Tucked between a Shoppers Drug Mart and an overgrown hedge, the entrance to the Ontario Food Terminal is nearly impossible to find after you turn off the bustling Queensway in southwest Toronto — unless you know where you’re going.
Yet every day, about 2,500 people in cars, half-tons, cube vans and tractor-trailers do know exactly where they’re going, and they steer here to sell and buy vast quantities of fresh produce.
They also know how vital the sprawling 40-acre terminal is to their livelihoods.
Like its hidden entrance, the food terminal, as it is always called, is almost unknown outside the fresh fruit and vegetable business, despite its 60-plus year history. As Canada’s largest wholesale produce distribution centre, it has a huge influence on those inside the business, helping set produce prices, providing a “one-stop-shop” for large and small buyers and sellers, and even sometimes something of a second home.
Should other farmers care? To answer that, read on.
“My life is here,” says Bill Boots, who hauls flowers, beans, squash, Brussels sprouts and several other vegetables from his 530-acre farm southwest of Brantford to the terminal from Sunday to Friday for seven months of the year. His day starts at 10:30 p.m. (that’s right: 10:30 p.m.) when he leaves home with a full trailer load, arriving at midnight to catch his early customers from northern Ontario.
“These guys want to get on the road by 2 a.m., so we have to be here,” Boots says.
Boots stays at the terminal until 11:30 a.m. selling his produce to dozens of wholesale buyers, and then heads back home to load up and start the cycle again at 10:30 p.m. when most of us will be thinking about bed.
It’s a hard life, but a rewarding one for the 400 farmers who pay to have stalls at the farmers’ market area of the terminal.
“I’ve done better in sales every year I’ve been coming here,” Boots says.
Ontario growers sell their produce and horticultural products on a daily basis by paying $44 at the entrance gate or they can apply for a stall either on an annual or semi-annual basis. The annual rent per square foot of space is $3.31. There are also warehousing facilities that currently accommodate 21 tenants, and cold storage for $12 per pallet per week.
“Any grower in Ontario who wants to bring product down to the terminal will never be denied,” says Victor Debono, the terminal’s interim board chair.
The Ontario Food Terminal board was set up in 1954 by the provincial government, which mandated it to build, equip and operate a wholesale fruit and produce market. Today, the split between local and imported produce going through the terminal is about 40 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively, with high-end buyers leaning more and more to local.
There is also evidence of new construction all around. With 40 employees and $1.7 million in net revenue, nearly $9 million has been spent over the last year and a half on upgrades that provide cover for buyers to keep out of the cold, rain and snow. Renovations also include an overhead walkway connecting the north and south buildings so that office staff can move around the premises without having to thread through the controlled chaos of the market and warehouse.
After this phase of construction, there will be 82 bays that buyers can use to load and unload their trucks.
Almost everyone talks about how the activity at the terminal only seems chaotic. It is, in reality, organized. The whole place — both the warehouse and the farmers market — vibrates with the energy of business getting done.
On a Monday morning, forklifts driven by tenant employees whiz along the clean cement hallways, darting in and out of storages and warehouses like oversized mechanized grocery carts, bringing pallets of fresh squash, apples and eggplants to waiting trucks backed up to bays in the “buyers court.”
Buyers are sent to the terminal from grocery store chains and independents, restaurants, and even smaller farmers markets.
“The bays are all first come, first served,” says general manager Bruce Nicholas, who has been on the job since 1975. He says the farmers’ market was moved to the south side of the premises, where it can be organized in a more orderly fashion.
Most of the growers who come to the terminal have been doing so for decades. For some, their children are carrying on the tradition. For others, it’s the end of the line.
“You meet some inspirational people here from humble beginnings — there are some real success stories, both farmers and buyers,” says Doug Overholt, who has 150 acres of fruit trees in St. Catharines.
Overholt’s family has been in the business since the early 1800s and he has been bringing a truckload of 20 skids six days a week since the 1970s. But he’ll be the last of a family tradition.
“I’m the last kick at the can,” he says. “Part of a dying breed.”
Other growers are in the process of handing the business to the next generation.
