The competition is finally catching up, says Tony Singh, founder of Fruiticana. What was once his domain–serving the ethnic grocery shopper in Western Canada–is now shared by Loblaw-owned T&T and Overwaitea’s PriceSmart banner. And yet, he’s not worried one bit. In fact, Singh, who now owns a chain of 18 specialty grocery stores in British Columbia and Alberta, says competition just pushes him to work harder. When PriceSmart moved in near one of his stores, his sales actually went up. Besides, he says, there will always be a need for a specialty store. Fruiticana stores have brightly painted walls, aisles brimming with spices and cookware, cylinders filled with bulk lentils and produce bins filled with everything you’d expect to find in a regular grocery store, as well as ethnic items including fresh amla, tindora and pani parval. The selection is as eclectic as Singh himself. Before becoming a successful grocer, he spent several years studying accounting and architecture, and even held a private pilot’s licence, at one time considering a career as a commercial pilot. While the studies and early career aspirations didn’t stick, his part-time job in a Montreal produce chain did. In 1994, he moved west and opened a 2,000-square-foot store two blocks from a Real Canadian Superstore in Surrey, B.C. “There was a huge Indo-Canadian community, and nobody was serving it,” he says. Singh used his Montreal connections to import hard-to-get items such as guava, fresh sugar cane and Indian sweet potatoes. Between half and 80% of typical Fruiticana customers (depending on the store’s location) are Indo- Canadian. For quality control purposes, Singh chooses to lease his stores rather than franchise them. Six of his outlets are leased one year at a time. “We still own the store,” says Singh. “It’s like leasing a taxi.” Today Fruiticana employs around 500 people and has annual sales of more than $100 million. “Fruiticana has done a great job in terms of identifying good store locations to appeal to its core customer,” says Stewart Samuel, program director at IGD Services in Vancouver. “ delivers a strong value message and has developed an effective store format that is centred on the core categories of fresh produce and cooking ingredients.” But Fruiticana is more than the sum of its stores. The company manages its own farms in Mexico, and has doubled the size of its warehouse with a new 130,000-square-foot building set to open, in August, just a few blocks from the Surrey head office. The new space will allow Singh to expand the export side of the business, sup- plying items such as Canadian lentils, dairy and apples into the U.S. and India. On weekends, Singh’s Surrey stores are full of Americans who cross the border to shop for products they can’t find in their own backyard. Not surprisingly, he has expansion plans for nearby states including Washington, Oregon and California, where much of his produce already travels through on the way from Mexico. Singh leases around 1,000 acres of Mexican farmland. Over the years he has taught farmers there how to grow, fertilize, water and pick mangoes, okra and other produce from seeds he procured from India. “The farmers are land rich, but they are cash poor, so we finance them for the crop before the product goes into the ground,” he says. “This way we can control the quality.” Customer service is another way Fruiticana sets itself apart from big-box competition. Staff speak several languages including South Asian and Chinese dialects, Punjabi, Spanish and English. Staff are also highly attentive to customer needs. Singh says if they don’t carry the product in the store, they’ll find it within 48 hours, even if they have to bring it in from India. Singh recalls one time when a customer needed to juice some guava leaves for a visiting guest–Indian celebrity performer Gurdas Maan. “It was what he drank before he sang; it was part of his diet and they couldn’t find guava leaves anywhere, so they came to me,” he says. “I called a farmer in India and said, ‘Get me some leaves off your guava trees, put them in a box and put it on the next flight.’” Needless to say, people noticed his quick thinking. But guava leaves aren’t the most interesting product the grocer sells. It’s clay. “There’s an old Indian myth that if you are pregnant and you eat clay, it’s good for you,” he explains.