Friday, March 12, 2021

Sam’s – More Than Just A Convenience Store

More than just a convenience store, Sam’s is an integral part of the Regent Park community.

No matter where you live, there is a local convenience store that is your go-to place for the smaller every-day consumer items. It might be a carton of milk, a loaf of bread, a bag of chips, a pop, the odd battery, or perhaps it’s a memory stick for your digital device – the convenience store should have it.

The variety of convenience stores may differ slightly from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, they may be mom and pop operations, or chains like the 7-Eleven. They may be a meeting point in the neighbourhood where local residents can connect with friends, or form relationships with owners that go beyond the monetary exchange of goods and services.

In Regent Park an area of Toronto that is going through a major revitalization, which will see the neighbourhood, once the largest social housing development in Canada, transformed into a mixed in-income, multi-use community. But change, especially this sort of multi-dimensional change, takes time; and is ultimately more than just changing the physical appearance of a certain place – it also entails social and cultural change – which are much harder to attain.

Regent Park has always been a place where newcomers and immigrants have gravitated to, seeking out the familiarity of people from their own background; or trying to find an affordable place to live. One such person was Khuram Aftab, an immigrant from Pakistan, who began his working life in Canada in a convenience store called Sam’s at Sherbourne St and Dundas St. However, like most immigrants to Canada, Khuram was striving for more and envisioned a bigger picture. When the owner of that store decided to sell the store in 2006, Khuram seized the opportunity and purchased the store he had worked in. Ten years later Khuram purchased his third store, this time in Regent Park, retaining the name Sam’s.

From the very beginning in 2016 when Khuram took over the convenience store at 175 River St. he was motivated by the notion of wanting to serve the community that he found himself in. Feedback from his customers allowed Khuram to make adjustments to the products and services that he carried. When customers reached out to Khuram about the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, he brought them in. When customers indicated that they needed a local solution to repairing electronic devices, Khuram opened the Tech-Corner - listening to the suggestions of his customers, is the path to success, says Khuram.

The first you notice when entering Sam’s Food Store is that it has a very prominent food section, carrying a wide array of prepared dishes that reflect the diversity of his customers. The menu includes items from Indian, African, Asian, Italian and Greek cuisines. Always sensitive to the needs of his community Khuram has instituted a program of providing free food for those in need, “everybody should eat, so they should not sleep hungry,” Khurtam Aftab.

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, Khuram’s initial response was to close down, but it was the realization that his customers were begging the employees to stay open: “please don’t close … we are old people, where will we go, where will we take our groceries?” It is at this point that Khuram describes how staff decided to take their own lives at risk and stay open for the customers.

“That was the blessing of Allah, no employee gone sick,” says Khuram, “we have a very proper action for safety, we check the temperature of everybody when he started the shift. We write down any of the symptoms like he was sick or feeling hot or cold.” Each day before opening the staff spent 2-3 hours in the morning sanitising the store, and they would repeat this at night, even though this proved to be too expensive a process to maintain, Khuram was committed in providing the safest of environments for his staff and customers alike.

Sam’s Food Stores location in Regent Park is at the corner of River St. and Oak St, an area of Toronto that has had a lot of attention in regard to gang and gun violence. This has caused some unique challenges for Khuram and his staff. Surveillance cameras have been installed both inside and outside the store. Additionally, there is a staff on hand throughout the night monitoring the premises for any security threats.

When you tally up all of these various features that make-up Sam’s, you can truly see how Khuram Aftab has taken the model of a local convenience store and elevated to be so much more. “If you have the passion to help the people … and I have the passion to help people as much as I can, I try my best to do it, we need to support each other, Regent Park is my community, its my family are here, friends, friend’s families, everybody is here. I am so happy to spend my time in Regent Park, I love Regent Park.”

Watch The Video Interview:

Written by
Dimitrije Martinovic

FOCUS Media Arts Centre

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