market.” That’s the way Trina Cooper-Bolam describes the future design of a much-loved, soon-to-reopen Sandy Hill business. Safi Fine Foods will once again be welcoming customers starting in January 2021. Its new address is 296 Somerset St. E. (corner of Russell Avenue), two blocks down from the small grocer’s original location.
The original Safi Fine Foods shuttered its doors in January 2020 after nearly three years of business. Its previous location at Somerset and Blackburn had been sold to a new owner who wanted to convert the commercial corner location into a Chinese restaurant.
Now, Safi’s co-owners, Mohamed Ali Abdo and Ali Zeddou, are working alongside Cooper-Bolam and David Lemelin to create the branding and interior design of their new shop. Exhibition designers by-trade, Cooper-Bolam and Lemelin are providing their expertise pro-bono.
Cooper-Bolam herself is a Sandy Hill resident and a customer of the original Safi Fine Foods. “Mohamed is extraordinarily friendly and I was so impressed by his willingness to cater to the community,” says Cooper-Bolam. She also references Mohamed’s community involvement—like the time he prepared a generously-sized whole lamb for a block party.
“For me, it’s not about business, it’s about neighbours and our community,” explains Abdo of his approach. “Come into Safi and you see your neighbour there and you start to talk. It was the place to connect everybody.” Abdo says he was surprised and touched by the huge outpouring of support they got when their first location closed.
Abdo never had any doubts that he’d reopen in Sandy Hill. After the closure of the original Safi, Abdo met with TC United Property Management, who were developing two buildings on Somerset with ground floor commercial zoning.
In April 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, Abdo secured the location at Somerset and Russell. Sending Cooper-Bolam a WhatsApp message from Turkey, they got to work envisioning the details of Safi 2.0, from the design to the product-line to the way they wanted to make customers feel.
The redesigned Safi will have three zones: a small cafe in the front where customers can sip specialty coffees, a fresh-to-go section with the pre-packaged meals that Safi had become known for (think: tandoori chicken, samosas, and other North African and Middle Eastern delights), and a grocery section in the back with plenty of fresh produce sourced from local farmers.
Unlike the former Safi that sold some convenience store products like soda and chips, the new Safi Fine Foods will focus on providing slightly more upscale options—while still being mindful of catering to both students and long-time Sandy Hill residents.
All fresh food will be prepared in a commercial kitchen that’s being integrated into the shop itself, meaning customers can watch Abdo prepare the dishes and he can interact with folks as they walk into the store. The new location is about half the size of the original, so optimizing the design for storage is key.
Once the plumbing, venting, and electrical work is done, the interior design process begins. Sitting near the mood board she’s designed for Safi, Cooper-Bolam paints a picture of wood grain accents, marble surfaces, globe lights, and brass. “It’s basically the anti-Quickie,” Cooper-Bolam jokes, in talking about Safi’s product offering and design.
One former loyal customer, Rob McBride, is eagerly awaiting Safi’s reopening. A self-declared addict of Safi’s Ethiopian lentil soup, McBride has been trying to recreate the recipe at home since the original shop closed. Though he’s had some level of success, McBride still looks forward to stopping by the shop to select from an array of cheeses, yogurt, nuts, and another favourite, the samosas.
“Mo stepped in and did magic there,” McBride remembers. “They were so warm and welcoming every time you stepped into the store. It felt like a community venue and gathering spot.”
For her part, Cooper-Bolam is hoping Safi Fine Foods can inspire small business owners and property managers in the neighbourhood. “There are a lot of big property management companies in Sandy Hill and they’re always erring on the side of perceived success and larger corporations, so we keep getting chains like Domino’s Pizza and Starbucks,” she says. “Should Safi do well as it has in the past, it will demonstrate to both groups that small businesses can succeed.”