Rosario Riga farms 300 acres of “greens” near Newmarket. He has three sons who now run the operation, which specializes in parsley, cilantro, dandelions, herbs, collards, Swiss chard, black and red kale, as well as the more traditional celery, onions and carrots. Riga sells to Sobey’s and Loblaws as well as many smaller outlets.
One of those smaller outlets is Michael-Angelo’s, an independent family grocer that has two markets in Mississauga and Markham and will soon open another in Aurora.
“The service is excellent here,” says Frank Berardi, Michael-Angelo’s head produce buyer. “The terminal gives the smaller guys like us the opportunity to buy from a lot of growers all at one time.”
Berardi has been a buyer for 21 years, and his focus is on local.
“Ninety-five per cent of our produce comes from the food terminal,” Berardi says. “And from June to the beginning of November, about 80 per cent of what I buy is locally grown.”
Berardi likes working at the terminal because the farmers know what he’s looking for and he’s built solid relationships with them over the years. He says while he’s buying and talking to growers on a Monday, he can plan for what will be available on Thursday — the terminal’s biggest day for transactions.
“People here are all friendly and easy to get along with,” Berardi says.
There are 5,000 registered buyers who spend their days negotiating and purchasing tons of produce on behalf of their grocery stores, supermarkets, restaurants, farmers markets and more. More than a million tons of produce goes through the terminal every year.
Growers appreciate the one-stop shopping aspect of the terminal just as much as the buyers.
“The customers come to you, instead of having to truck all over Toronto,” says Sam Daraiche of Kingsville. “It cuts down on the traffic, and it’s safe and clean.”
Daraiche has 10 acres of greenhouse vegetables under glass in Kingsville, three and a half hours east near Windsor-Detroit. He started out as a broker in the business that his father launched after emigrating from Lebanon in 1962, and Daraiche says he grew up in the market. He says the terminal is like an auction every day, and, like his father, he believes that “when the customer says ‘take it to the truck’ — you have the right price.”
Daraiche’s nephew Eddie owns Zakaria Produce of London, and he caters to high-end markets with niche products.
“Longo’s (an Ontario supermarket chain) loves my baby eggplants,” he says. Most farmers grow bigger eggplants, because they get a larger yield per plant — he doesn’t because his customer likes the smaller ones. He also grows okra and cucumbers, among other vegetables.
Zakaria’s approach to business is to carefully listen to his customers’ demands while talking to them at the terminal. He does his own marketing and sells his own produce because he likes to keep more of the price he charges. He’s planning to add chili peppers to his product offerings next year because of a customer request.
Inside the warehouse, Peter Streef rents two units for about $220,000 per year. Streef Produce is a unique combination of grower, wholesaler and importer.
Besides having its own 2,500 acres of potatoes, beans and many other vegetables, the company imports from all over the world, including asparagus from Peru and mangoes from Brazil.
But the main focus is on Ontario produce. Depending on the season, Streef ships produce from 20 to 50 local growers to the terminal. With partners in Winnipeg and Calgary, the company can distribute right across the country.
“Smaller independent businesses would not survive without the food terminal,” Streef says. He believes that the robust multicultural markets that are the pride of Toronto would not be possible without the OFT.
Tony Fallico sells produce out of the terminal for Ontario’s third-largest importer, F.G Lister and Company. He says the terminal gives him a vehicle to develop relationships with his customers.
“Face-to-face discussions help a lot,” he says. “It’s better than negotiating by phone.”
His company uses the limited space it has in the terminal warehouse to show customers what they have on offer. Negotiations take place at the terminal, and produce is shipped from the company’s larger warehouses.
“At Montreal, where there is no central site — customers have to go to three different warehouses to get what they want,” Fallico says, and he notes Toronto is one of only six such terminals of its kind in North America — the others are in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Los Angeles.
Yet the terminal’s operations are marked by an odd mix of technology, with 100 security cameras monitoring every corner of the premises, but a manual inventory system that relies completely on paper.
“We’ve never lost a pallet,” says general manager Bruce Nicholas. “It works and we’re not changing it.”