TORONTO — The demand for local produce is so strong, it affects every corner of Toronto’s food industry.
“When I put ‘product of Ontario’ on the shelf, it moves, even if it doesn’t look as good as the U.S. product,” said Tony Di Marco, founder of the Harvest Wagon, one of Toronto’s oldest upscale retailers.
“As soon as local asparagus comes in, we stop importing,” Di Marco said, echoing other retailers.
“Same with broccoli. If broccoli starts June 26, I have to make sure I’m out of imports or else it won’t sell.
“We still support Ontario even if we have to sell it for three or four times the price.”
Every new restaurant, from the smallest hole-in-the-wall to the brand new Trump International Hotel and Tower, now trumpets a locally inspired menu.
Across the province, 158 weekly markets are preparing to open their umbrellas at the end of May, said Catherine Clark, executive assistant at Farmers’ Markets Ontario in Brighton.
To weed out resellers who arrive from the food terminal with everything from U.S. beans to Costa Rican pineapples, Clark said there’s a been a push for MyPick certification.
Growers who join the program are inspected by Farmers’ Markets Ontario and given promotional materials to prove they’re selling only what they produce, Clark said.
To give customers a taste of the farmers market experience, Canada’s largest supermarket chain offers direct-store delivery of fresh produce where possible.
Ontario-grown corn and strawberries are a natural for direct-store delivery, especially in rural stores far from the company’s distribution centres, said Eric Biddiscombe, senior director of Field 2 Fork for Brampton, Ontario-based Loblaw Cos. Ltd.
The challenge, Biddiscombe said, is ensuring direct-store delivery produce meets all Loblaw specifications and is delivered on time, in the right quantity and at the agreed-upon price. Cooperation from Mother Nature is also appreciated.
At Milton, Ontario-based distributor Gordon Food Service Ontario, cases and sales of local products are up over last year, but demand has not met expectations, said Steve Crawford, category manager for produce and dairy.
“When you talk to customers, they all believe in local,” Crawford said.
“Are they all doing it? No, but they do believe it’s the right thing to do.”
A one-year government grant allowed Gordon Food Service to set up a team to source more Ontario-produced food for institutions such as hospitals and schools.
Customers now receive a list of local items along with the origin of each product and profiles of the producers.
Like Loblaw, Crawford said his team has traveled around the province educating growers and processors about what it takes to work with a large distributor, from food safety and traceability to consistency in packaging.
“Last fall we got phone calls from farmers driving down Highway 401 with a load of peppers asking if we wanted them, could they drop them off,” said Cindy Palmer, who oversees fresh produce, dairy and local Ontario products for Gordon Food Service.
“They’re excited about it, but they have no clue how to do business with us,” Palmer said.
With 60,000 pieces being shipped out and received nightly, Crawford said it’s hard to make room for a farmer with 15 to 20 cases.
To solve that problem, Gordon Food Service now works with distributor Cohn Farms in Bradford to consolidate loads from a number of growers.
There have been other successes, Palmer said.
Gordon has switched all its apple orders from Washington to Ontario-grown, and salesmen now automatically fill orders with local produce in season when the price and quality are right.
Palmer said some customers are overwhelmed by the thought of putting together an all-local recipe.
“We’re getting them to focus on one seasonal item, perhaps a beautiful chioggia beet, and make it the star of the plate without being über-concerned about everything on that plate being local,” she said.
Marketing local products year-round and treating them as a category, rather than as individual items, would help take local to the next level, Crawford said.
“It’s going to take time, but as we increase volumes it’s going to make better efficiencies and it’s going to be good for everybody,” he said.