Pat Calabretta, the QPMA's 2018 Pillar Award recipient, with his sons Juliano (from left) and Anthony, and his wife, Julie Bissonnette. ( Cynthia David )

LA MALBAIE, QUEBEC — When Pat Calabretta joined the produce industry 21 years ago, he’d never heard of a red potato, but he knew how to buy television sets from his job at Costco.

Calabretta, now director of business development at grower shipper Sun Grape Marketing Inc., is the 2018 Pillar of the Quebec produce industry.

In 1997, armed with a degree in business administration and a friendly smile, Calabretta was hired to launch Maxi, a new division of Provigo.

Two years later his hard work caught the attention of Pierre Dolbec, who invited him to join the Sobeys Quebec-IGA fresh produce purchasing team.

“Pat’s passion and enthusiasm for the industry really set him apart even then,” said Dolbec, vice president sales and procurement at Sherrington, Quebec-based Vegpro International.

Calabretta, in turn, became a mentor for QPMA’s outgoing chairman Francis Bérubé, now head of fruit and vegetable marketing for Sobeys Quebec.

“Pat worked hard to bring local producers to Sobeys/IGA and help them grow” Bérubé said. “He helped raise quality standards to ensure a better customer experience and he taught me the ‘human’ part of the business, which is so important in developing long-term relationships.”

Calabretta said working with local growers has been his proudest achievement.

“We grew together,” he said. “When a grower sells more to the chains it’s a win-win for everyone.”

The father of two served on CPMA’s board of directors from 2004-09 and became QPMA board president in 2012. After working as chief marketing director at Metro-Super C, he moved to private industry in 2016 for a sales job at Sun Grape, where he works on major retail accounts.

Though he has watched technology transform the industry, he says produce is still a people business and relationships matter.

“When you have the right product and the right business behind you,” he said, “you build credibility and confidence in your customer.”

Calabretta said winning the Pillar award is like winning an Oscar, but insists he didn’t do anything special to earn it.

“Every day I just do my job,” he said. “I love people and I love this industry.”