Toronto Wholesalers Bullish on Business

Toronto Skyline

Ontario food terminal continues to be a key food purveyor in one of North America’s largest and most diverse cities.

Ontario Food Terminal

Ontario’s Food Terminal is an important hub for the city’s diverse population.

Representing a large cross-section of Canada’s population, Toronto is considered one of the most diverse cities in the world. “Based on city-run statistics, Toronto is home to 8 percent of Canada’s population,” says Steven Bamford, chief executive at Fresh Advancements, Toronto. “Canada received more than 1.1 million international immigrants within a 5-year period; and the City of Toronto welcomed one-quarter of those immigrants.”

Toronto’s diversity is one of the city’s claims to fame, according to Ted Kurz, president of Stronach and Sons, Toronto. Kurz references information from, saying, “With half of its population born outside the country, Toronto is often referred to as the most multicultural city in the world. This city boasts 200 ethnic groups with more than 140 languages spoken. People from the United Kingdom, Ireland, China and Italy represent some of the larger cultural groups, while smaller communities include people from Iran, the Netherlands, Nepal and Romania.”

“The competition here is fierce. If stores aren’t on top of their game, they won’t last. You see a high level of execution, competitive pricing and strong merchandising.”

— Larry Davidson, North American Produce Buyers

Toronto’s multicultural identity gives rise to a varied and interesting food climate. “We offer a wide range of delicious ethnic cuisine,” says Ezio Bondi, vice president of Bondi Produce in Toronto. “Toronto has its own Chinatown, Little Korea, Little Italy and Little India neighborhoods with authentic under-the-radar restaurants.”

The city’s culture and thriving business sector attract residents who support a strong and diverse food climate. “Toronto has a large, well-educated population, strong economy and strong income level,” says Larry Davidson, vice president of North American Produce Buyers, Ltd., Toronto. “A lot of people have the income to spend on fresh produce. This city consumes a lot more fresh produce per capita than other markets.”

Sam Hak, president of Arc-En-Ciel Produce Inc., Toronto, says the Greater Toronto area’s large population base results in a high volume of consumption. “This gives us the opportunity to increase our buying power and offer not only better pricing, but fresher product,” he says.

The expanding diversity of the city only increases produce sales for wholesalers as the population continues to grow.

Competitive Retail Sector

Apple SelectionToronto residents enjoy the shopping experience, and Davidson believes it results in a high retail standard. “Produce shopping in Toronto is not a chore — it’s an enjoyable part of people’s routine,” he says. “The competition here is fierce. If stores aren’t on top of their game, they won’t last. You see a high level of execution, competitive pricing and strong merchandising.”

Joe Tavernese, vice president of produce procurement for Nature’s Emporium in Newmarket, Ontario, with three stores, agrees. “Produce is incredibly important to Toronto-area shoppers. There has been an explosion of eating styles, but one thing they all share is an emphasis on the importance of quality, whole fresh fruits and vegetables. Produce is a fiercely competitive environment. We rely on our commitment to certified organics, our emphasis on health and wellness, and our team of in-store nutritionists to provide something above and beyond.”

Carmelo Papia, produce buyer/manager for independent retailer Fiesta Farms Inc., in Toronto is also on this competitive frontline. “It changes on a daily basis due to availability,” he says. “We pride ourselves in bringing in the best quality and freshness. We have quite a large variety of both conventional and organic produce. We have a diverse customer base, and we try to bring in unique items to cater to our customers.”

Toronto encompasses all types of retailers, according to Barry W. Green, president of Richard E. Ryan & Associates Ltd. “We see everything from Mom & Pop stores, independent retailers, and regional and national chain stores to green grocers, specialty organic stores, high-end retailers, ethnic retailers, big box retailers and club/wholesale stores,” he says.

Frank DeFrancesco, business development for Burnac Produce, Ontario, agrees all facets of retailing are found in Toronto — from large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Costco right down to thousands of independent retailers. “Chains such as Loblaws, Fortinos and Longo’s, as well as independent retailers like Pusateri’s Fine Foods, The Garden Basket, Greco’s and Highland Farms are among the best,” he says.

The regional landscape is where Bondi says things get interesting. “In the past decade or so, we’ve seen several regional chains really become successful,” he says. “Farm Boy and Longo’s are two banners that come to mind in this category — both of them do a tremendous job offering a unique shopping experience.”

Though large chains have always had a strong presence in the Greater Toronto area, Arc-En-Ciel Produce’s Hak witnesses a strong presence of smaller chain retailers. “In the past few decades, a large number of independent retailers has opened their doors specializing in community-oriented grocery,” he says.

New Independents

Independent stores continue to be the backbone of business for the Ontario Food Terminal (OFT). “My dad always reminded me to never forget the smaller guys, because they are the foundation of your business,” says North American’s Davidson. “The independents were the foundation that allowed us to grow our business again after a rough patch. Strong independents continue to be a crucial part of our marketplace, and more are opening — especially as we see traditional independents replaced with Asian or Indian stores.”

