Sam Silvestro is a guy who spends a lot of time thinking about fruits and vegetables and who knows, too well, the challenges of selling them in Canada. Sourcing headaches, weather, rules, regs, fickle consumers, shrink, safety, GMOs—he’s had to contend with it all over the decades, first in his own shops in his hometown of Guelph, Ont., followed by long stretches at Sobeys, then Walmart.
But, he also sees his industry as one that’s brimming with opportunities. With his year-long stint as chair of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA) coming to an end in May, we took the opportunity to chat with Silvestro about all things produce.
What lessons are still relevant from your early days selling produce?
Value. People are always looking for value when it comes to food, especially fruits and vegetables. Nobody wants a rotten tomato. Nobody wants a bruised banana. People want to know that there’s care and handling that’s gone into the food they buy.
What are the biggest challenges currently facing the produce industry?
Labour’s always a big question, on the farm or at retail—everyone always wants to find people. It’s not easy. Whether you’re on a farm in Mexico or California, or right here in Canada, it’s really hard to find local people who want to do that type of work. And on the retail side, it’s finding people who want to make a career [in produce]. That’s one of the things that CPMA is working on. We’re trying to educate young people. The fruit and veggie industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry that continues to grow and there are lots of opportunities. We’re really working toward trying to educate people about the potential of our industry.
Kale may be big today, jackfruit tomorrow. How agile do produce managers have to be to keep up with ever-changing consumer preferences?
You have to be very, very nimble; you have to know the marketplace. Our marketplace continues to change and, with the influx of immigrants, you have to know who your next customer is going to be. If we go back a decade or so, we didn’t sell much karela or okra but today—depending on your customers—those products have become staples. You have to have them.
There’s a lot of discussion around GMOs. What’s your take?
It’s [an issue] that needs to be discussed, but I want people to be aware of and understand what they’re talking about. There’s way too much confusion and fearmongering out there about something that isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be. We have a world that isn’t getting smaller; the population continues to grow and we need to feed that population. If we can find ways to increase what is coming out of an acre of land and do it safely, then we need to do it. It’s about educating the general public as to what this is and [helping them] understand that it isn’t all Frankenstein food.
How has working with an organization like CPMA helped you in your business over the years?
Whether I was at Sobeys or whether I was at Walmart, the wonderful thing about being part of CPMA is being able to sit in a room with your major competitors. You’re not sharing any secrets or confidential information, you’re not telling each other what your sales or margins are, but as a collective, what you’re trying to do is sell more fruits and vegetables, trying to increase that part of the business. It’s also about the common good. How do we improve traceability? How do we improve healthy eating? How do we check childhood obesity? Are there ways we can help with cancer, with heart [disease]? You know all of these things that are for the greater good—that’s what everybody sitting around that room is advocating for.
Boosting consumption is critical to the future success of the produce industry. What is CPMA doing to help achieve this?
There are all kinds of initiatives we’re working on. One is called 20 by 20, which is about trying to boost [fruit and vegetable] consumption by 20% by 2020. Now that sounds like a lot, but it’s really just one more serving. If we could get that one [extra] serving that would be wonderful. We also have Half Your Plate, a consumer program, which is really as simple as it gets: fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. And then we have the Freggie kids’ program, which is another big piece. If we can get to children at a young age and explain the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, maybe when they’re out shopping with their mother or father they’re going to say, “Pick me up that apple,” or “Pick me up that banana.”
How has CPMA stepped up its efforts to provide education and training for produce workers?
We’ve released a bunch of new podcasts and some [online] learning modules. Young people or new people who want to get into the business can use our programs and earn a Produce Basics Certificate and a Produce Essentials Credential. It’s extremely important because, if you have someone new [in your produce department] and say, “Go trim lettuce,” they really have no clue about how to do that or about the necessary safety precautions. These modules are going to help train those new people. And, we also have our Passion for Produce mentoring program. We take between 12 and 15 young people in the industry from any part of the produce business—retail, wholesale, growers, shippers—and let them attend a board meeting. We have leaders of the industry speak to them, mentor them and teach them. The program has been a
complete success for us.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you could give to produce managers?
Never stop learning. Never stop. Listen to your customers. There’s just so much material out there that is available that will help explain what the new trends are. Your magazine, for instance—pick it up, read it, see what the new challenges are. What are the new things that people are looking for? Just don’t stop learning. And in the store, don’t do the same thing every day. Don’t keep the apples up at the front or the oranges, or whatever the case may be—continue to change things around; make it interesting for the customer who comes into your store.