Buying in Your Own Backyard

Western Canadians are closer to their homegrown food more than ever

By Carly Peters

Love for local in not new. However, in the past year, consumers eagerness to source and shop Canadian, and awareness of the importance of domestic products has only increased. Field Agent’s Local Grocery Study 2021, shows 37 per cent of shoppers are buying more local foods, citing supporting the local economy, supporting the people and farmers who produce our food, and fresher, higher quality food, as the reasons why.

“The made in Canada movement was already growing but in the last year if took on more significance. The support local messaging really became a rally cry,” says Diane J. Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada (RCC), adding with more people wanting to cook healthy meals at home, consumers were paying closer attention to what was in their food and where it came from.

The disruption in the supply chain also forced retailer to take stock of the products they had been importing and look for something closer to home.

“It got grocers to pay more attention to companies they weren’t aware of. This allowed small business operations to gain some scale,” she says, adding this also benefited consumers who were seeing hyperlocal products on shelves; your local grocery store was no longer homogenized with the rest of the country.

The RCC helped to facilitate some of these Canadian producer and retail connections with a series of webinars called, “In conversations with retailer leaders.” The vendor community was encouraged to log on and ask retailers how small producers could get listed in their stores, including who to contact within the chain to make it happen.

“Often one of the biggest hurdles for small Canadian producers is they don’t know who to contact. With these webinars we wanted to build relationships and give domestic producers a direct line to retailer,” she says.

Canadian retailers have certainly held up their end of the bargain, focusing their efforts on increasing distribution of Made in Canada and local products through a variety of programs, from dedicated shelf space to flagging products. Here are just a few examples of how retailers are making this happen:

Buying Alberta

More than 60 years ago the first Calgary Co-op was opened by local farmers and ranchers who wanted customers to feel good about where their food came from. That mission is unchanged. With over 2,400+ local items from 180+ local producers, the Calgary grocery chain is dedicated to working with local producers, growers, manufacturers, and suppliers to continue offering the best local products available, including fresh beef, pork, and chicken through the store’s Only Alberta program.

In 2019, Calgary Co-op took localization even further, creating their own community-focused private brands – Cal & Gary’s, and Founders & Farmers.

“With over 800 items in this line-up, we seek to be as local as possible in our production of these items. Cal & Gary’s, and Founders & Farmers are unique to Calgary Co-op and showcase our local flavour and commitment to our community,” says Ken Keelor, CEO.

Cal & Gary’s is carefully curated for members, offering high-quality and unique attributes that are often not replicated in mainstream brands, while Founders & Farmers family of products give members everyday quality and value.

“Creating our own brands was about ensuring we reflect the distinctive needs of our city,” says Keelor, adding they are also open to working with local suppliers, either those that are just starting out, or those who have been producing for a while and are looking to get into stores, to offer an assortment of products curated for Calgarians.

Co-op stores feature several sections called bumpouts, which spotlight local brands and products, making it easy for members to find their favourite Canadian products by highlighting them on the shelf with a special Best From The West label.

“We are proud to work with so many local producers and suppliers and will continue to do so. Our doors are always open.”

Life on the Island

For over three decades on Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island, family owned and operated Country Grocer has earned a reputation as a truly local company with a deep commitment to the Island’s farmers, growers, and producers.

Part of that commitment has been to bring in more Island Good items, a branding program developed by the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance to help shoppers easily identify local products (Vancouver Island & Gulf Islands). For retailers this includes colourful shelf markers and signage; for island companies – which ranges from potatoes to plane parts-their packages bear the Island Good logo.

Tammy Averill, marketing manager, for Country Grocer says more and more customers are putting these particular items in their carts. Recently the retailers tracked the sales of 16 Island Good products across their seven stores, and in the past four years, the sales on these items have increased by an average of 70 per cent.

“Customers are more aware of local products and the benefits of purchasing them. Food security and sustainability are a hot topic, especially on Vancouver Island,” explains Averill, adding Country Grocer features their own branded, local products which include natural and organic peanut butter, flour, bulk products, onions, micro-greens, and bottled water from Vancouver Island. “The pandemic made people realize how quickly food shortages can occur and the direct benefit of supporting local. Especially on an island where we must barge a lot of food over. If we can keep it on the island, we all benefit.”

