TORONTO — Organic importer and distributor Mike & Mike’s believes it has found the best way to help retailers and consumers distinguish organic produce from conventional.
Nearly two years ago, owners Mike Fronte and Mike Dattoli started a private-label line called Organic Select to pack bulk dried fruits and nuts. The idea quickly evolved into packing fresh organic produce in mesh bags, ranging from three avocados to 4 pounds of grapefruit.
That led to the purchase last year of a high-tech machine from Spain for their 21,000 square feet of space and 11,000 square feet of refrigeration, which they expect to soon outgrow.
“It’s a huge investment, but I think it will pay off because that’s the route some of the bigger stores want to go — the products are more clearly marked and easily identifiable,” said Fronte.
“It’s also easier at the front end because the cashier no longer makes mistakes,” he said. “Retailers can now buy organics with confidence knowing they’re going to get their money for it.”
The line recently expanded again to include hand-packed shallots, ginger and garlic in 5- to 8-ounce bags.
“How else do you mark organic ginger?” said Fronte, who began his career working for Longo’s supermarkets and high-end independent Pusateri’s Fine Foods. He owned and sold another organic company before launching Mike & Mike’s in 2003.
Sales of the Organic Select line to some 130 independent health food stores have skyrocketed, Fronte said.
“We started the business with one tractor-trailer load a week of product, and now we’re doing six or seven loads,” he said.
Packing under its own label has also forced Mike & Mike’s to address the consistency of its offering.
“If the customer had a good experience with a bag of oranges one week, we felt it was important for them to be able to go back to the store and get that same experience week after week,” Fronte said.
To remove the guesswork for consumers, the two Mikes now taste-test the produce they bring in to find the sweetness and/or taste profile they’re looking for before bagging.
Mexican avocados are currently a best seller, he said, and he’s found outstanding organic cara cara oranges and Fair Trade Chilean blueberries this winter.
One challenge to importing organics is a minor variance between Canadian and U.S. organic standards, harmonized in 2009.
“Ottawa hasn’t approved the use of Chilean nitrate,” Fronte said. “Thankfully, very few U.S. growers use it, but we have to be wary when we’re buying.”
Customer service and his extensive retail knowledge also have played roles in Mike & Mike’s success, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if we only sell five boxes of turmeric,” he said. “We want to have it for everybody.”
And the guy who grew up in produce admits he really loves selling organics.
“I love what we’re doing for the environment,” Fronte said. “The more we know about where food is grown and who grew it, the further ahead we’ll be from a health perspective.”