North American Produce Buyers
It’s a typical, bustling day at North American Produce Buyers’ stall at the Ontario Food Terminal. “If someone walked through our door 65 years ago and came through our door today, they would still be walking into the same space.” says Larry Davidson, one half of the third generation team leading North American Produce Buyers. “We are one of the only businesses in the same spot, with the same name, with a third generation at its helm.”
Larry Davidson and his brother Steven currently manage the growing operations, procuring top quality fruit from all over the world. Larry shares his intimate, play-by-play experience working at the Market: “I did everything down here. I was here at 1 a.m. in the morning, six days a week and did every job at some point.” Since formally joining his family’s business in 1998, this exercise of getting to know all aspects of the produce world has contributed to the company’s continued growth.
“We try to model our business like my grandfather did. We have a handful of commodities. We try to have the best, most expensive versions of what we sell to attract the opinion that we are the ‘Tiffany’ of the Market,” says Larry.
The story of North American Produce begins three generations ago with Morris Shoom, who worked as a teenager for F.G. Lister and Co. at the Market after it had moved from the original St. Lawrence Market to its current location at 165 The Queensway in Toronto. Mr. Lister liked the young Mr. Shoom, and he eventually rented him a pallet space on his floor where the promising produce salesman sold peaches.
Founded by Morris Shoom in 1960, North American Produce Buyers has operated out of the Ontario Food Terminal in the same stall where its founder worked for F.G. Lister and Co. Shoom, a reputable businessman at the Terminal, left a solid legacy to his son-in-law, Howard Davidson, to continue the tradition as an importer of top quality fresh produce. Originally from the maritimes, Davidson met his future wife in Toronto through a mutual acquaintance on a blind date. Once married into the family Davidson started working in the business.
Enter the third generation. In the beginning, North American sold veggies to chain stores. When chains went to direct buying models, their business was seriously affected. So they evolved into selling stone fruits and citrus. The company grew from eight employees to 50 employees and the business today is healthy and growing.
With all the multi-generational families at the Market, you can say our wholesale produce world is one you grow into. Stay tuned for more spotlights on the many families behind the Market we call home.
How has the wholesale produce business changed?
Today, the trains at the Ontario Food Terminal are gone. Instead, as with the other wholesale produce markets south of the border, it’s mostly trucks driving the produce business. As did transportation infrastructure, technology has changed the business. Larry Davidson says, “To me, the biggest changes (as a wholesaler), is in the area of technology. You don’t see the technological changes on the sales floor but at the operational level, the ability to see a photo of a product at a moment’s notice from all over the world means that as buyers, we have more options today.”
Overall however, Davidson thinks that the wholesale produce business hasn’t changed much. It continues to rely on manual labour to operate and is one of the last bastions of the blue collar industry. Responding and reacting to the unpredictability of weather also hasn’t changed. The produce market deals with perishables which are less affected by technology than other industries. The heart of the business is agricultural.
“The very root of this business is still relationship driven,” he continues. “Relationships will affect your success and failure.We are a service business. We built our business on the mom and pop stores. (Today) the Asian retail base is huge for the Market and huge for us as well. “
Where do you see the future of the Market?
Per capita, Canada’s consumption of fresh produce is one of the highest in the world. Toronto and surrounding areas are home to a large, diverse population so it’s no surprise that Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia demand a lot of produce year round.
“I always see a place for a market,” predicts Davidson. He believes that for Toronto to have a new market like Chicago, Philadelphia or New York there needs to be more consolidation at the Market which happens in time, slowly. “We’ve seen steady growth for 20 years, we employ 50 people who support their families. There is lots of camaraderie down here and all the owners support each other. Bottom line, people need to eat. Eating habits have changed and people are healthier now so business is good. It’s a viable business and as more and more competition comes into the Market, it benefits people like ourselves.”