Originally printed in the May 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Toronto’s terminal market thrives by offering personalized service, variety and experience to demanding Toronto produce customers.
Established in 1954, the Ontario Food Terminal is Canada’s largest wholesale fruit and produce terminal, ranking among the top terminal markets in North America by volume of produce distributed. “We are the third largest terminal market in North America, and we have significant supply,” says Danny Simone, manager at Stronach & Sons. “We’re located in an accessible part of the city. We’re busy every day — Sunday to Friday.”
According to the Ontario Food Terminal Board, the market distributes 1,053,612 tons (or 2.1 billion pounds) of produce annually, equating to an average of 5.6 million pounds of fruits, produce and horticultural products distributed daily. The 40-acre facility consists of two areas — a Warehouse Tenant area and a Farmers’ Market Tenant area. The 21 Warehouse Tenants serve as a more traditional wholesale terminal market, providing local, national and imported fruits and vegetables. The 400 Farmers’ Market Tenants provide local fruits, vegetables and floral products.
Simone explains customers benefit from such choice. “We have a wide variety of companies and products,” he says. “If you don’t like my lettuce, you can go one shop away and get lettuce from my neighbor. Buyers can comparison-shop and do it very quickly, seeing everything with their own eyes.”
Though the market was built in 1954, it has been renovating over the decades, reports Simone. “We’ve made it safer to walk the docks, and we’re getting food safety certifications,” he says. “All the merchants on the market are HACCP-approved now. We’re looking toward the next 50 years.”
GROWING PRODUCT MIX
Toronto’s demographics spur variety in products. “The speed at which our city is growing partnered with the diversification results in many different produce demands on a larger scale,” says Christian Sarraino, chief procurement officer at Fresh Taste Produce.
The thriving tropical fruits business is largely driven by consumer demands that wouldn’t have been as strong a driver 15 to 20 years ago, explains Hutch Morton, senior vice president at J.E. Russell Produce Ltd. “The multiculturalism of this great city is what really makes the Ontario Food Terminal flourish.”
Toronto merchants enlarge their offerings via gourmet and ethnic items, expanded lines and local harvests. “We continue to expand our product line to include new and interesting products,” says Ezio Bondi, vice president of Bondi Produce. “We just launched a line of truffle products.”
In the fall of 2019, J.E. Russell hired Mike Pirri, a 21-year veteran of the produce industry with deep experience in wholesale and retail to head up a new melon and grape program for the company. “We believe that these two categories are highly complementary to our berry business,” says Morton.
J.E. Russell moves good volume of local mushrooms, cucumbers and leafy greens. “Our local produce program not only helps fulfill our commitment to our community, but also to our customers who want to market top quality, healthy, local products,” says Morton.
Focusing on high-end and organic products has helped some sellers establish niches. Third-generation business North American Produce Buyers started out handling vegetables but has evolved to top-grade fresh fruit, including stone fruit, citrus, apples and pears. “We focus on the high-end side of the business with grower exclusivity,” says Davidson. “We also sell organic lines.”
For many years, J.E. Russell has exclusively marketed the Fresh Express and Earthbound Farm Organic labels at the Ontario Food Terminal. “Aligning ourselves early on with the highest quality brands has been a winning strategy, and we are proud to be building those programs still today with strong support from our customers,” says Morton. “The alignment of Earthbound Farm Organic with Taylor Farms also is a new and exciting development for us as we are able to realize both product and operational efficiencies while exploring new opportunities.”
Given the many current options for buyers in sourcing, Toronto’s market merchants emphasize the personalized, customized service they offer customers. “We continue to put our relationships with our customers first, just as we have for 43 years,” says Morton. “Supplying the highest quality produce we can source from around the globe, the country and our city is what really excites us. The efficiency of our wholesale operations continues to shorten the time from field to fork, and that’s what makes everybody a winner in the produce game.”
Sarraino’s family has been in the produce business for over six generations. “Our great grandfather was a grower in Italy, so this industry is in our blood,” he says. “Our goal is to master our craft to the best of our abilities. We work hard to provide knowledge and information to our customers and let them make educated decisions with our guidance throughout the year.”
Morton relates the value of putting the specific needs of each customer at the forefront of all business interactions. “And that’s regardless of the size of the customer,” he says. “Whether you come in to buy a case or a pallet, the respect and gratitude shown by all of us at Russell is what makes us a unique and preferred partner.”
The businesses on the market are a crucial link between exacting players. “We work with some of the most demanding growers in the world,” says Davidson. “They have high expectations just the same as the customers we’re selling to. So we work as the intermediary to make sure the high-end customers get this high-end product. Our job is to keep the happy balance to meet the needs on both sides.”
According to the Ontario Food Terminal, currently the terminal’s distribution range is from Fort Albany in the far north of Ontario to Windsor in the south, as far west as Thunder Bay and as far east as Newfoundland. It’s also not unusual for users of the facility to send products into the U.S. “Customers come from as far east as Newfoundland and far west,” says Simone. “Our market serves almost the whole country.”
Bondi reports a 200 kilometer reach. “With Toronto real estate pricing on the rise, we’re seeing a lot of young families move outward to places such as Hamilton, Kitchener and Waterloo,” he says. “As a result, young chefs are laying their roots out there, too, and opening some incredible restaurants in the process.”
J.E. Russell sells mostly in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), but does provide service throughout the Ontario province and East to the Maritimes. “Our geographic coverage is growing, and we are also doing more store deliveries than before,” says Morton. “Being nimble enough to support many different types of customers is a challenge, but one that we embrace.”
North American has historically done business solely in Ontario. “However, over the past five to six years, we’ve been doing business coast to coast,” says Davidson. “We’ve added staff to take care of those other regions.”