Corner Stores are Popular in the West End: But Y-Not Anywhere Else?

In the West End, there is a disproportionate amount of successful corner stores when compared to the rest of Winnipeg. Many of these family convenience stores are old, but there continue to be new ones that pop up. According to the owner of Y-Not foods, Sunny Seo, you can’t beat the benefits that corner stores provide.

“Especially in the wintertime, it’s very easy to walk to the corner store… They can’t walk for 20 or 30 minutes, in minus 30 or 25. It's not possible. So you have a car and a lot of money, they’ll be going over to a big store, they’ll buy a bunch [of food at once]. But here if they have a little bit of money, they can spend a little bit of money at the corner store.”

It's also likely that Sunny is part of the reason they show up.

Customers can’t usually get away without a comment or two, a rapport she and her husband have built up over the years. The level of community is evident with the conversations she has with customers, joking about buying or not buying certain things as though she has their regular purchases memorized. “80% of my customers are regulars,” Seo said. “They come today or tomorrow… or I'm sure they'll come later on in the week. [The other] 20% comes from students from the University of Winnipeg.”

“My personality is, I like to talk to new people. I [find it] easy to make friends. Everyone who comes into my store is my friend.”

Personal connections between the owners of the stores and their customers are not uncommon for corner stores in the West End, according to Joe Kornelsen, the Executive Director of the West End Biz. “There aren't a lot of places in Winnipeg where you can really get that feeling of really living in a pretty big city,” Kornelsen said. “The West End pulls that off and it's actually these little corner stories that I think illustrate that more than anything else.”

“I love the feeling I get going in them and chatting with the owners and, and just embracing the lifestyle that those little convenience stories facilitate.”

For many people, it’s easy to stop by their closest corner store on the way home from work, or to stop in and buy three or four items every couple of days. West End residents statistically take the bus to work more than other parts of Winnipeg, which contributes heavily to short-distance foot traffic, leading to increased corner store usage.

There’s also an element of timelessness to this area of the city because of how easy it is to find a nearby corner store. The metaphorical jaws of the large-scale grocery store have yet to sink into the West End. “You know, you don't need to go out to the giants in the suburbs or the periphery,” Kornelsen said. “You can kind of combine all these little businesses, and all these small service providers, and you can get the same experience [as you would get in a full service grocery store] in the West End.”

As the Seos start eyeing up retirement in the next few years, for Sunny it will mean more than just ten years of running Y-Not foods. 20 years ago, the Seos ran a different West End corner store. For Sunny, the building they are in now is extra special: it’s the store her parents owned when she was younger. Eventually they moved to Vancouver, but after getting married the Seos came back.

They were trying to get out of the corner store business, when she saw the building Y-Not is in now, up for sale.“It brought back all good memories and stuff,” Seo said. “You know, we’re used to it. We know these neighbours, and the living area. “It’s beside the university, right? adds Seo. “Young people… They make me feel young too.”

Seo says one of the things she’ll miss most about this job when she retires is the concerts the West End Biz puts on in the park across the street from Y-Not foods in the summer. “Of course, I’ll miss everybody when I’m not there.”

The Biz will miss her too: Kornelsen recalls one day where it was almost too hot for the musicians to perform but Seo came to the rescue. “I think it was over 30 degrees and everybody was just sweltering,” Kornelsen said. “Sunny came running out and offered everyone a bottle of water that day. Just to help out. She's always been just so friendly.”

Daniel McIntyre-Ridd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Leaf