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The distributor’s business

Bondi Produce in Toronto trucks farm produce inside one of Canada’s most diverse food markets, and sees more opportunities for farmers every day

“We’re selling commodities, which is the exciting part of it. And we’re selling a perishable product, which adds this real pressure,” Ezio Bondi tells me as we walk about his distribution centre here in Toronto.

It’s some warehouse. The business started in 1976 with one man — Ezio’s grandfather — and his pickup truck.

Some 50 years later, they’re operating out of a 40,000-square foot complex, delivering across a 200-km radius to stores, restaurants, schools, hotels and hospitals, with approximately 50 employees and 30 trucks.

And the future only looks up. The family expects farmers to see no end of opportunities to use their distribution service to sell high-value crop and meat products to targeted consumers with the background, the taste and the money to buy them.

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As we walk through the four main sections of the warehouse, Bondi explains how the “wet-veg” section is for things that are normally misted at the grocery store. In the “warm veg” cooler we see squash and peppers — and I can smell the bananas before I even see them.

Each section has a captain who is constantly rotating the fruit and vegetables to make sure that the first in is the first out. “We try to operate on a three-day turn,” explains Bondi.

When we get to the lettuce, an employee sees Bondi and rushes over to talk. A supplier has shorted them on a specific type — but they have orders going out. They confer for a few seconds and decide on the spot how to fill those orders.

Clearly, it’s that kind of business. Their sophisticated long-term market strategy is a must, but so is the ability to make snap decisions to keep everything in motion and to ensure every Bondi customer keeps their own customers happy too.

From pickup truck to food service distributor

As we tour the complex, we pass underneath an old sign bearing the Bondi Produce company name. “There’s a little bit of history there,” Bondi says as he explains that his grandfather got the sign made for the original warehouse.

He points to where he nicked it with a forklift when he was 16 years old. “I banged that up when I was learning to drive,” Bondi says. Clearly, family provides the heart that keeps this business pumping.

“We are a family-owned food service distribution business. I’m a third-generation Bondi,” Bondi explains as he talks about the company. “I technically joined the company in 1991 when I was four years old. That’s my earliest memory, going to work with my dad,” says the 31-year-old.

“We are a family-owned food service distribution business. I’m a third-generation Bondi.”
photo: Anne de Haas

The company was started in 1976 by his grandfather, Ignazio Bondi. “Our origin story is your typical immigrant story,” he says. His grandfather came to Canada from Italy in the 1960s, tried a few odd jobs, but nothing really stuck. Then he got the idea of going to the food terminal with his pickup truck. He bought onions, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes, and sold them for a profit by going door-to-door. “He was pretty much a pedlar at that point,” Bondi says. But he slowly built the business and started supplying restaurants.

Ignazio’s son, Gus, the second generation, took over less than a decade later. “As most family businesses go, when a new generation comes in you get an infusion of new blood, new ideas,” Bondi says. They diversified, selling to stores and to more restaurants. They also moved into buying produce such as potatoes, onions and root vegetables directly from local farms.

Then, when Bondi came on board full time in 2011, they began the process of branding the company and marketing themselves to appeal to a higher-end clientele. “A lot of stuff was going on with food in Toronto. For the first time, Toronto started developing its own culinary identity,” he says as he talks about a wave of celebrity chefs. Those young chefs, looking to make a name for themselves, were into things like buying local, slow food and nose-to-tail meats.

When it comes to having a multi-generational family business, Bondi says, “What works is having traditions.” His grandfather taught his work ethnic and business shrewdness to Gus, who in turn, instilled them in his own son.

The Bondi operation has grown from the back of a pickup 50 years ago to today’s 40,000-sq. ft. warehouse with three-day turnover.
photo: Anne de Haas

Times change, Ezio says, but values span generations.

“We’re working with restaurants. We need to be open when restaurants are open. Restaurants are open New Year’s Eve? We’re open New Year’s Eve. Christmas Eve? We’re open Christmas Eve,” he says. “You got to work crazy hours.”

It’s not unlike so many farm stories — nothing glamorous. But it’s their family story, and they tell it to people.

Scaling up

One part of scaling up the business has been partnering with a continental produce-procurement and distribution company called Produce Alliance. It acts as both a buying group and seller network for regional produce distribution companies such as Bondi Produce.

“It’s allowed us to scale up and buy more directly from farmers,” says Bondi as he explains how Produce Alliance negotiates contracts with large grower-suppliers on behalf of its distributor network.

The alliance also extends Bondi’s reach so he can buy directly from growers in places such as Florida and California. It’s a reality of the modern marketplace.

That network also means, though, that unlike most of their competitors, the Bondis don’t have to buy from middlemen. “Now we’re able to source directly from farms all across America,” he says.

On the selling side, Produce Alliance works with large corporate chains, supplying safety paperwork and negotiating contracts. It gives Bondi an opportunity to supply national restaurant chains that might not otherwise use a regional supplier like him.