While Toronto has long had an independent retail presence thanks to stores such as Pusateri’s and Harvest Wagon, Bondi reports seeing aggressive growth in the past decade among ethnic retailers. He cites Fiesta Farms, with only one location, as a great example. “The store understands its demographic well and always offers unique produce items,” he says. “Ethnic retailers have become better at appealing to the Caucasian shopper by offering cleaner store designs, ultra-competitive pricing, and a greater focus on freshness.”

Ted Cira, general manager of Dominion Citrus Wholesale in Toronto, notes the diversity in the marketplace is causing greater specialization. “Retail stores are trying to be more specialized with different commodities to serve their specific customer base,” he says.

According to Hak, independent retailers play a major role in communities. “They operate with lower overhead and often have lower prices for their customers,” he says. “They offer cultural products not commonly sold in major chains. The buyers are hands-on, check quality on a daily basis and pick up products as often as needed, not relying on a large distribution system.”

“Ethnic retailers have become better at appealing to the Caucasian shopper by offering cleaner store designs, ultra-competitive pricing, and a greater focus on freshness.”

— Ezio Bondi, Bondi Produce

The relationship between independents and the OFT is mutually beneficial. “The rise of independent retailers has given distributors another outlet for product,” says Bondi. “Conversely, the market provides them with a lot of options and variety when it comes to procurement. You could conceivably scale-up a single-unit operation to a multi-unit one solely relying on the market for procurement — an amazing resource.”

John Russell, president of J.E. Russell Produce Ltd., Toronto, values relationships with multi-store and smaller independents, as well as foodservice distributors and restaurants. “It’s the heart of our business,” he says. “We are almost like a partnership of suppliers/growers and retail sellers/distributors, depending on each other to do the very best job every day in a very competitive market.”

Restaurant Offering

Village Farms TomatoesToronto’s diversity is likewise reflected in the foodservice sector. Richard E. Ryan’s Green says Toronto’s restaurant sector is very vibrant, with multiple choices and styles of foods. “It’s trendy and produce-oriented,” he says.

Steve Wakeman, partner at The Produce Guys, says Toronto’s foodservice sector encompasses a variety of ethnic-specific restaurants. “It is thriving as our population keeps growing,” he says.

In 2016, Toronto had 9,228 restaurant units with $6.0 billion in sales, according to Restaurants Canada, the Ontario-based national restaurant association formerly known as Canadian Restaurant Foodservice Association. “Toronto’s restaurants reflect the city’s multicultural fabric, with a myriad of cuisines to suit every palate,” says James Rilett, vice president at Restaurants Canada. “As the city with the greatest number of restaurants in Canada, Toronto is a culinary destination.”

It’s a tough industry because of the competition and rising business costs. “However, there are always great little spots popping up, trying to stake their claim in the always-growing culinary scene,” says Fresh Advancements’ Bamford. “You see everything from large established Canadian chains to a little Jerk Chicken walk-up to Mark McEwen’s latest venture in the downtown core.”

Russell believes the success of the restaurant sector is also driven by the multitude of produce items available daily at the OFT. “Many of the recognized best chefs shop here directly or through an independent foodservice buyer to meet their unique menu needs,” he says. “The demand for fresh and local produce on today’s restaurant menu is best serviced by the vendors and local growers at the OFT.”

A Fundamental Source

The Toronto Wholesale Produce Association (TWPA) represents the 21 wholesaler tenants at the OFT. “The TWPA has been in existence since 1933, making it easy for small and mid-size businesses to shop at the Terminal,” says Paola Guarnieri, TWPA’s director of communications. “The Ontario Food Terminal has been open since 1954.”

The OFT remains a fundamental part of the Toronto food industry. It is estimated more than 1 million vehicles enter the Terminal annually. The Terminal serves buyers all over Ontario, in the Maritimes, Quebec and Manitoba, as well as the northern United States.

“This Toronto market has been stable for more than 30 years,” says Dominion’s Cira. “The amount of wholesalers on the market has stayed the same. Ownership may have changed, but businesses have remained.”

Convenience and selection represent two major benefits of the OFT. “Having all the wholesalers under one roof means it’s a one-stop shop,” says Guarnieri. “Because the wholesalers are literally side-by-side, customers arguably get their hands on a better selection of items at better prices than if they had to go to different locations off-site. The Terminal is situated only six miles from downtown Toronto, and its location at the crossroads of major freeways provides easy access.”

North American’s Davidson says OFT companies represent the best of what’s available in the industry. “If you want to really taste and see the product you’re selling, this is the place to do it,” he says. “It may not be realistic for major retailers to taste and touch everything in their stores, but this aspect of our market is an advantage for smaller independent stores who have to be nimble and hands-on.”

