A Toronto grocery store is encouraging customers to hook up. Obviously, we had to check it out.
"How'd you two meet?" And so it starts: the rudimentary question that all couples are asked by inquisitive house party guests or anyone else low on conversation topics. "We worked together," "Online," or "Full moon party" are a few of the elementary answers you'll often encounter. There are, of course, exceptions: those rare, romantic, and random meet-cutes, like two people running into each other while backpacking in Cambodia and then realizing they are from the same hometown in Canada. The kind that leave you saying, "Well, in that case, you pretty much have to stay together now."
The grocery store is not often one of those places where the latter stories take place. It is a wholly unmagical warehouse where basic needs, bad habits, and societal requirements converge. Still, it's an inescapable part of the public sphere and a community staple, which seems to have been the reason for the Metro grocery store in Liberty Village—Toronto's millennial enclave—to play host a singles night last Thursday evening.
The idea rebukes the flickering screens of Tinder and other online dating services, while the setting feeds our primordial basic needs of hunting, gathering, and mating. As the event's host, Jen Kirsch—who runs a site called Jentrified—told me: "It's the old school sense of dating, and I'm only referring to a few years ago before all these dating apps became so common and overly used."
The rules were simple: by tying a red ribbon to the shopping apparatus of your choice, you would be identified as single while you roamed the aisles of the Liberty Village Metro. "It's a very young, professional area. It's a meat market already when you're going to that grocery store, singles night or not!" Jen exclaimed when we spoke over the phone.
So now your fellow shoppers' relationship status would be displayed loud and clear for you; there would be no more wondering if the dude in sweatpants was going to eat all that bacon alone or take it home and cook it for his hungover girlfriend, and no fretting if the girl with the flowers was buying them for her lonesome single self or not. The ribbon told all, and those who donned it would be herded around the supermarket like prized pigs at a county fair. I needed to get apples anyway, so I went down to see for myself.
The Liberty Village area is a plaza of well-to-do urban life—a biosphere of young professionals and every generic chain you'd find at an airport, and the kind of place where you imagine the Tinder matches eerily coming from INSIDE the building. It was perfect for this event.
When I walked into Metro, a table of loot bags greeted me. The bubbly woman who was handing them out instructed me to take the ribbon off the handle and tie it to my wrist or my cart. Instead, I grabbed a basket and entered through the sliding doors. Immediately to my left a DJ was already creating a markedly different atmosphere than the shopping cart sway of the usual easy-rock soundtrack. Most people there were moseying around the produce section in small groups or by themselves, but everyone was going about their shopping quite privately. I started circling as well, noticing that most people were flaunting ribbons, but still it felt like a singles game of murder handshake as everyone circled like sharks around the fruits and vegetables, curiously eyeing each other.
I approached a woman who was steering a large two-tiered shopping cart. Her ribbon waved visibly from the top handle, but the size of the cart felt like it was establishing a physical boundary, like saving room for Jesus at a school dance.
"Did you come for the singles night?" I asked and immediately shook my head at such a redundant question. I'd just posed the "do you come here often?" of supermarket singles nights, revealing that I had absolutely nothing to offer.
"No, I actually just came by because I'm going to be moving to this area," she replied warmly. "I didn't even know it was going on. Isn't this cool?" I was unsure if she was referencing the night, her cart, or the sensation of engaging strangers, but I nodded on command. She told me about her excitement to move into the area before asking if I knew about "any good discounts?" I didn't, but like you do when you're put on the spot, I did my best to compromise.
"There's some coupons in the gift bag," I offered. "Or the best deal is the free food they're giving out." Her eyes widened as I pointed toward Metro staff members bustling around with trays of huge chunks of cheese on bread. I shook her hand and we exchanged a friendly see ya around.
The strangest thing about the experience was how aware of what other shoppers had collected I had become. I found myself judging a man who carried only a cauliflower and a potato like he was clad in no-no double denim. Why should I care? How are these any reflections of character? But I still couldn't help myself viewing others groceries as tiny windows into their lives. Jen told me earlier that she saw the shopping aspect as part of the fun. "It's really playful to see what people purchase.... like if I was seeing someone who was getting 2L pops, chips, and a frozen pizza, their lifestyle doesn't match with mine and I know they wouldn't be for me. But if someone was picking up the organic fruits and the tofu, then I'd be like, 'Hells yeah, I want in on this!'"
