Produce grower channels positive energy and upbeat attitude to strengthen its market growth through continuous product and packaging innovation
June 12, 2015
by George Guidoni, Editor; Photography by Pierre Longtin
As intangible as they may be, it is sometimes hard to overstate the importance of positive thinking and an upbeat attitude in helping a company achieve and surpass its goals and targets—even in one of the most competitive markets out there.
Even more so when that positivity and self-confidence have been honestly earned through good old hard work and keen business smarts, as the Sherrington, Que.-based vegetables processor Veg Pro International Inc. has done year after years since its 1998 startup.
Nowadays ranking as one of Canada’s largest vegetable growers by tonnage, the family-owned business has grown in proverbial leaps and bounds virtually right from the outset, according to the company’s vice-president of operations Anthony Fantin.
As one of a group of local investors—led by Gerry Van Winden and four family farm operators—behind the launch of what has evolved into one of Quebec’s most remarkable home-grown business success stories, Fantin in many ways personifies the competitive, self-assured ‘can do’ mindset that has continuously steered Veg Pro to greater heights on a consistent basis.
With a solid track record in the fresh produce wholesale industry, the opportunity to be part of a professionally promising and rewarding entrepreneurial journey was just too good to pass up, according to Fantin, who studied industrial relations at Laval University prior to entering the food business.
To this day, it’s a career decision that the fluently trilingual (English, French and Italian) Montreal native has never had to regret or rethink even for a millisecond.
“There is a lot to be said in favor of working for a family-owned business operating under a set of traditional family values in a real teamwork environment,” Fantin told the Canadian Packaging magazine in a recent interview.
“We take a lot of pride in what we have achieved so far but the best part is that we strongly feel the best is still to come,” says Fantin, fondly recalling the early days of operating out of a tiny 8,000-square-foot plant on the outskirts of Sherrington, a close-knit southern Quebec rural community of less than 2,000 residents.
But whatever Sherrington itself may lack in terms of population size and scale, according to Fantin, is more than aptly compensated by the region’s favorable climatic conditions, high-quality soil for growing the company’s core vegetable products (lettuce, spinach, celery, carrots, onions, shallots, etc.) and strategic proximity to the company’s primary geographic markets.
“Being located in the most southern part of Quebec, with its own little warmer microclimate that is very favorable for growing lots of the veggie crops that are most important for our operations, is definitely a source of advantage for our company,” Fantin relates.
“The rich dark soil in these parts is very similar to the type of soil you would purchase from a gardening products center to pot your plants in your home garden, and the location couldn’t be better,” he points out.
“Being located about 35 kilometers south of Montreal and only 15 kilometers north of the U.S. border enables us to export our products as far down south as Maryland.
“The proximity to our key markets is a really important factor for us,” says Fantin, adding the company distributes its flagship Fresh Attitude retail line of salad kits, along with its private-label offerings, right up to the western reaches of Ontario and throughout the Maritimes provinces out east.
“Most of our customers serviced by our processing plants are basically within the range of overnight delivery,” Fantin relates.
“We don’t leave much to chance when we put our product on the truck—most of it gets delivered to customers within one to 14 hours at the most.”
As a highly skilled and knowledgeable grower operating over 7,000 acres of prime farmland in the region, the company’s high degree of integration—from harvesting right through value-added processing and packaging—also plays a key role in maintaining a competitive cost structure, according to Fantin.
“We grow about 90 per cent of all produce that goes into our processing facilities,” says Fantin, also accounting for the output of the company’s nearby carrot-and-onion packing facility, as well as significant acreage of farmland owned by the company in sunny Florida, where it also operates a packing plant in Belle Glade.
Says Fantin: “Being our own grower means we always know exactly what the product is, what conditions it was grown in, how much water was applied, how much fertilizer was used, and all those factors that enable us to predict our products’ shelf-life with very good accuracy.
“It’s not really exact science, but we are generally very good at ensuring at least 10-day shelf-life for our customers’ DC (distribution center) operations,” says Fantin, relating that many of the products tested in-house have demonstrated extended shelf-life potential of up to 14 to 16 days.
“Being integrated like this also enables us to manage the whole process better in order to remain cost-competitive in a highly competitive marketplace that has a lot of big companies fighting fiercely for market share all the time,” says Fantin, citing the likes of Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita and other multinational food giants that Veg Pro competes with on day-to-day basis.
“We really are a small company compared to those Big Boys,” he notes.
But be that as it may, it is a much bigger company than it was not all that long ago.
Employing roughly 800 people throughout all of its farming, processing and office operations, the company’s central 80,000-square-foot value-added processing facility in Sherrington—started up in 2007 and last expanded about two-and-a-half years ago—is currently gearing up for another major plant expansion this fall that will see it double in physical size and footprint, Fantin relates.
Already employing 450 people on an around-the-clock, three-shift schedule—two production shifts and one daily sanitation shift in between—the plant already houses 11 high-volume, high-speed production lines to keep up with healthy demand for its products from both consumers and retail customers alike.
“We are looking at adding another five our six lines once the new plant addition is complete later in the year,” says Fantin, describing Veg Pro’s outstanding growth track record over the years.
“We have experienced growth rates ranging from 20 to 40 per cent every years since we started,” says Fantin, stressing the importance of the company’s continuous investment in new processing and packaging technologies for helping drive that growth.
“I don’t want to use the words ‘state-of-the-art’ because it’s such an often-overused term nowadays,” he says, “but all our production lines are operated with modern, late-model machinery and equipment, with a fair bit of automation on some of the lines, that enables our staff to obtain very good productivity performance levels.
“And even though our production costs are fairly competitive, we’re always looking at ways to better ourselves,” says Fantin, adding the company’s internal department of continuous improvement is a key driver of its whole-hearted commitment to manufacturing and customer service excellence.