Fiesta Farms utilizes the OFT to buy produce on a daily basis. “It allows us to be competitive in our buying strategy,” says Papia. “It also gives us the chance to develop a relationship with wholesalers and growers to bring in the best quality. We shop there five to six days a week.”

Offering a wide variety of product to meet Toronto’s diversifying need is an area where the market wholesalers shine. “With our network of vendors, we are in a position to supply products not as readily available in most conventional retail outlets,” says Arc-En-Ciel’s Hak.

Burnac’s DeFrancesco reports customers increasingly seek consistently high-quality offerings from around the world, but with an eye on food safety. “Buyers purchase product through our terminal market operations with confidence,” he says. “We procure product from all over the world and service all ethnic products with no shortage or gaps.”

Reliability and relationships are a core part of many OFT companies’ business. “We strive to successfully negotiate purchasing agreements that meet or exceed the expectations of buyers and growers alike,” says Green. “One-on-one communications with people are crucial, especially when there are challenges due to weather, transportation or growing issues causing supply and demand imbalance.”

Fresh Taste Produce, a fourth generation company in Toronto, values the pleasure of working with many other generational companies. “As a result, the market has become a place with a rich tradition of family and friends working together to serve the community, the city, the province and even the whole country,” says Julian Sarraino, vice president.

Paul Scarafile, president and chief executive of Dominion Citrus, Toronto, credits the market’s competitive nature as raising the bar. “We have good competition here,” he says. “You have to stay on the ball and do your best.”

Expanding Beyond The Past

Food Terminal Loading DockNeed for new product lines and services have led market wholesalers to expand beyond their traditional roots. “With each new wave of immigrants, the produce offerings change,” says Stronach’s Kurz. “I’ve seen firsthand the food choices of many different cultural groups reflected in the produce requests of our buyers.”

The greatest advantage of wholesaling in Toronto, according to Fresh Advancements’ Bamford, is the immense customer base. “It empowers us with the ability to increase the volume of our sales,” he says. “We continue to thrive because we are always adding new and exciting items to our product list.”

Burnac’s DeFrancesco references expansion in product line and geography. “We carry a wide variety of products, both conventional and organic, and service customers from coast to coast, depending on the product,” he says.

As Fresh Taste’s customer base grows, the company strives to help customers maintain growth through product diversity. “We really try to get the customers exactly what they want and bring in product to inspire them to try new things,” says Serraino. “They know their business best, so we strive to help them achieve their goals.”

Changing demographic of household size also influences product line. “More people are living in downtown condos and they don’t want a basket of peaches, they want a smaller pouch bag for only two people,” says Scarafile.

Dominion Citrus has expanded and innovated to serve this expanding customer base. “You have to be diversified,” says Scarafile. “Over the years, we have added more tropicals, packaged products and organics. We do a good job in traditional lines, but also are looking at where we can innovate to meet customer needs.”

North American’s current business reflects a move from primarily selling vegetables to now focusing on fresh fruit. “We specialize more in stone fruit, grapes, citrus and apples,” says Davidson. “As our business has grown and we’ve added import programs, we’ve grown to ship all across the country.”

Grower Connection

Jodean Robbins

The Ontario Food Terminal (OFT) has a very special relationship with local growers. “Not everyone realizes the Ontario Food Terminal is the only wholesale produce market in North America to house farmer tenants onsite,” says Ted Kurz, president of Stronach and Sons, Toronto. “This means our customers buy directly from more than 400 farmers throughout the year.”

The on-site farmer tenant aspect allows for greater interaction between farmers, buyers and wholesalers. “Many farmers say they enjoy the ability to speak directly to their customers because it allows them to tweak their offerings,” says Paola Guarnieri, director of communications for the Toronto Wholesale Produce Association (TWPA). “Whether it’s altering the packaging of kalettes or bundling green onions a certain way for a chef, or growing a certain variety of peaches, it’s all helpful information our farmers wouldn’t likely have access to if they weren’t meeting face-to-face with their customers. Conversely, customers are able to get information directly from farmers, which they can then use in their marketing efforts.”

The market’s proximity to Canada’s growing region also promotes business. “Our location near the prime growing regions of Ontario allows for an excellent selection of products,” says Guarnieri. “This allows market customers to differentiate themselves from their larger competitors by offering local products from smaller farms not available in chain stores and restaurants.”

Ontario-grown and local produce continue to be growth areas, according to John Russell, president of J.E. Russell Produce Ltd. in Toronto. “With our large and diverse population base and increasing demand for local, the proximity of our major growing regions such as Leamington, Niagara, Bradford and others can continue to grow,” he says.

Paul Scarafile, president and chief executive of Dominion Citrus, Toronto, reports local farmers utilize various methods of selling product to the OFT. “Some farmers sell the product here at market directly,” he says.
“Or others, as they get larger, sell directly to one wholesaler to handle the product because they just want to concentrate on growing.”