Cole-Munro Foods Group Inc.
In 1994, Geoff Cole and Todd Munro saw an opportunity to build a business out of a strong local resource. “It’s a long story,” Geoff recounts, “but my introduction to trout in Ontario was a cooperative where 40 or so tobacco growers had moved into trout production. The cooperative was the beginning of Commercial Scale Trout Farming and Processing in Ontario where I was lucky enough to be involved in the grass roots of the industry, and learn many valuable lessons. The farms making up the cooperative were land based, and as electricity prices increased in the province it made these types of systems uncompetitive. After the cooperative closed, Todd and I decided to give it a try on our own.”
Together, Geoff and Todd established Cole-Munro Foods Group Inc. (CMF). The partners took out a small new business loan and started up in a traditional fishing village, Port Stanley, Ontario. After a few years, CMF outgrew the pretty little town along Lake Erie. The community was small and water access was not well-suited for industrial purposes.
Today, the business operates from St. Thomas, Ontario. Geoff bought out his partner around 2004 and currently operates the business alongside his wife, Susan. The company’s present location offers greater benefits, allowing the team to establish partnerships with northern cage operators. The team serves customers in Ontario, Quebec, as well as Michigan and Illinois across the border.
CMF has shifted focus to processing and marketing rainbow trout. Geoff and Susan employ around 35 people with a 10,000-square foot processing facility that is fully automated. “In the early days, we had a lot of manual hand cutting,” Geoff explains. “Up until four years ago, we did half of our production by hand. Now our facility is fully mechanized to perform heading, filleting and deboning. We are much more efficient now and the staff is very skilled. We have worked with many of the same people for a long time, with employee tenure ranging from 10 to 20 years.”
Quality is the company’s greatest priority, which CMF reinforces with a qualified staff, fresh local product and partnerships with strategic partners. The market is in constant fluctuation, but Geoff and Susan are in touch with consumer trends and demands. “When we first started working with retailers, many of our clients wanted their own brands at their stores,” Susan elaborates. “Now there is a different feel. Stores want to sell retail brands which offer more traceability and source recognition for processes. Retailers and consumers want to know where their food comes from and how safe it is.” CMF now strikes a balance between private label and the company’s own brand, Cole-Munro Trout.
The company processes and markets dressed and filleted trout, sourced through local producers. “The groups we work with are amazing,” Geoff notes. “Our partners are some of the hardest working and best managed farms in the country. They have access to the greatest fresh water source in the world and take great pride in maintaining the sustainability of this resource. We try to set ourselves apart by treating our suppliers as extensions of our own business. We currently represent most of the independent trout growers in Ontario.”
Over the last few years, CMF did hit some obstacles in the U.S. market with the 2008 economic downturn. Situated along the Rust Belt, tremors from Detroit crossed the border into the London and St. Thomas corridor in Canada. To combat these setbacks, Geoff and Susan have been working hard, especially in the U.S. market, to promote product and build customer relationships.
“Trout is one of the top three items in the seafood counter in Canada, but in the U.S. it had very little visibility reflecting its position in many seafood counters,” Geoff notes. “Demand is beginning to grow, as trout offers many of the same health benefits as salmon, a popular fish in the U.S. seafood market, but with a milder taste that many chefs have come to love.” Opportunities continue to open up and CFM is looking ahead to growth.
Susan and Geoff are planning for expansion in the coming years. “We are practically bursting at the seams,” Susan explains. “We need to double our size, but it is a bit of a catch 22 right now. As our process became more automated, we could do more volume. Ideally, we would love another line, though we would need the space for it. When we first bought the building we did not imagine that we would ever fill the space. Five years after opening the facility, we had our first expansion.”
The business has spent the last few years pursuing farm growth levels. CMF is helping growers with capital, as well as access to skills and people. Several of the company’s partner farms have doubled in size, leading to a foreseeable 50 percent increase in production. As the business grows, many of the physical aspects of the company are changing. There are a few components that Geoff plans to keep consistent: relationships, food safety and quality in products and service.
CMF has achieved SQF Level 3 certification through the Safe Quality Food Institute, which is the highest level possible. The team processes a very high quality product and to maintain that quality, as much as half of this fish is delivered the same day it is processed. The latest product will ship out is the day following processing. Most customers are direct-sale food warehouses or seafood distributors. CMF does not compete with customers and, therefore, does not sell directly to food service.
Susan touts the industry as relationship-based. She and Geoff both take great pride in partnerships with suppliers and repeat business with customers. The company has no plans to vertically integrate, preferring to work with a strong network of growing suppliers throughout the region. In the coming years, Cole-Munro Foods Group Inc. will continue to do what the business does best: process and market high quality trout to Ontario, Quebec and the Northern Midwest United States.