Boasting all the pertinent, fully-validated GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) and HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) certifications for food safety and quality, the busy facility is a committed GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) devotee, Fantin confides, with plenty of built-in process flexibility to adjust to changing production volumes and demand with minimal process disruption or downtime.
“Above all, we are fortunate to have very good and dedicated employees working for us,” Fantin proclaims.
“Dealing with a highly perishable product naturally dictates a need for a vary fast-paced work environment, and we are lucky to have a lot of young people employed throughout the organization—from field to plants to key office positions—who bring high levels of energy and enthusiasm, working in sync with all other staff towards achieving the same common goals.”
TASTE OF ASIA
All these attributes and competencies will be leveraged to maximum potential in the coming months, according to Fantin, as Veg Pro follows up on the recent launch of the company’s highly innovative Fresh Attitude Asian-Style Stir Fry kits—introduced with much fanfare at major grocery retailers last November across Quebec and Ontario.
Currently comprising four popular recipe choices—including General Tao, Teriyaki, Thai and Sweet and Sour—the fresh, never-frozen kits containing an assortment of Asian-style veggie mixes, noodles or rice, and authentically-made sauces and toppings are packaged in patent-pending, multi-compartment microwavable bowls that incorporate a unique steaming process to cook all of the kits’ ingredients to the optimal serving temperature.
“I don’t want to sound pretentious, but it only seems fair to say that we have founded a whole new mini product category with our Stir Fry kits,” Fantin states, praising the company’s hardworking R&D (research-and-development) department, led by R&D manager Luc Van Winden, for creating “a real winner.”
Says Fantin: “Most stir-fry kits out in the market simply cannot be microwaved, whereas our specially-engineered plastic bowls hold the steam very well to offer consumers a great meal solution for consuming a healthy serving of fresh-grown steamed vegetables with a very appealing taste profile.
“I actually hope that our competitors follow suit and offer consumers similar products in order to grow this whole new category segment,” says Fantin, citing “rave reviews and feedback” from food critics, self-proclaimed consumer ‘foodies,’ retailers and foodservice customers alike.
“We have seen the sales of the new Stir Fry kits grow steadily from week to week ever since the November launch,” confides Fantin.
While the initial sales numbers have not been skyrocketing at the same breathtaking pace as when Veg Pro first launched its Fresh Attitude salad kits, “We are very confident about this product’s growth potential,” he states.
“The big difference is that launching our salad kits was basically all about giving consumers an additional choice to all the other salad kits already out there in the marketplace,” he explains. “All we really did was enter a segment that was already there.
“With these Stir Fry kits, we are talking about a totally new product that nobody even though about doing the way that we have done it—making it microwavable and so consumer-friendly to prepare and enjoy in mere minutes.
“Not only is this a whole new offering that requires a whole new habit of purchasing this sort of product,” he extols, “but the fact that it is such a high-quality product, with a taste profile that appeals to so many people, makes us thing that this is a product that can really take off in the marketplace.
“Maybe launching it in November was not the best time to do it strategically, and perhaps we could have waited until April or May to get a better initial growth curve,” he reflects, “but being first to market is also important in terms of the bigger picture.”
According to Fantin, the Fresh Attitude Asian Stir Fry kits launch was a culmination of more than a year’s worth of intense product development, testing and market research efforts involving many crossfunctional teams and plenty of creative, collective brainstorming.
MORE THAN THIS
“There’s a lot more to it than just creating a recipe,” he states. “Not only do you need to determine the right mix of vegetables and find the right taste profile, there is also the matter of finding the right equipment to pack it, finding the right containers to pack it in the right containers to put it in and, above all, finding a way of making it to reach a retail price-point that will not run away consumers at the store level.
“Having done all those things gives us hope that the sales part will fall into place in due time,” Fantin adds, citing the general market trend to eating more vegetables as part of a healthier life-style among the increasingly health-conscious Canadian consumers.
Being well in tune with the Canadian consumers’ growing appetite for healthier food options also makes Veg Pro very sensitive to those consumers’ increasing demand for more environmentally-friendly manufacturing practices and sustainable packaging. According to Fantin, being a good and green corporate citizen is really second nature to a company that at the end of the day depends on a healthy environment to earn its livelihood.
To that end, Veg Pro only uses the fully-reyclable and widely-recycled virgin PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic 142-gram and 312-gram bowls—supplied by Precision Packaging and Par-Pak—to package the lion’s share of its Fresh Attitude brand of lettuce-based Spring Mix, Caesar, Greek, San Marino, Spinach Leaf and other traditional salad kits, with the microwavable Stir Fry polypropylene bowls also said to be fully-recyclable.
“If we can’t offer packaging made from recycled materials, we’ll make sure offer packaging that is fully recyclable,” Fantin states.
“Internally, we use reusable containers almost exclusively, which enabled us to reduced our waste disposal to the bare minimum, and we also compost all of the product waste from our plants,” he relates.
“Also, being the only veggie processor on the east cost to grow its product on the east coast, combined with our proximity to the markets we serve, helps us maintain a much lower carbon footprint than our competitors, many of whom a reliant on produce grown on the west coast,” adds Fantin.
“So for people worried about carbon footprints and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the air to make their food products, we provide a very good eco-friendly option,” Fantin asserts.
“Being environmentally-friendly is something we are naturally very much in sync with; we just prefer not to advertise it as a marketing tool but to do it simply because it is the right thing to do,” he sums up.
“It’s just not our style to be shouting from the rooftops about us recycling everything and composting all our waste,” Fantin concludes. “For us at Veg Pro, it’s just a way of life—simple as that.”