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For grocery chain's tomato supplier, it's all in the family

Tomato farmers Tony and Karen Legault have an unusually close and fruitful relationship with their main customer, Calgary Co-op

Tony Legault is a former auto mechanic who, 12 years ago, decided to take up tomato farming with his wife, Karen. A friendly guy, he makes a keen observation of the tougher side of what he does.

For instance: “There’s really no loyalty in the produce business," he says. "If the price is 10 cents cheaper over there, people swing."

All the more reason, perhaps, to admire the inner workings of the supplier-retailer relationship forged over the last decade between the Legaults and one of the largest supermarket chains in Western Canada, Calgary Co-op.

The Legaults, who run Paradise Hill Farm, in Nanton, south of Calgary, ship almost their entire crop of greenhouse-grown beefsteak tomatoes to Calgary Co-op’s 24 stores each year. That’s 28,000 cases, or 420,000 pounds worth of tomatoes.

In turn, Calgary Co-op has made the Legaults a centrepiece of its efforts to sell local food. A giant photo of Karen Legault hangs above the tomato bins in its stores. And in an interesting bit of marketing, the co-op has a webcam on its website where consumers can peek in on the tomatoes as they grow in the Legaults’ greenhouses.

“When the tomatoes come in, we’ll get e-mails from people and they’ll comment on Twitter, ‘I just had my first Paradise Hill Farm’s tomato!’ ” says Cindy Drummond, Calgary Co-op’s communications manager.

Like tomatoes themselves, the relationship between the Legaults and the supermarket chain took time to ripen.

The Legaults bought their farm in 2000. Tony says he chose to grow tomatoes because he was stumped why he never found tomatoes in supermarkets that he liked the taste of. If he could grow better tomatoes close to Calgary’s one million people, it would be a no-brainer; he’d do well.

At first, Legault only started shipping to one of Calgary Co-op’s stores. Legault recalls that the produce manager in that particular store asked employees and their families to try them. They must have loved the taste, because soon Legault was making regular deliveries to that store, and then a few more.

Then, in 2004, Calgary Co-op brought in produce operations director Brian Lewis. He quickly became a fan of Paradise Hill Farm tomatoes and decided to set up a more permanent relationship. Today, the Legaults’ farm supplies exclusively to Calgary Co-op.

“We buy the entire crop, except a few that Tony sells from his greenhouse,” says Lewis (right in photo above, with Tony and Karen Legault). “We like the fact that his tomatoes are grown without pesticides, and we market that.”

While pricing is negotiated through head office, the Leagaults provide the same kind of service to all 24 Calgary Co-op stores as they did to the first one they supplied.

A family operation, the Legaults’ four children–three boys and a girl, aged 10 to 18–help pick and pack. Tony has two trucks to make deliveries and he’s in stores twice a week. “None of our tomatoes that people buy should be older than three days,” he says.

Of course, all relationships get tested eventually. For the Legaults, that happened in January when wildfires swept through their farm, killing livestock, burning down a barn and damaging one of the greenhouses.

Tony recalls that he headed to warn an elderly couple next door about the oncoming fire, but the flames moved so fast that minutes later, Karen and her 10-year-old son had to escape their home by driving through a wall of flames.

Their house was spared but the timing couldn’t have been worse for the tomato farm. Planting was to have started Jan. 9. The flames rolled in Jan. 4, so suddenly a significant part of their crop was at risk.

While Tony was trying to figure out what to do, he got a call from Lewis at Calgary Co-op who told him that his staff wanted to help out the Legaults by coming up to the farm to plant.

That’s exactly what happened in March when 20 employees helped plant 5,500 tomato plants, or about two-thirds of Paradise Hill Farm’s annual production.

Legault remembers that some people told him he was dumb to run a business with only one customer. But he now knows he made the right decision.

“When Brian called up after the fire and told me they wanted to help us out, I said that’s great that you would do that for one of your suppliers. But he stopped me right there and said, ‘Tony, you’re not just a supplier. You’re family.’ ”

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