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Behind the scenes at the Ontario Food Terminal

To say things move quickly at the Ontario Food Terminal would be a gross understatement. With an average of over 1 million tons of produce and horticultural products passing through the terminal annually, the Toronto-based terminal is one of the larger wholesale produce distribution centers in Canada and the third-largest in North America.

Described as the stock exchange for fresh fruits and vegetable the Terminal has 21 warehouse tenants, 5,000 registered buyers and the farmers market area includes 550 stalls. The registered buyers are able to purchase produce and floral products on a wholesale basis.

The 5,000 registered buyers flock to the terminal to purchase product for independent and chain supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants, foodservice and institutions among others. With four acres of farmers market stalls, two restaurants, the warehouse units area and a central cold storage that is over 100,000 square feet in size, the terminal is a world unto itself.

The enterprise -- owned and operated by the Ontario Food Terminal Board -- is completely self-funded by user fees. Approximately 36 staff members keep operations flowing smoothly, seven days a week. Product from the terminal is shipped throughout Ontario and all the way east to the Maritime Provinces. Products from the terminal also make their way into the United States.

What makes the distribution center unique is the combination of the two key areas of the terminal, the farmers market and the warehouse tenants. The farmers market allows farmers to supply local fruit, vegetable and floral produce to the registered buyers -- it is not open to the general public. The 21 warehouse tenants, or "the houses" as they are often referred to, offer both local and imported fruit and vegetables from around the globe.

The Produce News was fortunate to take a peek behind the inner workings of the terminal with Cold Storage Manager Lonnie Berman and General Manager Bruce Nicholas.

Since 1954, the Ontario Food Terminal has been located in the Toronto district of Etobicoke. The distribution center boasts a central cold-storage area that includes 19 rooms with temperatures set from 32-45 degrees Fahrenheit. The rooms are set individually to meet the storage needs of a variety of commodities from carrots to tomatoes. There is approximately 100,000 square feet of storage available in the coolers. Some of the new portions of the building have racking systems available in the cold-storage rooms.

"Tenant products are placed in rooms by our terminal staff. The tenants are responsible for removal of the product to which they have easy access," said Mr. Nicholas. When moving large volumes of product, tenants have the option to back a trailer into the loading area and the staff will load it for them. "The central storage allows a tenant to expand their business without having to expand their own space," continued Mr. Nicholas. The storage system model enables the distribution centre to get around the tight and concise market space on the u-shaped facility where the 21 houses have their spaces.

The basement rooms include a citrus room, a grape room and an apple room, a berry room and potato and onion rooms. Both the warehouse tenants and the farmers market tenants can use the storage area. The farmers market is primed for a busy spring with flowers, squash and asparagus leading the charge.

Sunday is the busiest receiving day for the terminal, with roughly 600-850 pallets and an average of 25 tractor-trailer loads in a 12-hour period.

Ontario Food Terminal staffer Mauricio Martinez diligently manages the basement. Charles Rondeau and Dan Correia are responsible for pest control, and Delroy Reid keeps things spotless in the waste control area.

The terminal is economical and green, composting all waste products. "We recycle all of our wood corner boards, cardboard and plastics. Mr. Reid "does a phenomenal job," said Mr. Nicholas. Pallets are recycled and loose wood is sent for chipping.

Temperatures throughout the central storage area are very carefully monitored. "Our quality refrigeration temperatures are bang on," said Mr. Nicholas, displaying a temperature-monitoring system that did not show a visible variation.

The system works because both staff and tenants carefully monitor it and self-police. Everyone helps out to ensure a clean and smooth-running operation. It can't hurt knowing that you are on camera at all times, and if you break a rule you will be charged an infraction fee upon your next entrance to the terminal. Each buyer has an individual access card that is monitored and fined if any infractions are found.