What’s Your Story

The heart behind the Made in Canada movement is truly the people producing the products. Sobeys Inc. has a team dedicated to local supplier development and sourcing. In the West this includes three local development managers in each respective region (Keith Przada – BC, Gary Hughes – AB, Matthew Sobocan MB/SK/NW ON). The team, which is unique in the industry, works directly with small local suppliers across Canada to understand their story and get their products on to Western Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, and Thrifty Foods shelves.

As champions of local suppliers, Sobeys tries to be as transparent as possible when it comes to their listing program. The company recently held a Canada-wide, local supplier, virtual Road Show where they provided over 1,000 companies with updated information about the Sobeys local program and how to navigate the listing process. They’ll often also provide suppliers with one on one assistance post listing to help through any questions or issues that come up.

Once in-store, the chain is passionate about helping small suppliers grow by providing them with best practices on store interaction, merchandising, and marketing. Sobeys Inc. has developed sign packages that assist customers in finding local in each of their banner stores, including department and display signage but more importantly shelf item identifiers that calls out the provincial origin. They also go broader with signage that calls out Western Canadian items, as well as items produced in eastern Canada (Produced in Canada). 

The local development managers cite, even after seeing hundreds of product, they are constantly astounded by the innovation and quality that comes from local and Canadian producers-and their customers are too.

Endless Opportunities

Buy local first — that’s been a motto Save-On-Foods adopted many years ago. Carrying more than 2,500 locally made products from more than 2,000 local growers and producers, the chain has become known as a place customers can come to for their favourite Canadian brands.

This sentiment also applies to Save-On-Foods’ private label – Western Family – which for over 50 years has been providing customers with products they love at a great price, including organic, whole food, and health conscious options. The chain makes every effort to work with Western Canadian, or Canadian suppliers first, and proudly have over 1,000 locally made products offered within the Western Family brand.

“We have worked hard over the last several decades to support sales of local products in our store, which is supported by our significant marketing efforts to highlight the great work and quality local products made by our local farmers and processors,” says Dan Hansen, vice-president, centre of store for Save On Foods, pointing out each store has the autonomy to display products within their dedicated local section that are homegrown in their communities or particularly important to their market. Stores also have a wide array of Made in Canada products that have full distribution and are part of Save On Foods regular planograms and product mix.

Canadian companies have been incredibly innovative in making more of these products available for customers to buy, he adds. Based on customer demand, supply chain continuity, economic pressure and patriotism, the demand for local will continue to grow; the opportunities are endless. 

Going for Gold

Owned and operated in Western Canada, Federated Co-operatives Limited focuses on building long-term relationships with local suppliers and manufactures, along with developing an award-winning, in-store brand the highlights Western Canadian food innovation.

“Co-op is involved in food production in a way that other food retailers are not. In addition to being a food retailer, we also supply agricultural goods and services to producers, so we are working along side them to bring products from the farm to consumer’s fork,” explains Ron Welke, associate vice-president, food, adding all of the store’s fresh beef, pork, and poultry is Western Canadian, while produce departments have a large selection of local growth items.

Many of the store’s own Co-op Gold and Co-op Gold Pure Products are also made right in Western Canada.The chain recently won four Grand Prix awards for new product innovation under the banner, which builds on an already extensive line-up of differentiated store brand products.

While there is only so much space in the store, Welke says it’s easier than ever for local brands to get on shelf alongside theirs. In addition to publishing a Sell To Us guide that helps demystify the process, Co-op category management teams are accessible to assist local growers and producers with the listing process — continuing the commitment to bringing new Western Canadian innovation to the market.

Made in Canada

These Canadian-based producers have found home-grown success. How have they managed to make it:

An Apple a Day

Western Canadians are getting to see B.C. apples in a different way thanks to Farm Karma, a unique sparking fruit soda farmed, manufactured, and packaged in the Okanagan Valley. Awarded Sobeys Most Innovated Product of the Year in 2020, each can features fresh, hand-picked B.C. fruit with no added sugar or preservatives.

