“Romaine is $21, in February. Some years it’s gone up to $70.”
While the balmy February weather made standing outside the food terminal selling Ontario carrots and golden beets more bearable for six hours a day, Rick Philipp at the Denboer Farm stand in the farmers market said last winter was busier.
“There was a shortage of everything last year, while this year there’s a surplus of everything,” Philipp said.
Frigid weather hurts sales, he said, because produce is stored inside the trailers, so occasional buyers see only trucks with their doors closed.
Bruce Nicholas, general manager of the Ontario Food Terminal Board, which runs the market, said volumes were up slightly to 975,000 tons in 2011 compared to 971,000 tons in 2010. The buyer count remains at more than 5,000 registered buyers.
Tonnage may be increasing, said Joseph Comella, senior buyer for The Garden Basket supermarket in Markham, Ontario, north of the city, but the market is becoming saturated as more chain stores such as Wal-Mart increase their market share and deal direct rather than buy from the terminal.
“I still see the market as healthy,” said Comella, a regular at the terminal for 25 years, “but it’s not going to be a banner year.”
Minneapolis-based Target Corp. is also preparing to target Toronto next spring, with many of its first 24 stores opening in the Greater Toronto area.
The company said it plans to open 125-135 stores by the end of 2013.
Rodriguez said rising fuel costs and the lack of equipment in U.S. growing areas at peak harvest times also affect the Toronto industry.
Also, with North America’s current financial problems, there may not be as much produce going south as truckers would like to see to make their trips more cost-effective, he said.
Fresh may be slow, but fresh-cut is seeing “unbelievably big growth” in Toronto, said Anthony Pitoscia, vice president of Fresh Advancements Inc., citing gains in fruit and vegetable trays and sliced apples and dip.
“We’re doing humongous sales at FreshCo (Sobeys) and Food Basics (Loblaw), and staggering numbers at Wal-Mart,” said Pitoscia, who packs under the Freshline label.
“People with limited time want to buy squash, but they don’t want to buy the whole thing and peel it,” Pitoscia said.
“When packaged, it’s just the right amount, easy with no mess.”
Eric Biddiscombe, senior director Field 2 Fork for Brampton, Ontario-based Loblaw Cos. Ltd., agrees the value-added category continues to grow, especially in urban Toronto.
“It’s all about convenience,” Biddiscombe said.
“It’s a sign of the times that people want to grab and go but they still want a good eating experience — they want something healthy and nutritional.”
The challenge for retailers, he said, is to keep the category innovative and exciting.
“There’s much opportunity to really build that program and be creative with it.”