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From the Viking trail to the produce department

by Ron Pelger | March 05, 2009
Editor's note: The following is an account of a particularly challenging, albeit rewarding, project of setting up a produce department in one of North America's more extreme locations as told by In The Trenches columnist and produce consultant Ron Pelger.

In the year 1001, Erik the Red's son, Leif, and his sea-faring Vikings sailed from Iceland to Greenland and eventually found their way to Labrador and the very rocky island of Newfoundland in what is today a province in eastern Canada.

In 1497, John Cabot arrived in Newfoundland and claimed it as a British colony for Henry VIII. The flag of England flew over Newfoundland until 1949, when the people voted to join Canada. Hence, Newfoundland and Labrador became the youngest province. Today, this proud Canadian province thrives with friendly, kind, warm and welcoming people.

Sprawling with natural beauty and history, Newfoundland is home to whales, herds of caribou and moose, historic buildings, dramatic cliffs and icebergs. The island is also home to a family-owned food chain known as Colemans Food Centre.

One day years ago, I received a phone call and the person on the other end of the line said, "I'm calling from Newfoundland seeking a produce expert to help make us the best in produce." My immediate thought was, "Where is Newfoundland?"

But from that moment on, Colemans Food Centre and I began a partnership that has lasted for many years and continues to grow even stronger to this day.

Coleman's Food Centre was established in 1934 and now operates 12 corporately owned stores throughout Newfoundland, including its own warehouse distribution center. Colemans has combined computer-assisted ordering and space-management tools to fuel growth and create an efficient supply chain. GS1 Canada, Canada's expert in collaborative commerce and global supply chain standards, announced Colemans Food Centre as the winner of the 2007 GS1 Canada Supply Chain Efficiency Award.

Bumps along the road

Headquartered in Corner Brook, Colemans Food Centre stores are located from the western portion of the island to the far eastern shores of St. John's, the oldest city in North America. It isn't easy to ship fresh fruits and vegetables to all the stores, especially those in outlying areas. Newfoundland's remote location, rugged terrain and bitter winter weather is often challenging for truckers.

In spite of the assortment of obstacles involved in shipping produce long distances, the people responsible for getting the job done are skilled in taking on the challenge.

Due to the many constraints of securing and shipping product, the stores are limited to two deliveries a week. After all, to get produce from a distant mainland source all the way to the island and then out to the stores is no simple endeavor. It takes a team of highly proficient people to carry out each individual task along the chain of events in a timely manner to guarantee that it happens successfully.

While assisting Colemans with setting up the produce department of its recently opened store, I had a taste of one of these challenges. Even though our plan was falling in place, we faced an enormous hurdle. The new store was scheduled to open on a Wednesday and the truckload of produce was due to arrive on Monday, which would have given us sufficient time to prepare and get all displays stocked. However, we received notice that high winds were preventing boats from loading trucks and sailing to the island.

Delayed by a full day, we had less than 24 hours to get the department completely set up for the opening. Needless to say, Tuesday was a harried day, but all personnel came together and accomplished the task.

Circumstances like this can occur at any moment on the island. Colemans sources its produce primarily from the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto and from grower-shippers in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Product is shipped 1,687 miles from Toronto to the warehouse in Stephenville, NF, and then trucked an additional 481 miles to get as far as St. John's. Deliveries could take up to 60 hours.

The two people who make the Coleman's produce operation run on track are Byron Bellows, produce merchandiser, and Jason Sharpe, produce buyer. Mr. Bellows is responsible for the overall produce operations, and both men devote a lot of time preparing for any unforeseen circumstances. If an obstacle pops up, they more than likely have a contingency plan.

"Living on an island, deliveries can be very challenging," said Mr. Sharpe. "For example, the six-hour ferry crossing can sometimes become 36-48 hours depending on weather. The area known as 'Wreckhouse' just outside Port Aux Basque has had winds clocked in excess of 100 miles per hour and trucks have literally been blown off the road. The winds once even blew a train off the tracks. During the Easter holiday season last year, I loaded trucks in Toronto for two different day's arrivals at our warehouse only to have both trucks show up at 1 p.m. on Good Friday after the Easter business had passed. This was due to the ferry being stuck in the ice off shore for almost three days."

Mr. Bellows added, "My challenges are somewhat similar to Jason's in that the logistics of having fresh fruit and vegetables on the shelf at all times are very demanding. We don't have the advantages of being next door to the terminal market or a farm, so it's an art keeping produce alive and as fresh as possible for our valued customers. A picture-perfect produce department is a juggling act and a science. Predicting what will sell at any given time is also another challenge, because running short on product can mean lengthy timelines to get back on track."

Coleman's has developed into a strong, forward-looking retail chain with the recent inauguration of its newest modern supermarket. It was put together by a creative, enthusiastic team of people who rely on their own ingenuity and one another.

One thing is for sure: Newfoundlanders are very devoted to family, friends and hard work. They're so warmhearted, I feel as though I've known them all my life.