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 7:30 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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Rotary Club of Prince Rupert members Kelly Sawchuck and Adrienne Johnston prepare Christmas trees on Dec. 4 in Prince Rupert for the annual sale. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
300 Christmas trees arrive in Prince Rupert

Rotary Club Christmas tree sales are now on, with a high demand for trees during COVID-19

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers. This is where one employee is still currently isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was first declared on Nov. 19. (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
54 positive COVID-19 cases associated with LNG Canada site outbreak

There’s been a two-person increase in positive cases since Tuesday (Dec. 1)

K-J Millar/The Northern View
8 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the Northern Health Authority

Since Nov. 27, there have been 191 new cases reported in NHA

Five to six years of log accumulation at Diana Lake Provincial Park is currently being cleaned up by a District of Port Edward and Parks BC partnership. (Photo: Supplied by District of Port Edward)
Diana Lake Provincial Park clean up underway

Port Edward District spearheaded the park clean up securing $80,000 in funds from Ridley Terminal

A coal-fired power plant seen through dense smog from the window of an electric bullet train south of Beijing, December 2016. China has continued to increase thermal coal production and power generation, adding to greenhouse gas emissions that are already the world’s largest. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
LNG featured at B.C. energy industry, climate change conference

Hydrogen, nuclear, carbon capture needed for Canada’s net-zero goal

Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Dec. 6 to 12

Mountain Day, Dewey Decimal System Day and Lard Day are all coming up this week

Demonstrators, organized by the Public Fishery Alliance, outside the downtown Vancouver offices of Fisheries and Oceans Canada July 6 demand the marking of all hatchery chinook to allow for a sustainable public fishery while wild stocks recover. (Public Fishery Alliance Facebook photo)
Angry B.C. anglers see petition tabled in House of Commons

Salmon fishers demand better access to the healthy stocks in the public fishery

(Hotel Zed/Flytographer)
B.C. hotel grants couple 18 years of free stays after making baby on Valentines Day

Hotel Zed has announced a Kelowna couple has received free Valentines Day stays for next 18 years

Farmers raise slogans during a protest on a highway at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the diplomatic scolding Canada’s envoy to India received on Friday for his recent comments in support of protesting Indian farmers. Tens of thousands of farmers have descended upon the borders of New Delhi to protest new farming laws that they say will open them to corporate exploitation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manish Swarup
Trudeau brushes off India’s criticism for standing with farmers in anti-Modi protests

The High Commission of India in Ottawa had no comment when contacted Friday

Montreal Alouettes’ Michael Sam is set to make his pro football debut as he warms up before the first half of a CFL game against the Ottawa Redblacks in Ottawa on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015. Sam became the first publicly gay player to be drafted in the NFL. He signed with the Montreal Alouettes after being released by St. Louis, but abruptly left after playing one game. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Study finds Canada a ‘laggard’ on homophobia in sports

Among females, 44 per cent of Canadians who’ve come out to teammates reported being victimized

Nurse Kath Olmstead prepares a shot as the world’s biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway Monday, July 27, 2020, in Binghamton, N.Y. U.S. biotech firm Moderna says its vaccine is showing signs of producing lasting immunity to COVID-19, and that it will have as many as many as 125 million doses available by the end of March. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hans Pennink
Canada orders more COVID vaccines, refines advice on first doses as cases reach 400K

Canada recorded its 300,000th case of COVID-19 on Nov. 16

Apartments are seen lit up in downtown Vancouver as people are encouraged to stay home during the global COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. British Columbia’s deputy provincial health officer says provincewide data show the most important area B.C. must tackle in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is health inequity. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
Age, income among top factors affecting well-being during pandemic, B.C. survey shows

Among respondents earning $20,000 a year or less, more than 41 per cent reported concern about food insecurity

Information about the number of COVID-19 cases in Abbotsford and other municipalities poses a danger to the public, the Provincial Health Services Authority says. (Photo: Tyler Olsen/Abbotsford News)
More city-level COVID-19 data would jeopardize public health, B.C. provincial health agency says

Agency refuses to release weekly COVID-19 case counts, citing privacy and public health concerns

Victoria-based driving instructors are concerned for their own and the community’s safety with the continued number of residents from COVID hotspots in the Lower Mainland coming to the city to take their driving road tests. (Black Press Media file photo)
Students from COVID hotspots travel to Vancouver Island for driving tests

Union leader calls on government to institute stronger travel ban

Most Read