Avi Gill’s family has been farming apples and cherries in B.C. for 30 years, but they wanted to try something new with their crops; get into more value added fruit products. They hit the retail market with their apple soda in 2020, just before the pandemic. Grill says this really forced the new brand to think outside the box to ensure they were able to sustain their business. Along with opening up an online store, they began making local deliveries all over the Okanagan to bring  sodas right to customer’s doorsteps.  They also continued to develop flavours-Berry, Cherry, Peach, and Pear-stamping their six pack of soda with a Buy BC logo on it, to give them leverage in the buy local movement.

“Overall it is difficult as a small business and a new business to establish yourself in a competitive beverage market,” states Gill. “However, I believe retail stores are greatly inclined to give local businesses, like ours, a shot at being in their grocery stores In addition, retail stores have given us, and other suppliers, importance and placed our products in attractive locations. This is very much appreciated, especially in difficult times during the pandemic.”

Making the Grade

Often there’s not much people across the country can agree on, but buying Canadian eggs comes close. According to the Egg Farmers of Canada, 93 per cent of shoppers feel it’s important that the eggs they buy come from Canada. The pandemic heightened this even further, with 2/3 of people saying they are MORE inclined to purchase Canadian eggs.

Launched in late 2019, the Egg Farmers of Canada’s Egg Quality Assurance (EQA) mark provides consumers with a quick visual way to identify Made in Canada eggs that are produced according to strict food safety and animal welfare standards. Sarah Caron, director of marketing and nutrition at Egg Farmers of Canada, states more Canadians are recognizing the symbol and looking for it in their grocer’s egg case.

Several grocery chains, including Federated Co-op, have adopted the mark on their private label cartons; there is no cost to license the EQA symbol. Caron adds the organization is working on a variety of ways to help retailers customize promotion of the assurance program, from in-store signage to online marketplace information.

Being that eggs are an all-season, staple item, there’s always opportunities to profile Canadian eggs usage in-store. Caron points to the latest Pinterest trend — breakfast charcuterie boards which pairs meats, cheese, and fruits with pre-peeled, hard-boiled Canadian eggs.

Iconically Canadian

Kraft Heinz is a global company but their iconic brands that Canadians love, including Kraft Peanut Butter, KD, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, and, as of this summer, Heinz Ketchup, are proudly prepared in Canada.

“What we have seen over the past year is that Canadians are looking for brands they love and trust,” says Stephanie Goyette, head of Taste Elevation Business Unit, Kraft Heinz Canada. “We’ve also seen the buy local/prepared in Canada movement increasing in importance with our retailers. We see increased call outs of locally proudly supported products featured in their weekly flyers, including our Kraft Heinz brands.”

This is underscored by the Proudly Prepared in Canada program, which executed roughly 40,000 POS materials in 4,200 stores across the country in the latest edition of the program.

Recently, Kraft Heinz Canada received Aliments du Québec (ADQ) certification to let Quebec consumers know many of their favourites are prepared in their home province. The company’s employees at the Montreal plant have been working 24/7 since the pandemic began to ensure those products are also available to consumers nation wide

Goyette states the company’s procurement team looks to source locally where they can to make those trusted Canadian products. “In 2020 alone, we used more than 176 million pounds of local Leamington tomatoes to make favourites like Classico pasta sauce, Heinz Tomato juice and Heinz Beans,” she says, adding well-informed consumers who consider where a product is prepared as part of their purchasing decision will help to the Made in Canada movement continue.

How Sweet it Is

Ferrero Canada’s Canadian-made products – Tic Tac, Ferrero Rocher, and Nutella – play in important categories — whether it’s providing joy within confectionery or a staple like the breakfast spreads.  The comfort and trust these domestic brands bring has been bolstered even more in the past year.

“We know that Canada has one of the safest, most trusted food systems and that’s important when you want the best for your family,” states BJ Hamilton, vice-president of sales for Ferrero Canada, point to Nutella as an example. “It has seen significant increases during the past year because our consumers know it’s always great-tasting, consistent, and made with the highest quality ingredients in our plant in Brantford, Ontario.”

