When people think of local food in grocery stores, fruit and vegetables from nearby farms come to mind. Packaged fare is not part of the picture.
But that situation is starting to change, with a growing number of grocers highlighting the local food sold in jars, cans and plastic containers on store shelves.
“There is such a thriving processing industry in Canada with a lot of innovation,” says Meghan Dear of Localize, an Edmonton-based shelf-labelling service that identifies local and regional food producers in grocery stores. “Sometimes we ignore all of the products that deserve a little bit of local recognition in the grocery section.”
Dear launched Localize two-and-a-half years ago after being “a little frustrated as a customer that there wasn’t a program that helped give me context and information about where food came from.”
Localize’s labels are now in 52 stores, primarily in Alberta (including Calgary Co-op and Sobeys), and Dear recently ventured into B.C. and Saskatchewan.
Another 30 stores are expected to sign on in the next few months, she says. Retailers pay from $100 to $300 per month per store to participate in Localize, based on store and market size.
Calgary Co-op CEO, Deane Collinson, says his supermarkets sell 1,000 local products and “with the big focus right now on buying local,” Localize provides proof positive that “we buy local and can prove it.” He says shoppers “recognize the bright orange Localize labels in our store.”
More than a seal of approval, Localize rates a product’s “localness.” Labels carry scores out of 10 for each product, using weighted ratings that emphasize location of production and ownership, source of ingredients and local sustainability.
Suppliers must provide all that information to Localize, and only products with scores of at least seven out of 10 make the labelling grade. The five-employee company is now working with 350 suppliers, ranging from one-person outfits to CPG giant Saputo.
In another program, Metro is showcasing 75 products from 12 small suppliers in the Lanaudière region, northeast of Montreal. Everything from pasta sauce to flour is being sold in four Metro and two Super C stores in the region.
While Metro affiliate stores do a good job carrying regional products, “there is room for improvement” in increasing the offerings of local fare in corporate and franchised Metros, says Marie-Claude Bacon, senior director of corporate affairs at the chain.
As part of Metro’s pilot, local products are promoted with in-store signs saying “Fière de supporter les produits de la région” (Proud to support regional products and tastings).
Metro says top-selling items will be kept on but would not divulge results of the pilot until May.
One of the products vying for larger distribution is Fruit du Jour of Lavaltrie, Que., which makes four varieties of frozen raspberries, blueberries and strawberries and does $50,000 in annual sales.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to get into corporate stores,” says Nathalie Bruneau, one of the partners.
The company was launched, in 2011, as a way to make use of an overabundance of berries from the partners’ farms and to provide a homegrown, and arguably much better-tasting alternative, to competitors from Chile, the U.S. and Portugal.
Fruit du Jour is now in 35 stores in the region, including IGA, Provigo, Metro and several independents, but it would like to expand to Montreal and beyond.
“We’d like to get into at least one of the three big chains. That would give us a big push,” says Bruneau.
Getting listed in corporate chains and staying there is no easy feat for small food makers. The barriers are many, ranging from volume and packaging requirements to food-safety standards.
Dear thinks rural grocers can serve as a stepping stone for regional producers aiming to give their processed fare a wider audience.
“They’re more willing to have direct relationships with suppliers and take products that aren’t quite ready for the next stage of marketing in larger stores.