The ultimate foodie playground
With food well entrenched as the new sexy and not suffering any fears of being dislodged from its throne anytime in the conceivable future, the ascent of the gourmet supermarket was always an inevitability. For some time, we've seen supermarkets in affluent neighbourhoods offering an ever greater plethora of gourmet products, but grocery shopping was still a chore you designated to your domestic helper if you were lucky enough to employ one. Now, thanks to lifestyle supermarkets like Jason's Food Hall (ground floor, Bangsar Shopping Centre, Jalan Maarof, Bangsar Baru) and Ben's Independent Grocer (BIG) (1A, 83-95, level UG, Publika, Jalan Dutamas 1, +603-6205 2036), going for groceries has become to foodies what Jump Street is to hyperactive children.
Because, let's face it, in the high stakes game of capturing-and hanging onto-consumers' fickle loyalties, it's not enough to just have gourmet products punctuating your shelves. It's all about the experience, baby, and BIG has, with typical cojones-packed panache, paved the way for what will doubtless be a deluge of pretenders keen to capitalise on consumers' increasingly sophisticated gustatory predilections and concurrent tolerance for high price points when it comes to their pantries. Sure, rising living costs will play a key factor in ensuring that proven sales figures and extreme caution will be exercised when buyers merchandise their stores, but thanks to store-in-store and experiential innovations, shoppers aren't going to be abandoning an exciting supermarket experience in favour of a more austere but price conscious hypermarket anytime soon.
And while fairyland supermarkets aren't exactly revolutionary—they've been part of the UK landscape for some time now—in Malaysia at least, it's been a game changer for majors keen to not lose any more of a foothold to such challengers as BIG. Jason's dedicated cheese and wine cellars are helmed by Sebastien LeFrancois who, though practically Malaysian, having lived here for three decades, is nonetheless a gregarious fount of cheese and wine info, which in turn inspires customer confidence in their buying choices, even as they amass knowledge about both. Always aware of the need to create USPs, Jason's also stocks handmade chocolates by KL-based chef Matthias Schuebel, pastry gold medallist at the Culinary Olympics, whose unorthodox but tantalising flavour combinations include caramel and Szechuan pepper, and vanilla and ginger root.
But ultimately it's still BIG that is the biggest bull in this china store, and it's at their flagship property in Publika where the integration of shopping, dining and a Big Day Out has been most seamless and compelling.
Before aisle upon aisle of gourmet produce seduces you into unplanned purchases, in-house coffee roasters are on hand to perk up flagging energy levels. And once you enter the labyrinth of temptation, how is one expected to settle just for reliable but now pedestrian Lurpak butter when there are more than 20 other brands from which to choose? When restaurants and patissiers brand their products as made with Lescure, it is inconceivable that any aspiring baker will sashay past the butter section without grabbing a bar of the now familiar French brand in the hope that it will elevate their cakes to greater heights. And like Willy Wonka's factory, there is always more in store: an excess of 200 organic products, an in-house hydroponic lettuce facility, a Southern Rock seafood concession where you can sample the best oysters, and even cooking classes and workshops for the cash- and time-rich.
The million dollar question is: will these all-encompassing supermarkets—fingers and toes firmly crossed!—become the future status quo of our grocery shopping experience? With a second BIG established in Jalan Batai and a third to follow in the next quarter, BIG founder Ben Yong is certainly gambling on it, and his belief that increasing public awareness, education, and a pursuit for produce with integrity will pave the way for specialist grocery stores "where significantly more thought and consideration go into sourcing and buying rather than just stocking what suppliers ask (them) to do so" is worth banking on. Certainly, I for one am counting on it.