Bustling Toronto Market Thrives

02/17/2012
published in The Packer (thepacker.com)
North America’s largest weekly newspaper for the produce industry

By Cynthia David
Special to The Packer

TORONTO — At the Ontario Food Terminal, Tony Di Marco is a rock star.

Everywhere he turns there are handshakes, slaps on the back and cries of Hey, Uncle Tony! Salesmen rush to offer him a taste of their finest produce, and busy owners stop work to sit and chat over an espresso above the chaos of the sales floor.

With 35 years of pre-dawn visits under his belt, Di Marco has earned the recognition.  From day one, he set out to buy the finest fruits and vegetables for the newly-renovated Harvest Wagon, the legendary grocery store he founded in the ritzy Rosedale area of downtown Toronto.

He buys the old-fashioned way, with a knife in his pocket, and takes his time, often walking the entire horseshoe-shaped terminal three or four times to find the perfect produce. He and company president Sal Strazzeri, his son-in-law, buy first, then ask the price.

Di Marco’s first stop today is Dominion Citrus, where senior buyer Peter Digioia enthuses about the shelf life of the T&A Artisan lettuce and shows off his personal favorite, heads of baby romaine.

“I just cut them in half and throw them on the barbecue,” he said.

Di Marco loves the lettuce, but has a love-hate relationship with their plastic containers.

“In the past, everything was loose,” he said. “Clamshells are good because people don’t touch the product, but the plastic stays around forever.”

He’s also dismayed by plastic-wrapped bunches of Del Monte organic bananas.

“When they come without the bag, I’ll buy them,” he told old friend Carmine Pitoscia at Chiovitti Banana Co. Ltd.

“They taste better naked!”

At the brightly-lit Canadian Fruit & Produce Co. Ltd. showroom, Di Marco recalls when each house specialized in a single product. While Canadian still focuses on melons, buyer Sam Kanellopoulos pries open a wooden crate of east coast cranberry beans to demonstrate their freshness.

Until 10 years ago, the showroom at Stronach & Sons Inc. was empty when the local deal ended. It’s now filled with imports, many of them Dole products, but by July the showroom will be piled high once more with local produce.

“It gets crazy!” said buyer Danny Simone. “We can talk to the farmer in the morning and tell them what we want and they deliver that day.”

Further down the path that separates pedestrians from zooming forklift trucks, it’s Italian Day at the Italian Produce Company, where Harvest Wagon buys 75% of its berries. In the second-floor office, customers help themselves to homemade soppressata and capicollo, and the espresso machine never stops.

“We’re sprucing up for Valentine’s Day and hoping the market’s stronger,” said co-owner Vince Bruno, who’s bringing in more organic produce for conventional retailers.

“The problem for us is supply,” Di Marco said. “We want to buy organic fresh every second day, but it’s not always available.”

When he stops for a taste, the veteran buyer offers his opinion freely.

“These grapes look nice, but the flavor’s not there,” he told Joe Lusito, long-time salesman at Gambles Ontario Produce, before moving on to admire a box of fingerling potatoes.

Lusito offers perfectly tart Driscoll’s raspberries instead, chased by a Chilean nectarine.  It’s still hard, but both men taste its potential.

“When something is good I insist Tony buy it,” said Lusito, who arrives at work at 3 a.m. to ensure he’s up to speed on the day’s offerings before his customers arrive.

At Tomato King, Di Marco removes grapes from zip-lock bags and checks their colour and shape before tasting. Like much of Harvest Wagon’s fresh produce, grapes are displayed loose, with no hint of plastic. Every leaf, every berry, is checked, washed and trimmed by an army of employees before being arranged artfully on the shelves.

Di Marco gets the warmest welcome from the terminal’s youngest players, the sons of company owners he’s known for years. There’s Larry and Steve Davidson of North American Produce Buyers, Anthony Pitoscia of Fresh Advancements and Julian Sarraino at Fresh Taste Produce Ltd., whose father Sal he knew as a boy.

“Guys like Tony taught us what we know,” said Steve Davidson.

Di Marco smiles, pleased to know that the old ways may have rubbed off on a new generation.

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