Hamilton adds a lot of ingredients like milk, sugar, wheat, and even some packaging material, are sourced domestically, and they are continually looking for ways to create a more integrated, end-to-end supply chain. For example, when Ferrero Canada launched Nutella & Go! a few years ago, the company encouraged the supplier of the breadsticks to open a factory in Brantford. “Now, in addition to the Nutella being made in Canada, so are the breadsticks,” he laughs.

The company has increase the visibility of the Made in Canada messaging with Nutella in particular (some specially marked jars feature the “Nutella” inside a maple leaf). Hamilton says based on their research, they know 80 per cent of Nutella consumers see the Made in Canada call-out on labels as compelling. They are also working with retailers to ensure all their full suite of domestic products are featured in Made in Canada flyers and feature in-store signage.

Quite the Catch

With Canada’s long coastlines and ample freshwater, it’s no wonder more Canadian seafood products are in high demand internationally and at home. For Lagoon Seafood, which sources some of their fish on Canada’s east coast, this has led to a recent $10 million investment to expand their Quebec plant in order to offer new ranges of retail products across the country.

“Major grocers, as much as local ones, have a bigger appetite for local products and strive to deliver a premium product at a reasonable price. Canadian grocers have done a great job sharpening their product specifications which makes it much easier for manufacturers to follow along with the trends,” states Lagoon Seafood’s Business Resource Manager Michael Cheaib, pointing to high-demand fresh products such as salmon, haddock, and scallops, and value-added items like their Blue Tide brand seasoned salmon tartare.

Cheaib states the company, works alongside retailers in order to understand their consumers and build product offerings around the needs of the market. The information flows both ways, he says, with Lagoon providing retailers with information about how their Canadian seafood products, including how they are caught and produced; accurate information to drive Made in Canada product growth.

Find it Here

If you’re craving it, someone in Canada has probably produced it. This is not only good for the consumer, but good for the environment as well — another benefit to buying local the customers are beginning to understand.

“People are starting to realize, that we don’t have to leave a carbon footprint, by buying things made in other countries, to get what we are looking for,” says Gabi Latka of Crofters Food Ltd., an organic jam and fruit spread company based in Parry Sound, Ontario. Sourcing only organic, GMO-free fruits, like wild blueberries from Quebec, the company focuses on responsible farming and integrated sustainable processes, such as reduced water consumption and utilizing packaging made from 99 per cent recycled material.

Their sustainability mission and Ontario-based production is something Latka says they would like to focus on moving forward with in-store promotion. “There are still many consumers, who have either never heard of us before, or think we are an American company,” she explains, adding she would love to see directories and/or websites developed, showcasing Made in Canada products and where people can buy them. “I’m sure there is way more than anyone of us would think.”

Getting Scooped Up

COVID resulted in being the best year for Betterwith Ice Cream, laughs Lori Joyce, founder and owner of the B.C.-based company. With the cold comfort food’s consumption at an all time high, frozen aisles were bare of customer’s favourite brands, forcing them to try Joyce’s real cream, all-natural product offering.

“What they discovered organically, was a Canadian-made product that was better. This generated organic traction and growth, and the once loyal fans of Haägen Dazs emailed me thanking me for the better, Canadian-made brand,” she says.

As a small brand needing to stand out in a hyper-competitive category, Joyce states being able to get information to customers always helps. “I understand the importance of building a brand that delivers not only 100% on taste, but 100% on accountability and transparency. I think today’s customer is yearning for this, and I am there to support and educate the customer on why we do what we do and better.”

She adds more than ever before, there are several cost-effective ways for Canadian entrepreneurs to connect with customers, share their why, engage directly with buyers, retailers and customers, and leverage this connection to drive awareness.  

“I also think, like so many of my fellow Canadian founders, we were made for this. We all own and demonstrate the values that today’s customers are looking to bring into their homes — reliable, safe, honest, and trusted people making ‘better’ Canadian products.”

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