Eric McLean is the Big Cheese

Eric McLean is the Big Cheese

McLean’s Specialty Foods stocks 150 kinds of cheeses as well as hard to find European, British and South African items

  • Sep. 18, 2019 8:30 a.m.

– Story by Tess van Straaten Photography by Don Denton

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

Like Boulevard Magazine on Facebook and follow them on Instagram

Not many people can say they’re the big cheese. But Nanaimo’s Eric McLean sure can and he has the T-shirt to prove it.

“People get a good chuckle out of it and it helps me stand out,” laughs Eric, who started McLean’s Specialty Foods 27 years ago.

The Glasgow native was even inducted into the Guilde des Fromagers, or “cheese hall of fame,” five years ago. And his passion for good food is contagious.

“It’s like one of my customers said the other day — life’s too short to eat bad cheese,” Eric says.

The idea for the specialty foods store, located in Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter, was actually the result of Eric and his wife, Sandy, being unable to find ingredients like extra virgin olive oil, prosciutto and good cheese when they moved to the Harbour City almost three decades ago.

“When we moved here from Vancouver 28 years ago there was nothing,” explains Eric. “We just realized there was a big hole in the market. It’s hard to believe, but before I opened the store in 1992 you couldn’t even buy balsamic vinegar and nobody knew what San Pellegrino was.”

For Eric, who’d worked in the food industry since immigrating to Canada in 1980, opening the store “had to be done” and he says many of his first customers had also recently moved to Nanaimo from larger cities like Vancouver and Toronto.

“Like us, they’d moved here and couldn’t find what they were used to buying,” he says. “I promoted the store at first as a place to get hard-to-find ingredients.”

With around 150 different kinds of cheese — one of the largest selections on Vancouver Island — as well as gourmet oils, vinegars, truffles, pâtés, a delicatessen and wide assortment of Danish, British, European and South African specialty items, McLean’s has attracted a loyal following over the years and a surprising number of new customers.

“Every single day for the past 20-plus years, we’ve had at least one person, and usually several, say: ‘Oh this is great, we’ve never been here before’ or ‘Friends told us about this place, we just moved here,’” Eric says. “Every single day, without a lie, so can you imagine what that does for our confidence. We’re doing something right and the positive reinforcement has been phenomenal.”

But running a small business isn’t easy. In the beginning, sourcing the products was the biggest challenge. However, now the challenge is competing with grocery and big box stores that have big buying power and are now carrying more specialty items.

“In the last three-to-five years, supermarkets have suddenly discovered things like balsamic vinegar and prosciutto,’ explains Eric. “The biggest challenge is supermarkets have realized specialty foods are part of a growing market. But their main motivation is price and they can’t tell you what to do with the product.”

While Eric says he usually can’t compete on price, he can offer something chain stores can’t — specialized service and extensive product knowledge.

“We can spend time with the customer and tell them what to do with the product, share recipes and share our experiences using it. And that has given us the edge,” Eric says. “I teach my staff to get to know our customers and to treat them like they’re important, because they are. I may sign their paycheque but I don’t pay them. I tell staff to always remember the customer pays them.”

Eric says the most important lesson he’s learned in running the business has been to trust his instincts. But the best advice came decades ago, when he was still in Scotland and training in sales, from a man who would become his mentor.

“His name was George Burrows and he told me never, ever bullshit the customer because it will come back to haunt you,” Eric says. “We were in a shop one time calling on a good customer he’d had for a good number of years, and the owner was going to order this and that [from us] and George told him not to order it because it wasn’t a good fit for the store. I asked George what the heck he was doing because I thought we needed every sale we could get, and he told me that if he goes back next month and it’s still sitting there on the shelf, the customer isn’t going to be happy. ‘He’s going to be really pissed off if I sold him something for the sake of selling something.’”

The conversation has definitely stuck with Eric, whose other passion is music. He’s been playing guitar since he was 13 years old, including a stint professionally, and is one of the co-founders of the Nanaimo Blues Festival. His other claim to fame is launching Mott’s Clamato on Vancouver Island when he worked for Cadbury-Schweppes years ago.

“I learned an awful lot about product margins, how to merchandise product and how you can increase sales by moving product and repositioning it — because the location of the product is really key,” he says. “I like to get a product that looks nice because basically it’s fighting for its life to get someone to pick it up. So the better or more interesting it looks, the better chance it has of finding a home.”

After almost three decades in business, it’s clear Eric has found his home. But the grandfather of three isn’t planning to retire anytime soon.

“People ask me if I have an exit strategy and I say, ‘how do you spell that? We’re going to keep on doing what we’re doing and trying to stay ahead of the curve.’”

Check out Mcleans Specialty Foods here.

FoodFood and WineLifestyle

Just Posted

Orange shirts, shoes, flowers and messages are displayed on the steps outside the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 following a ceremony hosted by the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations in honour of the 215 residential school children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility in Kamloops, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Alberta city cancels Canada Day fireworks at site of former residential school

City of St. Albert says that the are where the display was planned, is the site of the former Youville Residential School

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Alberta reports 100 new cases of COVID-19

The Central zone sits at 218 active cases

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Red Deer drops to 71 active cases of COVID-19

Province adds 127 new cases of the virus

Police officers and their dogs undergo training at the RCMP Police Dog Services training centre in Innisfail, Alta., on Wednesday, July 15, 2015. Mounties say they are searching for an armed and dangerous man near a provincial park in northern Alberta who is believed to have shot and killed a service dog during a police chase. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
RCMP search for armed man in northern Alberta after police dog shot and killed

Cpl. Deanna Fontaine says a police service dog named Jago was shot during the pursuit

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Tl’etinqox-lead ceremony at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, B.C., June 18, 2021. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
‘We are all one people’: Honouring residential school victims and survivors

Love, support and curiousity: Canadians urged to learn about residential schools and their impact

Indigenous rights and climate activists gathered outside Liberty Mutual’s office in Vancouver to pressure the insurance giant to stop covering Trans Mountain. (Photo by Andrew Larigakis)
Activists work to ensure Trans Mountain won’t get insurance

Global campaign urging insurance providers to stay away from Canadian pipeline project

Investigators use a bucket to help recover human remains at a home burned in the Camp fire, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Magalia, Calif. Many of the missing in the deadly Northern California wildfire are elderly residents in Magalia, a forested town of about 11,000 north of the destroyed town of Paradise. (AP Photo/John Locher)
‘Forever War’ with fire has California battling forests instead

Five of the state’s largest-ever blazes seared California last year, as authorities tackle prevention

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto and IOC President Thomas Bach, on a screen, speak during a five=party online meeting at Harumi Island Triton Square Tower Y in Tokyo Monday, June 21, 2021. The Tokyo Olympics will allow some local fans to attend when the games open in just over a month, Tokyo organizing committee officials and the IOC said on Monday. (Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Pool Photo via AP)
Tokyo Olympics to allow Japanese fans only, with strict limits

Organizers set a limit of 50% capacity — up to a maximum of 10,000 fans

Intricate cloth masks with Indigenous design made by Teresa Snow. Facebook/ Masks4Maskwacis
‘Masks 4 Maskwacis’ wins Northern Lights Volunteer Award

The group received recognition for their efforts to support their community during COVID-19.

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

Most Read