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Quebec-grown produce is key for Sobeys Quebec Inc., says Calabretta

BOUCHERVILLE, QC — An objective at Sobeys Quebec Inc. is to feature Quebec produce when it is in season, according to Pat Calabretta, the retailer’s senior director of produce branch purchasing and merchandising.

Sobeys, which operates under the IGA and IGA Extra banners in Quebec, advertises Quebec produce in its flyers every week it is in production, Mr. Calabretta said.

On July 21, when The Produce News called on Mr. Calabretta’s office, Quebec production was coming into full swing.

In Quebec, Sobeys has produce warehouses here, in this Montreal suburb, and in Quebec City. The warehouses serve about 400 IGA and IGA Extra stores. Most of these stores are independently owned.

Mr. Calabretta said that local wholesalers are tapped to “buffer” Sobeys direct produce-buying program. But he foresees no reason for the chain to increase its purchases from local suppliers.

Asked about requiring its growers to be Good Agricultural Practices-certified, Mr. Calabretta indicated that GAP certifications are “important and something we are putting in place in all of our national divisions. Obviously, in the future, that is the way it hast to be. It is the future and what will separate the men from the boys.”

At the same time, in the short run, requiring suppliers to be GAP-certified “is hard on the personal side in the business. If you’ve been buying from Joe Farmer for 20 years and he’s a great person and a great grower with great product, who you love … and then there’s another guy with all the [certification] papers, what do you do?”

In another food safety-related matter, Mr. Calabretta said that Sobeys has “enormously increased” its produce packaging over the years. The benefit is that consumers do not want to buy produce that has been touched by other consumers in the stores. Furthermore, packaged product is easier to grab and go.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, “old produce people love bulk,” and there is the aversion to packaging based on the assertion that it is not good for the environment because the packaging creates waste.

The pendulum has swung to the side that packaging is the direction for the industry to go, he said.

Mr. Calabretta added that business is good for Sobeys in the Montreal area. He noted that he faces a new competitor because “Walmart is just moving into the Montreal market with full fresh fruits and vegetable sections.”

The advantage for the Sobeys stores is that they are independently owned and can be merchandised to suit their neighborhood clientele.

Mr. Calabretta’s division buys over 1,000 SKUs, so there are many specialty products in the offerings to suit virtually any ethnic community.

According to the corporate web site, Sobeys is one of only two national grocery retailers in Canada. “Sobeys Inc. serves the food shopping needs of Canadians with more than 1,300 stores in 10 provinces with retail banners that include Sobeys, IGA, Foodland, FreshCo, Price Chopper and Thrifty Foods.”