Aisles of plenty Dinu Tailor has made it his mission to stock hard-to-find global food items over the four decades he’s owned Dino’s, the largest international grocery store in the province

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/12/2021 (425 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Happy holidays.

Close to a dozen celebrations and observances associated with several religions and ethnic backgrounds fall between now and mid-January. That each is marked in its own, unique manner, almost always with menu items specific to a certain culture or nationality, can present a bit of a challenge if you’re in the grocery biz, and are doing your utmost to be everything to everyone.

That is, unless you’re Dinu Tailor, owner of Dino’s Grocery Mart, arguably the largest ethnic grocery store in Winnipeg.

PHOTOS BY JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Owner Dinu Tailor will celebrate the 40th anniversary of operating Dino’s Grocery Mart early in the new year.

“I hear it all the time when I’m out on the floor, how if you can’t find a certain thing here­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ — save (East) Asian items, those are well-served elsewhere — you’re probably not going to find it anywhere else in the city,” says Tailor, walking a visitor past a display freezer well-stocked with stinging catfish, often the centrepiece of a traditional Kwanzaa dinner.

“And if somebody does come in looking for something and it turns out we don’t carry it, then I do everything in my power to make sure it’s here the next time they arrive.”

Dino’s, which relocated to 84 Isabel St. from its longtime home on nearby Notre Dame Avenue in October 2019, will celebrate its 40th year in operation early in the new year. Tailor, 71, smiles, noting if it hadn’t been for his late wife Hansa — a framed photo of whom hangs on a wall in his cramped, main-floor office — needing something from the store late one afternoon, he might still be crunching numbers as an accountant, the profession he went into after completing university in India in the 1970s.

Tailor, a grandfather of five, moved to Vancouver from Mumbai, a city of more than 20 million, in 1974 at age 24. He and Hansa, whom he met in Canada, remained in B.C. for two years — he still kicks himself for not purchasing a home in White Rock back when the price, a shade under $80,000, was right — before moving to Winnipeg in 1976, where he’d heard the job market was more promising.

“I had trouble getting on as an accountant in Vancouver, but I knew Winnipeg had a lot of garment factories, so I thought if the same thing occurred here, at least I’d have that to fall back on,” he says. Tailor never did have to wind thread; within a month of their arrival he landed work with an accounting firm. One of the firm’s clients was an independent grocer.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dino’s has a wide selection of hot sauces.

“All the way back to growing up in India, I’d dreamed of running my own business one day, and as I learned more and more about the grocery trade through that client, I started thinking maybe I should do something in that field,” he says.

Tailor was at his desk in the fall of 1981 when his wife called to let him know she was low on flour. There was an Ellice Avenue grocery store close to his office called Honey Foods, which specialized in Indian food. He popped in there on the way home and, although he only knew the owner to say hi, he inadvertently blurted out, “If you ever want to sell this place, I’d be happy to buy it,” as the fellow was ringing in his purchase.

Six months later, in February 1982, he was the owner of newly christened Dino’s Grocery Mart, having opted for Dino versus Dinu on his masthead, simply because a pal of his told him the former sounded “more Canadian.”

Tailor shakes his head recalling his first year on the job. Unable to afford employees, he worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, often staying up till the wee hours preparing people’s taxes and whatnot, to make ends meet. He used the time he spent behind the cash register wisely, mind you.

He initially stocked Indian products almost exclusively, but whenever a person originally from, say, Africa, the West Indies or the Caribbean came in, he peppered them for information; instead of waiting for them to inquire if he carried this or that, he asked them what they wanted to see on the shelves, then would set about bringing it in.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sweets at Dino’s Grocery Mart.

“You have to remember; this was all pre-internet… pre-fax machine, even,” he says, speaking loudly enough to be heard over Jamaican rhythms playing in the background. “I was constantly on the phone with distributors in Toronto and Vancouver — back when it cost close to $1 a minute to call long-distance — trying to track down a certain spice or type of produce.”

In the spring of 1986, by which time he had begun to turn a corner in terms of sales and no longer had to do as much moonlighting as an accountant, Dino’s was expropriated by the city to pave the way for what is now Portage Place. He immediately went looking for a new space and, following a slew of renovations, moved into a former auto repair shop, close to the Balmoral Hotel, just before Christmas 1986.

What began as a 2,000-square-foot operation eventually grew to a premises five times that size. Every time a neighbouring business owner chose not to renew their lease, Tailor increased his footprint by knocking down a wall or two to add yet another bank of goods to his ever-expanding list of products. (To this day Tailor is hailed as having the most expansive selection of hot sauces in Western Canada, including Scotch Bonnet hot pepper sauce, which carries a heat rating as high as 325,000 Scoville units. By comparison, a bottle of Tabasco sauce carries a rating of 700 SHU.)

Things went along swimmingly on Notre Dame for 33 years. One of Tailor’s favourite moments from that period involved two women who’d grown up together in Ethiopia, but had lost track of one another in their teens, when a civil war ripped that nation apart. One morning they bumped into one another in Dino’s snack aisle, completely unaware each was now living in Winnipeg.

“They were holding onto each other and crying, so I approached them to ask what was wrong, which was when they told me the happy story of their reunion,” he says.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSDino's carries fresh produce.

COVID struck four months after Tailor moved into his third — he promises final — location, which is twice the size of his Notre Dame operation if you count second-floor office space occupied, in part, by his daughter Neeti Varma and her husband Rajan Varma, both of whom are heavily involved in the day-to-day goings-on.

The same thing that occurred at larger outlets such as Sobeys and Real Canadian Superstore, happened at Dino’s. Panicked shoppers cleaned out the shelves; only instead of bleach and toilet paper, they also went after masala mixes, banana-chilli chips and bottles of pineapple soda, afraid their favourite imported treats would soon be unavailable.

The store also welcomed its fair share of new customers during the height of the pandemic, Tailor points out; people seemingly from every corner of the city who would inform staff they were cooking at home more than usual, and were looking to expand their horizons at meal time by incorporating ingredients they’d never worked with before. (Um, is that African eggplant? Are those frozen goat feet? What do you do with sesame balls?)

“Close to 40 years in, we still get new faces through the door on an almost daily basis, either new immigrants to the city, who’ve been told by a friend or acquaintance to come here for a taste of home, or people who never noticed us when we were on Notre Dame, but now spot our building and pull into the parking lot to have a look around.”

By the way, if you think a person who’s been in the grocery game for more than half his life must be a whiz in the kitchen, think again. As little as three months ago, Tailor barely knew how to boil water.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The beauty section shows the store is more than just groceries.

When his wife was alive she did all the cooking, he says, primarily because he was rarely home before dark. After she died in 2011, he persuaded his mother to come live with him. The two of them had someone who dropped by regularly to help with cleaning and such, who also prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“But after my mother passed away three months ago, I decided it was time I learned how to cook, so now I Google what I’m in the mood for on a certain day, write down everything I need on a piece of paper, plus how to prepare it, and grab everything before locking up for the day,” he says, holding up a freshly written recipe incorporating okra and potatoes.

“This morning I made lentils with mixed vegetables before leaving for work. I had it for lunch just before you arrived and if I do say so myself, it was very tasty.”

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSDino’s, which relocated to 84 Isabel St. from its longtime home on nearby Notre Dame Avenue in October 2019, will celebrate its 40th year in operation early in the new year.
JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSTailor asked customers what they wanted to see on the shelves, then would set about bringing it in.

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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