TORONTO — Retail competition in Toronto continues to explode.
Although Target Corp. is opening its first stores in Toronto in March, the Minneapolis-based company remains mum on its plans for produce.
“The guys in the market don’t even know what’s going on,” said Peter Streef, owner of Streef Produce Inc. “Nobody will even tell us who to talk to.”
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., meanwhile announced plans last year to add 37 supercenters, comprising 4.6 million square feet of retail space, to its Canadian operations in the next year, with more than half of the new stores providing a full range of groceries.
“Walmart’s growing like crazy, and they’re doing an outstanding job,” Streef said. “They’ve got great produce and good value on much of it.”
But Toronto wholesalers reserve their highest praise for the homegrown retailers who keep the terminal in business, chains such as Longo’s, Highland Farms, Rabba and high-end Pusateri’s.
“There’s a lot of competition out there, but we still have a good base of independent retailers who are doing a great job and are important to the food terminal,” said Vince Carpino, president of Tomato King.
Mimmo Franzone, director of produce and floral at family-owned Longo Bros. Fruit Market Inc., which started in 1956, knows better than most how to attract customers and keep them loyal.
“Our marketplace is saturated with retailers, all doing a great job,” said Franzone, who grew up working with his father at the food terminal.
“To stand out, we need to keep bringing in the freshest produce at the best price possible and continue to look for exciting fruits and vegetables to promote,” he said.
Franzone’s team arrives at the terminal at 6 a.m. six days a week to buy fresh produce for its 25 stores, soon to be 26.
The long, brick former factory housing Longo’s newest uptown store, open since August in tony Leaside, was built in 1919 to service steam locomotives.
Close to 30% of the 49,000 square feet of space, with 40-foot ceilings, is dedicated to fresh produce, much of it local.
“We’ve been using the same family growers for 50 years now, and we still deal with them,” said Franzone.
In season, local produce is picked, packed and sent to Longo’s stores within 20 hours, he said.
“We don’t warehouse anything,” he said. “We give orders overnight. The next day it’s on the floor. That’s a key benefit for us.”
Organics now represents close to 10% of Longo’s produce, double the industry average.
To encourage customers to try one of the more than 100 organic items, Franzone said at its peak, he’ll often price it the same as conventional.
“As we try new things, sales continue to grow,” he said. “Most of our locations have a dedicated spot in produce for organic. We used to have them lined up on the wet wall in small displays. Now the displays are the same size as the conventional displays.”
For time-starved consumers, a fresh veggie bar offers private-label organic salads, cut squash and turnips, a complete line of fresh-cut fruit and vegetables, and fresh-cut stir-fries and mixes ready for stews, all prepared in house.
Franzone said dealing directly with growers in the U.S. and abroad allows Longo’s to bring in proprietary varieties, from Oregon’s red-fleshed Hidden Rose apple to Pakistan’s prized chaunsa mango.
Longo’s Leaside store will be one of the stops on the retail tour at CPMA’s annual conference in Toronto from April 17-19.