Going the Extra Mile While Buying Close to Home

Sobeys demonstrates commitment to local with flexible distribution chain, sponsorships of local events, and an on-the-ground “local food scout”

100 mile diet. Buy local. Join the locavore movement. Support your farmers.

Consumers are bombarded with messaging about how buying close to home is better for the planet, their health, the local economy.

While marketing-savvy companies are incorporating this message into their sales strategies, buyers are challenged with cutting through the advertising claims to find clarity in where they want to place their hard-earned food dollars.

Enter Stellarton, Nova Scotia-founded grocery giant Sobeys and their endeavours to support the local food movement over the past few years. The slogan “Eat Better, Choose Local” is written large across their weekly flyers, capitalizing on the awareness brought about by famous locavore authors like Michael Pollan.

“I would say that Sobeys started supporting local 110 years ago. And we’re committed to that today. One of the things that we do differently—that no other retailer does—we have a local business development manager, Steve Read,” Shauna Selig, manager of communications for Sobeys Atlantic & Ontario said in a telephone interview.

While many national and international grocery retailers with centralized distribution chains may be limited to dealing solely with large suppliers who can guarantee a certain volume, Sobeys has fostered a way to stay flexible.

“We have local companies that supply direct to store, so we could have farmers that supply to one store only,” Selig said. “We work with suppliers of all different sizes. There are those that supply to one store and those that go through our distribution centres and supply to all stores across Atlantic Canada.”

When asked for a few examples of local farmers, Selig has a list. “There’s Griffin Potatoes, and Jewell’s, who supply us with turnip, cabbage, potatoes and pumpkin. Van Kampen’s, Mid-Isle Farms, Red Soil Organics, Ashley H. Wood [Vernon Bridge], Atlantic Grown Organics.”

In 2016 Sobeys purchased more local product than any other grocery retailer in Atlantic Canada—accounting for more than $44M of produce from over 200 growers. And that figure represents produce only, it doesn’t capture the local buys in all of its other departments. Like the meat department, for example. Their widely publicized collaboration with Atlantic Beef Products Inc.(ABPI) in Albany, PEI has resulted in significant recognition for Island beef producers under the Island View Farms branded products. According to Russ Mallard, president of ABPI, the partnership has elevated PEI beef’s visibility in stores, and has added employment into the local economy.

Atlantic Beef Products has seen growth since developing the Island View Farms brand for Sobeys//Submitted Photo

“I would suggest that we did add people,” Mallard said. “We’re definitely busier than we were prior to the Sobeys engagement of our products in their stores. I don’t know the exact number, but we have added staff and we are experiencing good growth.”

And PEI’s local food industry has received the “Sobeys bump” for manufactured products as well. Packaged foods made by Lucky Fox Snack Co., PEI Juice Works, Seoul Food (Kimchi), and Cedar’s Eatery (Maroun’s Garlic Spread) were all discovered or developed by Read as he traveled around the region looking for the next rising star.

Steven Han, owner and operator of Charlottetown’s Seoul Food restaurant, said in an interview from March 2017. “We carefully considered all of the options and Atlantic Sobeys caught our attention,” he said, noting the positive shopping experiences he and his family had at their local store. “Sobeys has been such an amazing partner and help.”

Jeff Jenkins, the store manager at the Allen St., Charlottetown Sobeys was the original point of contact for Seoul Food. “They have a restaurant just a little bit down the street from our store so Jeff put them on to me, and I went over and met with them a few days later,” Steve Read recalled.

As well as supporting local food suppliers with their purchasing power, Sobeys and their associated brands employ over 1,000 people on PEI alone, from cashiers to managers to merchants. The retailer also features in-store chefs who demonstrate how customers can transform their shopping bags of ingredients.

Chefs Nathan Schoenfeldt (Sobeys Extra Stratford) and Jordan Dennis (Sobeys West Royalty), will be representing Sobeys at many Fall Flavours events this year. As the title sponsor, Sobeys’ involvement in the September celebration of the Island harvest is a good fit. Chef Nathan will compete to be top cheese in the Great Island Grilled Cheese Challenge on September 24, and chef

Jordan will bring his best potato chowder to the PEI International Shellfish Festival chowder competition September 16 and 17. At Oysters on the Pier, September 9, chef Nathan will do a baked oyster bar, while Chef Jordan will host a late night potato bar at Toe Taps & Taters, September 8. Both chefs will also be on-site at Beef N’ Blues, September 15, and Farm Day in the City, October 1.