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  • Charting the complexities of produce distribution with a major Western Canadian wholesaler and grocery chain

    Posted on: August 30th, 2017

    By R. Bruce Striegler

    Buy-Low Foods is a privately held company purchased by the Vancouver-based Jim Pattison Group in 1995. Pattison owns a number of grocery chains and wholesalers in western Canada which include Overwaitea Foods, Buy-Low Foods, Nesters Food Market, Urban Fare, PriceSmart Foods, Meinhardt Fine Foods, Bulkley Valley Wholesale and the distributors Associated Grocers and Van-Whole Produce.

    Buy-Low Foods is the largest food wholesale distributor to independents in Canada, servicing nearly 1,800 supermarket, convenience and specialty produce markets. With 24 corporate and franchise supermarkets, Buy-Low Foods also provides quality products at low prices directly to consumers in communities throughout British Columbia and Alberta. Pattison’s food assets also include fruit juice and fruit snack maker SunRype Products, seafood firms Canfisco and Ocean Brands and wine retailer Everything Wine.

    Aaron Bregg, Director, Produce Operations, Buy-Low foods and Associated Grocers says, “In our company all the product is brought into a refrigerated warehouse in Langley B.C. From there, we match up all the products to ship – our company is a both a corporate retailer and a wholesaler of food. What this means is that in Western Canada, we deliver all over B.C., Alberta, Saskat­chewan, Northwest Territories and the Yukon, all by truck.” Bregg explains that the company has two distribution centres, one in Langley, B.C. and another in Calgary.

    The significance of the cold chain paramount to customer satisfaction

    “The cold chain in essence, begins where the product is manufactured or picked. Products we purchase from farms are put into refrigeration at the famer’s warehouse, usually at a temperature of 39F. We hire a reefer (refrigerated) truck to go to that location, where it is picked up at the same temperature, thus maintaining cold chain from the farm to the truck and then to our distribution centres.” Bregg says that, at the same temperature, the product is transferred from the distribution centre by refrigerated truck, to the store. “That is what we call cold chain.” He says that using various types of sensors, at warehouses, on trucks and in distribution centres, a steady temperature is monitored and maintained at all times.

    Product that has fallen out of the cold chain, say, a reefer truck who has had a refrigeration unit failure during transport, is refused by the company. As an example, Bregg says that recently an entire load of bananas arrived in B.C. frozen. “We refused to accept the load, and resolution becomes an insurance matter for the trucking companies.” He says, “There’s a rule of thumb in our business that says for every 15 minutes outside of the appropriate temperature of the product, we lose one day of shelf-life.” Grocery wholesalers, including Buy-Low sources products globally, with a buyer team who build relationships with suppliers and place the orders. Buy-Low, like many Canadian food wholesalers, has a mandate that “buy local” is the preferred course of action. But Bregg says “The more people I talk to, the more I find there are different definitions of local. I believe that local is within the marketplace of our distribution location, so we procure product in B.C. for our B.C. warehouse, in Alberta for that distribution location.”

    Bregg notes that one of the challenges confronting food distributors remains the cost of fuel, “This continues to be a significant issue in the overall price of a tractor/trailer unit,” and is relevant when the company loads multiple trailers weekly out of California or Arizona. Another big issue confronting Bregg, particularly in his role as director of produce operations, is weather. “In the produce business, all it takes one really hot day, snowy day or rainy day to wreck an entire market. It’s a challenge we constantly face, one that we will never have any control over, and so we accept it and move on.” To illustrate his point, he mentions farmers the company buys from in the Ashcroft area of B.C., currently in the midst of an historically massive forest fire season, saying, “Their fields have been wiped out.” He notes that his office always has a ‘Plan B’ when it comes to replacement of lost crops or truckloads.