Terminal market

Bondi says the Toronto-area market is very competitive. It’s what he calls a “terminal market,” meaning that it has a food terminal — the Ontario Food Terminal, which makes it similar to New York, Philadelphia and Boston.

In a “terminal market” like Toronto, he says, there is a low entry barrier to selling produce. Anyone can rent a van and get an account at the food terminal. “That forces us to use large commercial farmers for certain items just because everyone can buy cucumbers in the summer and there’s always somebody selling cheaper than the other guy,” he explains.

Bondi says his company still uses the Ontario Food Terminal, but it is not as big a part of their supply network as it once was. “We’ve grown to a scale now where the volume we buy justifies us going direct,” he says.

But he still has a buyer at the terminal at 3 a.m. every morning to get what they haven’t been able to get directly. “We’ve got happier customers because they got everything they ordered,” he says. The food terminal is also a way to procure low-volume products so he doesn’t need to warehouse them. He likens it to having “just-in-time” inventory.

Telling stories of farms

Bondi says that buying from local farms isn’t new. It’s a given. “It’s cheaper for me to buy a cucumber or tomato locally when it’s in season because I don’t need to pay for transportation,” he explains.

While buying locally isn’t new, however, telling stories about it definitely is.

“It’s allowed us to scale up and buy more directly from farmers,” Ezio Bondi says of their Produce Alliance partnership. Farmers, though, are just scratching the surface.
photo: Anne de Haas

Some of those stories are already on their website. “We had to find creative ways to tell them,” he says. The Canadian farms they buy from are usually larger growers with the scale to offer the price point that he needs.

But Bondi thinks these farms and these stories are just scratching the surface.

And he sees a strategy for building a bigger future. Nearby in the Niagara region, smaller, “artisan” farms have a good story and a focus on taste and quality. “That’s where we got to go next to promote local food.

“We’re working right now on a complete redesign of our website to feature more local farmers,” he says. The redesign, which he describes as “farm-forward,” will tell the story of each farm, showing which products from that farm are currently in stock. Clients will be able to order by product and by farm. “We really want to be the ‘to’ in farm-to-fork,” he says.

Farming with a distributor

What’s important for him when working directly with a farm? “The first and foremost key is some sort of food safety program,” Bondi says. As an ISO-certified facility, they have an approved vendor list — and getting on that list requires suppliers to implement and document their food safety practices. It’s not enough to be a good grower. “There’s got to be some sort of paperwork there,” he says.

“If you can deliver, that makes my life a lot easier,” he adds. If not, location matters. If a farm doesn’t deliver but fits into his distribution network, he might backhaul the product after a delivery run.

Third is volume and consistent supply. The challenge for a small farm with good products, he says, is that demand can exceed supply. All it takes is for a famous chef to tell a few friends… and supply runs out.

Helping customers buy

“You can’t really innovate on selling an apple or orange,” says Bondi. Even so, there could be more technological innovation in the sector. “Where the innovation comes from is that you’re getting a lot of younger talent coming in,” he says. There are still a lot of manual processes — a lot of pen and paper — in the industry.

One way to innovate is to make it easier for customers to order. “We’re still one of the few produce distributors who offer something like that,” he says as he talks about the Bondi Produce app for ordering via mobile devices. “That’s how people are really differentiating themselves in our space,” he says.

Looking for opportunity

“You’ve constantly got to find ways to make money without raising your prices,” says Bondi as we talk about challenges. He points to the restaurant industry, where it’s hard for him to pass along his added costs. “Their labour model is pretty broken right now,” he says.

Being in Toronto, he says, it’s always a balancing act to attract labour without costs spiralling out of control. If the warehouse was on the outskirts of the city, the labour pool would be larger. Part of the solution is to automate and systematize as much as possible.

While raising prices is a challenge, there are still business opportunities. He’s found that a lot of chefs don’t want to live the chef lifestyle of working 18 hours a day. “The effect that has on our industry is that more people are looking for value-added products,” he says, explaining that means pre-sliced and pre-diced produce.

Bondi Produce launched a subsidiary business about a year ago, New Toronto Food Co., to fill that need for value-added products. “A light bulb went off, we’re like, ‘Minimum wage is going to go up — a lot of restaurants will have to make menu changes because you can’t justify paying a guy to dice onions,’” he says. Now he supplies those diced onions.

As we finish touring the facility, Bondi points through a window at a counter piled with kale, noting that it’s Ontario kale. ”Right now we’re doing a run of shredded kale,” he explains, saying it’s a very popular restaurant item, used for trendy dishes such as kale Caesar salads. “We were buying shredded kale from California; we now process our own.” Other items include a coleslaw mix, sliced onions, peeled onions, and pre-cut fruit. Bondi points to a bag of carrot curls, thin, curled strips of carrot, ready for use in a salad or as a garnish. “It’s really increased our local spend,” he adds.

“We’re constantly adding products, we’re asking our customers, ‘What are you wasting your time doing?’ Maybe we could do it for cheaper,” he says.

About the author

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Steven Biggs is an author, writer, and speaker who shares stories from the food chain. Find him at stevenbiggs.ca.

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