Chains Want Alberta Products — But Only On Their Terms

Tony Legault is fussy about flavour – and it’s paying off.

“Bring me the most beautiful-looking tomato in the world and if it doesn’t taste wonderful, I won’t grow it, even if it out-produces what I grow two to one,” said the owner of Paradise Hill Farm, a Nanton area hothouse operation.

Before Legault fully established his supplier relationship with the Calgary Co-operative Association Ltd., he used to sell his chemical-free tomatoes at the High River farmers’ market. He was mobbed every time. Today, customers ask specifically for Paradise Hill at Co-op stores in Calgary.

“Tony has hand-picked hydroponic tomatoes, something no-one else is growing, and he does a very good job of it,” said Brian Lewis, operations director of Coop’s produce division.

The Co-op, which is locally owned and operated, is keen to source local food. It buys garlic from another Nanton-area grower, basil from a Calgary grower, Taber corn and hydroponically grown lettuce from Lyalta. It sources other hothouse products, including flowers, from High River, Lacombe, Airdrie, B.C., and Medicine Hat.

These products are good enough that even though they’re not available year-round and there’s not enough to supply all of Co-op’s 23 stores, the chain’s buyers take the trouble to maintain a relationship with the producers.

Continuity of supply

It’s part of a trend among grocery chains towards satisfying consumer demand for local sourcing, although regional might be the better term. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency requires “local” to be within 50 kilometres.

So how can Alberta producers get in on the action?

“The only barrier that I see is continuity of supply,” said Lewis. “We have a very short (growing) season. We have to make sure customers get the product and the quality they want. We don’t want to (annoy) customers by having something one day and not the next.”

Lewis invites producers to send their proposals by using the email form at www.calgarycoop.com.

“We can direct it to the proper person; we have five people looking after local producers,” he said.

Because of the lead time required for a purchasing commitment, Lewis suggests getting in touch before a crop is seeded.

Save-On-Foods also has a strong interest in local food and works with more than 1,200 growers, ranchers and producers.

“More than half of the 300 varieties of fresh vegetables and fruits we sell come from family-operated farms in British Columbia and Alberta,” the company’s website states. It features regional cheeses and bakery items and stocks 100-per-cent Western Canadian beef, chicken and pork.

One of the largest chains in Canada, Sobeys Inc., makes it a practice to source as close to its stores as it can and runs a “Choose Western Canadian” campaign from mid-August through the fall each year.

“(The main drawback) has to do with volume,” said Sobeys West spokesman Mike Lupien. “We have 157 Sobeys and IGA stores in the West. We’re trying to get enough to satisfy them with one purchase order.”

The corporate buyers are in Edmonton, but individual stores do make arrangements with local growers for niche products such as nachos and salsa, ostrich, duck and pheasant.

The stumbling block is pricing, as smaller producers lack the scale of major suppliers such as Lilydale.

“Free-range or specialty meats cost a little more than, say, if you were to get them from Lilydale,” said Lupien. “Customers were starting to lean more towards stuff that was the regular price.”

Farmers interested in doing business with Sobeys should contact a category manager about getting their product listed for distribution to the stores, he said. The contact form is at www.sobeyscorporate.com/en/Contact-

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“We’re interested in quality product that is on par with what we currently serve in our stores,” stated Lupien. “The product should be price competitive. The product should be fairly consistent in terms of quality, color, supply, etc. throughout its growing season or availability.

“And finally, great attention should be paid to food safety. When we begin a relationship with a supplier, our food safety specialists will conduct an audit of the supplier and its facilities. When it comes to meat we only deal with suppliers that are federally inspected.”

Safeway did not respond toAlberta Farmer’squery. Loblaw Company Ltd., whose banners include ExtraFoods and Superstore, forwarded an interview request to the Retail Council of Canada trade association.

“Our members would prefer to purchase locally, but a complex number of inputs go into the buying decision” said Allen Langdon, vice-president of sustainability for the council.

Langdon listed price, consumer demand, season, the difficulty of small producers to meet the chains’ food safety requirements, reliability of supply, and, of course, quantity and quality.

“Each company is different,” Langdon said. “If they have different banners they might buy as a banner, but none of the big companies are buying for one store. It would create an administrative nightmare for them. They might not stock every store with the same product, but they would buy on a chain-wide basis.”

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