It’s no exaggeration to say comparing apples to oranges is a big part of Bernadette Hamel’s life. She’s currently vice-president of national procurement for produce at Metro, after a 32-year career at the Quebec-based grocer. She also spent the past year as chair of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, in Ottawa, whose member companies are responsible for 90% of fresh fruit and vegetable sales in Canada
But Hamel actually got her start in produce in her teens, working part time at a green grocer in Repentigny, Que., during the summer. Then, at 28, she was hired by Metro as a junior buyer. Hamel recently spoke with Canadian Grocer about the importance of produce to stores, how the industry has evolved, and a new program from CPMA called Half Your Plate that aims to get Canadians to fill half their shopping carts with fruit and veggies. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR EARLIEST DAYS IN THE PRODUCE BUSINESS?
When I was 14 years old, I had a part-time job in a fruit and vegetable store in Repentigny, preparing the vegetables to put on dis- play. It wasn’t a self-serve place; we serviced all our customers.
We started at around three in the morning and the store closed at around 10 or 11 at night during the summer. I worked there while I was still in school and after six years became co-owner of the store. That lasted for about four years and then the store was sold.
HOW DOES CPMA’S HALF YOUR PLATE PROGRAM WORK?
The initiative encourages Canadians to eat more fruit and vegetables, to improve their health while providing easy ways to add a variety of fruit and vegetables at every meal and snack. We wanted a simple message where people wouldn’t have to start counting servings or worry about sizes. Our message is very easy: we recommend half your plate at every meal be full of fruit and vegetables; so when you’re at the gro- cery store, half your cart should be fruit and vegetables. I think the message is out there. People are more and more concerned about their health.
HOW ARE RETAILERS SUCH AS METRO GETTING
BEHIND THE PROGRAM?
We have in-store posters in the produce department, as well as tip cards. As an example, we have tips explaining that if you were to buy broccoli, you can use the head of it for a nice vegetable to go with a meal, and the stems can be used in a soup. We’re trying to show people that produce can be eaten from end to end, so it’s not really that costly and you get to use it in many ways.
HOW ELSE CAN GROCERS ENCOURAGE CONSUMPTION
It starts with the produce department itself. When you have a beautiful, well-kept department, it gives consumers confidence that your whole store is in top shape. If there’s anywhere in a store that you can gain a bad reception from consumers, it’s if your produce department is not up to par.
WHAT ARE THE TOP ISSUES FACED BY CPMA MEMBERS?
Food safety is a big one. You don’t want to have recalls. We’re making sure that anyone we work with has a food safety plan in place. Another big concern is the changing weather. Year after year, we’ve been having challenges with the weather–the drought in California, cold weather in Mexico. We do our ads, we put on our product two or three weeks ahead of time the temperature turns around. It plays havoc on supply and demand.
IS THE PRODUCE INDUSTRY HAVING TROUBLE DRAWING YOUNG PEOPLE AND, IF SO, HOW DO YOU ADDRESS IT?
Produce is not in a textbook where you can go and sit some- where in school and learn about it. I don’t think there’s a course introducing young people to the produce industry. With CPMA we have a very good program for the young people coming
up in the industry: Passion for Produce. Last year during the CPMA convention, we had something like 20 young people who are in the industry, and we paired them together with mentors in the industry. We took them to visit different growers. We gave them a taste of what it’s like to be in this industry. We’re hoping that this will spark interest where these young, up-and-coming people will see that this industry is amazing and everchanging.
WHAT CHANGES HAVE BEEN MADE TO METRO’S PRODUCE MERCHANDISING IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, AND WHAT IMPACT HAVE THEY HAD AT STORE LEVEL?
We’re always looking for something new and innovative. We prioritize our local growers. We’re giving more visibility so that consumers realize we are buying as local as we can. As soon as a product is available from our region, we make it a goal, whether it’s in Ontario or Quebec, to have it in our stores as soon as possible. By offering a good variety of products, making the eating experience enjoyable, it’s helping people come back.
HOW ARE TODAY’S PRODUCE BUYERS DIFFERENT THAN
WHEN YOU STARTED AT METRO IN 1983?
When I was a produce buyer, a lot of deals were made over the phone. You’d pick up the phone and that was it. You’d order 10 loads of raspberries and nothing binding. Our word was our contract. It’s different now. We’re better equipped to control our costs and our inventories. When I first started, we had a computer system, but it’s like comparing a Lada to a Rolls-Royce. We’ve come so far in technology that it’s helped us to be much more efficient and able to analyze and evaluate our needs.
WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE YOU LEARNED AS A BUYER?
To be demanding but fair. I try to treat people as I would want to be treated.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY MAKES FOR A GREAT
I have one golden rule: I think the most important thing is to never leave something out on your counters that you wouldn’t buy yourself. You can have the best price, but if the quality isn’t there, you have nothing. You’ve lost your customers’ trust and overall opinion about the whole store.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHANGE YOU’VE SEEN IN PRODUCE?
When I began, we weren’t really importing from other countries. Today, there’s hardly any product left that you cannot find a source of supply from somewhere else in the world. I’d say the only thing is cherries Chile is starting to some very good-looking fruit.
WHAT IS THE MOST INNOVATIVE PRODUCT YOU’VE SEEN
RECENTLY IN PRODUCE?
We have a local grower who grows hothouse strawberries in the winter, in Quebec, called Frissonnante. That’s quite daring because the price of local strawberries grown in the hothouse in winter is more expensive than what we get from California or Florida. But we had a little niche for them and we were able to recently buy all of his production. They’re very sweet, very tasty and firm.