Two guys and three girls stood in a circle. The guys loudly motioned and joked around, the girls smiled half interested with their arms crossed. The conversation finished in high fives, hugs, and an exchange of "message us later." I approached the guys immediately after. One had his ribbon dangling from his ear, telling the world he was ready to have fun, just like everyone who puts their ties around their head at a wedding. They were built, good looking bros and seemed like they often turned anywhere they went into singles night, be it a farmer's market or bingo hall. I asked if they had just made singles night a success with those girls. "Nah, they were friends of ours," the one with the ear ribbon informed me.
"Did you guys come specifically for the singles night?" I asked.
"Kind of, but I live across the street and actually do just want a salad," he replied. I looked down into his basket to see if his story checked out and sitting right there was indeed a pre-mixed salad. Good look, brah. When I turned back to face the entrance of the store, I discovered a situation that I hadn't predicted. It was someone I knew.
Staring me in the face and brandishing his own ribbon, was my friend Aaron. We give each other the "we're busted" shrug and start chatting. He was there with his friend Vicky who was curious about the event and wanted to get stuff for a stir-fry. Now that I had a companion, I'd suddenly become more approachable, and that's simply because I no longer look like someone who came to singles night alone. Vicky quickly rid herself of the cockblocking company of Aaron and I, and a South African gentleman quickly swooped in on her. "You good?" he asked.
"Yeah," she smiles.
"Why do you have this thing on if you're good?" he scolds, pointing at her singles ribbon. "You're not good." This was the first real move I'd seen made all evening, by a dude shopping alone who boldly thinks of himself as the salvation to the purgatory of single life. "No work, no chicken, let's shop!" he yelled and headed off towards the deli.
Women throughout the store were now greeting Aaron and me.
"Are you following her?" One turns and asks us, referring to her friend.
"Uh, no," we said, failing to pick up on the flirtatiousness of the accusation.
"She's amazing," the accuser continued, and so we stopped for a chat.
The "amazing" girl in reference is from Newmarket, a suburb that's about a 50-minute drive from where we stood. As she tells it, there's not much going on out there and she's looking forward to moving back to the city. Her friend brought her along, the same friend who kept periodically interrupting with praise for her. "She's a country singer too!" she chimes in. After a few minutes they take off to buy the ginger cookies in their basket so they can open the package.
As much as people wanted to feel like they could act natural in this familiar setting, none of us were. Our ribbons rendered our surroundings obsolete and this bright room of food we all found ourselves in served mainly as a confused distraction. Sure people shopped, but only to give the impression they weren't that person who was just here for singles.
The two girls who went to buy the cookies returned with the bag open.
'We're going to the produce section to see how firm people's grip are," said one. She sounded like she'd done this before. We followed behind at a safe distance back to club produce where I spotted the man with the cauliflower and potato from earlier. His basket was now brimming with fresh veggies, and I sombrely regretted ever judging him.
The last stand of the singles.
I took one last lap around the store. There were still aisles flanked by weird, lone dudes with ribbons, perhaps waiting for other shoppers to walk into their trap. I grabbed a baguette and realized it had now taken me two-and-a-half hours to do so; I needed to get out of there.
I looped through produce one last time, where Cheryl had joined a last circle of minglers, including the country singer and some new faces. One of them complained how they didn't serve alcohol at the event, an addition that would've just brought the experience closer to creating an atrocious grocery-themed nightclub. After a minute or two, the group dispersed again, showing that we were all unable to separate ourselves from the dutiful feeling to continue shopping. Every encounter I'd had or seen was marked by this feeling of, "Well, I should get going"—an inability to remove ourselves from the natural drive to leave.
People I spoke to unanimously agreed that the event was awkward, but everyone was seemingly driven by the unusual spectacle of it, waiting to see if whatever small moment we had pictured would happen. And there's still hope it could, because thankfully there's missed connections and the whole internet at our disposal to ensure that hooking up at the grocery store never has to be anyone's last chance.
I said goodbye to Aaron and Vicky and left the store with my groceries in hand. As I walked to my bike I saw the potato/cauliflower guy who I'd judged so hastily, but now he had no bags with him at all. He was walking toward Harvey's. The whole basket had just been part of his Metro persona, and like so many of us there, an embellished version of his usual grocery experience. Go for the tofu next time, man.
Follow Aidan Johnston on Twitter.