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Canada: From kale to okra, more items approach mainstay basket

Originally posted on Fresh Fruit Portal (

TORONTO, ON - It’s been “business as usual” at Gambles Group since Total Produce bought a 50% share, but that also implies adapting to change. Based in Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, Gambles’ VP of sales and marketing Tom Kioussis says wholesalers must constantly learn about new products and tastes, while finding a balance in skill sets between generations.

Kioussis remembers 20 years ago when many produce items would come and go with the seasons, but today wholesalers operate in a very different marketplace.

“For example, asparagus we’d get locally from Ontario, then we switched to California and Washington and then we’d have gaps where we wouldn’t have any asparagus,” he told during the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit event in Atlanta last month. “As time’s evolved, as logistics have gotten better and communication has improved, it really is a global marketplace & the only shortages might be short-gap shortages because of supply and maybe some weather issues, but you can get any commodity you want, pretty well any time of year now.”

Despite all this increased availability, Kioussis said wholesalers still had to be able to differentiate themselves in what is a very competitive landscape. He said his business carried everything from dips to dressings, juices to packaged salads, and a wide range of fruits and vegetables, but Gambles was most known for its freshness. “Things that have a high turn – leafy veg, mushrooms, the more perishable nature the commodity may be, that’s what we sell because of the nature of our logistics and how we purchase.”

Gambles aims to stay ahead of the game as well to meet the needs of a younger generation of consumers, as well as a more ethnically diverse population. “It wasn’t uncommon for us to look at avocados 15 years ago as an exotic, ethnic type of item, whereas now I’d say it’s a mainstay item,” he said. “Ethnic may be a cassava root or an okra, but even those items because of the diversity in our market are becoming more mainstay items as well.”

But at the end of the day the process is still the same. As a produce trader you’re still procuring, buying and sourcing, according to Kioussis. “But the areas you’re sourcing from may change, and with that you have to get more knowledge of the product you’re selling. You can’t sell okra unless you know what that’s about, how you cook it. We have to educate consumers and that means educating ourselves.”

The healthy eating trend is another big factor for Kioussis, who pointed to kale as the perfect example of changes taking place in this era. “The latest trend has been leafy greens and some of the high nutrient items like kale – this is an item that we could barely market, and then all of a sudden as information came about the health benefits, which was always there, but it has a lot to do with the marketing and the information age we’re in now. That item has just exploded. We honestly cannot procure enough kale for what the market needs. Most of it comes either from the U.S., California, Florida, Texas, we also grow locally in season, and Mexico as well. It’s basically all North American, and we’ll transition up and down the coast depending on the time of year.”


Technology and talent, the produce industry’s greatest challenges
When asked about his greatest challenge for Gambles, Kioussis mentioned the changing skill sets of generations as an important factor for consideration, taking technology shifts into account as well. “The prototype produce guy learned through growing up in the business, as they worked in the business. As they worked through the seasons, they understood the ebbs and flows – for example how the watermelon markets would be in January versus July versus September,” he said. “The new people coming through really don’t have that experience. But they are technology wizards – they can do things on computers that a lot of the aging produce guys can’t. What I would say is a challenge is trying to get a balance – we have a lot of knowledge in the industry. How do we feed that down to the younger generation coming up through the industry, but at the same time using tools like social media or analytics to be able to make better decisions."