Originally printed in the March 2019 issue of Produce Business.
Personalized service, product expertise and investing in growth help ensure stability.
Through consolidation, economic ups and downs and even difficult weather, Montreal’s produce companies stand firm in their commitment to provide the best produce and service to customers. “We are on the frontlines for our customers,” says Maria Cavazos, president of MC Produce. “Middlemen such as wholesalers, importers, distributors and traders bring value. I’m providing services and activities buyers don’t have time to do themselves or don’t want to do.”
Montreal’s competitive and demanding food environment results in continued relevance for local wholesalers. “As long as the demand for specifics stays high, we’ll be in business fighting to find what our customers need,” says Christos Botsis, president of Botsis Fruits & Vegetables. “Any wholesaler in Montreal is focused on customer-specific needs. We welcome demanding customers because it raises the bar for everyone.”
Produce wholesalers remain important for all formats, from big banners to corner stores and foodservice, says Joel Lavorato, president of Gaetan Bono. “Wholesalers are the first to be willing to try new products and new things,” he says. “We are needed more and more with big banners, to help them stay competitive. The wholesaler is there to help out, to support and to make sure the customer doesn’t get left out. With Mother Nature you can’t control your own destiny; you need someone to help you control it.”
Montreal’s produce community serves as a key conduit for moving produce in the city and beyond. “The wholesaler/distributor of Montreal is the mainstream of produce for Eastern Canada,” says Gabriel Isabelle, vice president sales and development for C. Isabelle et Fils, a potato grower/packer. “Montreal is surrounded by fertile land with the biggest produce growers in Canada, and we are located only about five or six hours from the most populated cities, including Toronto and New York.”
Montreal’s importers and wholesalers work to give customers a competitive edge. Cavazos explains the benefit of helping customers have the first product of the season. “Being first with a product in the marketplace has become a big deal,” she says. “Stores want to be the first to have mangos from Peru announced on the flyer. The issue is managing the amount of products and sources out there to make that happen. This is where our value is multiplied.”
Wholesalers play a crucial role in meeting increasing demand for greater variety. “Items that 10 years ago we weren’t handling have become a staple in our warehouse,” says Morison. “We see growth in demand or ethnic and speciality items. Our customers still order meat and potatoes but also now enjoy the opportunity to purchase more specific items for their own customers.”
Companies also look to service trends in natural options. “Organic is growing in smaller independent stores,” says Frank Ferrarelli, general manager of Essex Continental Distributors. “This is an increasing trend, and there will be more organics in the future in all formats.”
Cavazos says the organic trend goes beyond strict organic. “Consumers are really into natural products,” she says. “Even if it’s not 100-percent organic, consumers orient toward anything with a GMO-free or natural wording on the label.”
Local produce is trending more and more according to Lavorato.
Essex differentiates itself in being a producer and local. “We produce about 75 percent of what we sell,” says Ferrarelli. “Of our total sales, 95 percent are mushrooms. Our product is grown within a maximum of six hours from Montreal by truck.”
Synergy between produce companies and customers strengthens the business for all. “More than ever, retailers are coming to us because of how we can serve them,” says Lavorato. “There is a lot more pressure on the retailer to perform. One example of this is how circulars have changed. Stores used to promote one or two items in produce. Now, they put a loss leader but will have 10 to 14 different produce items.”
Botsis credits the customer orientation of the business for keeping consumers coming back. “We are very hands-on,” he says. “My brothers and I work the business with my dad, who is 84 years old. We focus on quality control and service for our customers. Being a family business is a big deal. We can relate to growers and customers who have family businesses.”
Gaetan Bono’s Lavorato is second-generation and took over the company a year ago. “My brother Michel, my son Salvatore and I took the helm to continue the tradition and reputation built by my uncle,” he says. “Our company has been around for almost 40 years, and we are committed to doing things right to serve our customers. We base our business on buying what is the best out there. Quality will sell more than price most of the time.”
Smaller and independent retailers rely on the relationship with local wholesalers to keep their business thriving. “Having flexibility when buying from wholesalers gives smaller retailers an advantage,” says Lavorato.
Ferrarelli of Essex credits wholesalers with helping introduce new products and offering more direct service. “Smaller and independent stores are always looking to introduce products and cater to customers by finding specific products the customers want,” he says.
Serving Montreal’s foodservice scene is also all about going above and beyond, according to Botsis. “When a chef wants a specific hot pepper only found in one place, we do whatever we need to get it,” he says. “We are very service-oriented, and that’s even more crucial with foodservice.”
MC Produce’s Cavazos works with specific items to ensure supply all year-round. “The customer can call us to find out what is feasible,” she says. “We know the business and we have the relationships to meet specific customer needs.”
Relationships play a key role in expanding local options as well. Morison reports always keeping an eye open with current local growers for new products to offer to customers. “When I begin working with a grower on one item, I find two or three more to offer them as well,” she says. “Sometimes, a customer asks me for something in particular and I come to realize it has been growing in my own back yard.”
Expanding The Business
Though various factors have reduced the number of players in the Montreal produce scene, those who remain are staying strong. “There are less players on the market, but the players who are here are major players,” says Ferrarelli. “That may result in more control over the products and quality.”
Family business Botsis Fruits & Vegetables opened in 2010 and will be expanding for the third time. “We are adding 11,000 extra square feet, for a total of 41,000 square feet,” says Botsis. “This will include 14 dock doors. We attribute growth to good, honorable business principles and an overall increase in consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Food safety is another major expansion area for companies. “It’s become a prerequisite at this point,” says Botsis. “Our company is CanadaGAP-certified, and we’re already working on SQF to protect our customers further. We’re putting in re-grading equipment as part of our expansion. This will allow us to offer our customers a better box of produce. We’ll be washing and grading and be able to offer consistency. If someone wants Color 4 tomatoes and another wants Color 6, we can give them that.”
Food safety and traceability are major influencers during recent years, agrees Isabelle. “We were one of the first growers/packers to receive the CanadaGAP certification in Quebec,” he says. “Now with our computer traceability program, we are able to follow all our deliveries.”
Cavazos maintains if companies don’t comply with new food safety regulations they get left behind. “I think this is what has happened with a lot of smaller brokers or traders,” she says. “They just couldn’t, or didn’t, take the steps to keep their business updated.”
Isabelle notes it’s important to invest every year in the company’s packing plant. “This results in better products, bigger volume and the lowest cost possible,” he says. “Packaging has changed, too. Twenty years ago we were only packing 50 and 10 pounds regularly. We now have added 3 and 5 pounds. We put a lot of money into marketing to be able to have aesthetically pleasing packaging and are proud we have made potatoes ‘sexy’ again.”