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The Interview Issue – Anthony Longo

Anthony Longo was born into the grocery business. “All of the kids, my brother and sisters and cousins, worked part time while going to school,” he recalls of youthful days spent working at Longo Brothers, the Toronto independent founded by his dad and uncles, in 1956. After college, Longo thought about working elsewhere. Then his dad asked him to help out at a new store. “I agreed and have been in the business full time ever since.”

Q: How has the industry changed over the years?

In many ways the changes that have taken place have been driven by changes in consumer needs and behaviours. Around 250,000 new Canadians come to this country each year and so assortment has changed and has opened up great opportunities to serve these markets. Additionally, consumers are continually looking for ways to answer the question of “What’s for dinner?” through a variety of means, including buying more freshly prepared foods.

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing the grocery industry?

Recruiting people who are passionate about food retailing. That wasn’t the case years ago. We haven’t done a good job as an industry to communicate the many avenues people can take in our great industry.

Q: What future do you see for independent grocers in Canada?

The future for progressive independents is great. I think the successful grocer is one who knows who their customer is and targets their offer to them. It’s easier said than done these days. As neighbourhoods change and evolve, you have to change and evolve along with them.

Q: Any examples you can think of?

The best one I can use is right here in Toronto with what [single-store independent] Fiesta Farms did to evolve its format, moving from strictly a price-driven, inner-city store to one that carries a large variety of healthy, organic foods and one of the best assortments of local food. They do this while still offering the assortment that the more price-driven consumers require. It’s a very good balance. They have a great following, and it took years to build. So be patient, too. I’d also say independents have to learn to learn from each other. The Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers has started a number of share groups that are extremely valuable for the independent grocer. At Longo’s, we are in a couple of share groups based mainly in the U.S. with FMI [the Food Marketing Institute].

Q: Do you see any more international retailers coming to Canada in the next while?

If it happens, it will likely be a takeover of an existing chain. That’s how Walmart came to Canada and that’s how Target is going to enter. To set up shop one store at a time wouldn’t make sense.

Q: You run one of the most admired grocers in the country and you’re a Golden Pencil winner. But what is your greatest achievement?

For me, our family and our company. The overall greatest achievement has been to grow the business successfully while staying true to our values.

Q: Have you made any major mistakes?

I’ve made many mistakes. But with each one the key is to learn from it and move on. There isn’t one mistake that stands out. I try to remember the lesson and forget the actual mistake.

Q: What makes the grocery industry special?

When you think about it, we play such an important role in society: feeding the masses. Consumers count on us to carry their favourite brands and products, which come from all over the world; to make sure that their food is safe, delicious and nutritious; and to do it all while keeping the cost of food down. I think the industry has done an incredible job overall. We have some issues we need to deal with in the nutrition arena, but I believe we are well on the way to solving them.

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