A.J. Lanzarotta Wholesale Fruit and Vegetables Ltd.

A family-owned produce distributor
Written by: 
Jeanee Dudley
Produced by: 
Forrest Lancaster

Retirement just is not A.J. “Gus” Lanzarotta’s cup of tea. “I used to own three popular produce markets here in Toronto,” he explains. “I decided it was time to retire and sold them, but I got bored.” It started when local restaurateurs contacted Gus looking for high-quality produce to sell in their eateries. Gus obliged and began selling small quantities of fruits and vegetables out of his garage. Once he started, word got out and his small side business grew. After a few years, he officially established A.J. Lanzarotta Wholesale Fruits and Vegetables Ltd. (AJL).

In the proceeding years, AJL has grown into a full-service produce distribution and processing company. Operating from a single location in Toronto, AJL’s 100 employees serve customers within a 200-mile radius of the warehouse. Between the previously owned stores and the current operation, four generations of Lanzarotta family members have been involved in the produce business. Quality, safety and service have become a family tradition that Gus and his team share with customers across Ontario.

Picking perfect produce

Gus’ customers have come to expect an unparalleled level of quality from the business. To deliver on and exceed these expectations, the business owner works intense hours. “I come in at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. every day, but that means I’m on the golf course by 10:30,” he laughs. “I enjoy golf, I enjoy tennis, and I enjoy spending time at our summer cottage, but this business is what gets my adrenaline going. In the morning, I go to the food terminal around 4 a.m. to choose and buy our items. We look overall of the produce and we pay more to get higher quality fruit and vegetables.”

AJL’s choice produce goes to dozens of diverse clients throughout the region. The company’s buyers include restaurants, hotels, schools, hospitals and detention centers, as well as other establishments and institutions. These customers have high expectations, as well as high safety standards; buyers know Gus and his team can meet. AJL is one of only a few wholesalers in Toronto that is 100 percent Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) certified.

“Part of this certification is that we can’t have chemicals in the buildings,” Gus explains. “HACCP endorsement is difficult and takes a long time. There are plenty of companies that call themselves HACCP conforming, but the certification is an actual audit. You have to score in the high 90s to pass and it costs a considerable amount of money.”

Quality food by nature

AJL is dedicated to chemical-free produce and Gus has structured the business around HACCP compliance and healthy options for clients. The company’s items come from all over the world, including local farmers, Canadian growers and international partners.

“We are mid-size as far as produce goes,” Gus notes. “I like that we can control the quality of our product versus focusing on quantity. We know that if we can’t live up to our commitments, our customers will not come back. Our quality and service is second to none.”

The high level of service includes custom orders, whether that includes whole, fresh produce or value-added items, such as chopped vegetables, fruit salads or hand-cut fries. In the produce business, Gus finds that the product selection does not change distinctly from year to year. Instead of focusing on introducing new items, the team has a constant, driving initiative to provide custom products and services to customers.

“We will do just about anything our customers want with the foods,” Gus explains. “We make blended salads and we will peel, dice, cut, or slice any of our items.”

Service comes naturally to Gus. “I enjoy personal contact,” he explains. “Whether that’s with our customers or employees, this business is all about the people.” The business puts customers first, adapting item selection to the needs and wants of buyers. Gus says local produce has become more popular, so his team is picking up more and more from local growers.

Keeping it fresh

“A few years ago, when the economy took a hit, we hit some bumps,” Gus says. “It’s our customers who were suffering because people weren’t eating out as much. Now, things are picking up nicely and we are growing.” In the next year or so, he is looking to move the business to a larger space. To keep up with demand, he estimates that AJL will need an additional 30,000 square feet for processing, storage and sales.

Gus has been in the produce distribution business for 35 years and has no plans of slowing down. With another generation involved in the family business, the Lanzarotta family is looking ahead in terms of decades, not years. Recent changes to the company’s purchasing and sales strategies will allow the business to operate sustainably for what the family estimates to be another 50 years. Growing from a strong foundation, A.J. Lanzarotta Wholesale Fruits and Vegetables Ltd. will likely continue to serve customers for generations to come.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Sobel & Company LLP
The Benefits Trust