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Fruiticana: Bringing Tastes of the Southeastern Hemisphere to Western Canada
Tony Singh relocated from Montreal to Vancouver in 1994, opening a simple produce store as a means to provide for his family. Soon, however, he noticed specific scarcities in the marketplace. There was an increasing interest in produce sourced from local farmers, so Singh would get in his van every morning and visit farms in Abbotsford, Landley and Surrey, hand-picking the finest fresh vegetables and fruits.
Born in India, Singh was looking also for some familiar tastes but quickly became aware of a lack of access to specialty produce and spices for close-knit South Asian communities. Armed with business savvy and a desire to address the demand for pantry essentials throughout a growing immigrant population, Singh partnered with his wife and his father Tarlok to expand the Fruiticana concept.
“I started Fruiticana strictly as a specialty produce market, with absolutely no grocery items,” recalls Singh. “But our customers gradually began asking for certain items and so we started carrying more grocery items.
“We started out carrying only specialty produce that most grocery stores wouldn’t even think of carrying,” continues Singh. “There was a problem for the Pakistani, Indian and Sri Lankan communities here, because there was nowhere for them to buy certain items.”
Singh identified a divide between what the market had and needed, and became a trailblazer for importing international products into British Columbia. Sourcing highly perishable items, such as guava, okra, fresh sugar cane, bitter melon, Indian yams and more, Singh established a network of vendors who could fly in wholesale produce regularly, guaranteeing consistency and establishing an immediate presence at the heart of communities.
Within only eight months of the first store’s opening, Singh opened a second location. Since then the company has managed to open one new location a year. “We have 16 stores now across British Columbia and into Alberta and we’re always looking to open more,” says Singh.
Continuing to set the standard for specialty food companies in its regions, the company sells a variety of specialty produce and grocery items from local sources and suppliers around the world, including brands from India, Pakistan, Thailand, Dubai, Australia and the Philippines. Operating from a state-of-the-art, temperature-controlled 65,000-square foot warehouse in Surrey, which also holds the company’s head offices Fruiticana imports and distributes products from such brands as Parle-G, Dabour, Tiffany, Panchranga and Golden Temple Flour, offering them at the lowest prices possible.
“We are absolutely catering to a niche market,” admits Singh. “We do things very differently that mainstream supermarkets, because we carry things that they don’t, either because they can’t or they just don’t want to. We carry over 40 different kinds of lentils and over 100 spices that you just can’t find otherwise.”
Committed to Freshness and Quality
Operating with a strong commitment to the quality and pricing of the produce, Singh visits with farmers himself, both domestically and internationally, in order to cultivate long-term supply agreements and ensure the finest quality. Singh attends international trade shows and has even gone so far as to establish certain supply chains that carter solely to Fruiticana.
“We are always looking for new products. It’s human nature to always want something new and something unfamiliar, and it’s why I travel the world looking for things I can bring here that aren’t already available in Canada right now,” affirms Singh. “We work exclusively with our own growers, and I visit with them before every growing season to pay in advance only to grow for us. We work closely with them to make sure that the produce is not only grown and harvested for the best possible quality, but also transported to keep it freshest.
“For instance, we have a mango grower we work with [in Mexico] and he grows only tree-ripened mangoes for us [sold under the company’s Rajan brand],” continues Singh. “It’s very important to keep that mango at the exact temperature it was picked at until it reaches the customer’s home so we don’t chill them at all. That mango will stay at the same temperature from when it was picked because it helps keep the freshness and flavor-sealed inside.”
Singh and his team intensely analyze every element of the supply chain that can be improved in order to keep produce fresh and costs down. “We supply a lot of stores so we have warehouses open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to receive items that are coming in from all over the world,” says Singh. “Some stores get two or three deliveries in a day so we can make sure that the produce is very, very fresh, and we own all of the trucks and distribution facilities so we can control how many shipments we make.”
All of Fruiticana’s success has not come without certain struggles, however. “The economy was a challenge for us, because we carry a number of higher priced items that for many just became a luxury,” explains Singh. “And on top of that, there were two years where we just couldn’t find the labor to open more stores. The demand was there and it was really hard for us.”
Even with these issues to navigate, Fruiticana continues to reinforce its position as a premier specialty supplier. The company has received many accolades for contributing to the economic and cultural diversity of its markets, and as Fruiticana has grown from sales of under $1 million to well over $100 million the company has emphasized philanthropy as part of its mission, contributing to scholarship programs and hospital expansions, among other causes. Singh quickly and consistently acknowledges the people and factors responsible for Fruiticana’s success.
“Through it all, it has always been very clear to give back to the community as we grew,” says Singh. “When we celebrated our 10-year anniversary in 2004, one of the main reasons we decided to have an internal celebration for all the managers, suppliers and employees was to recognize how far they have helped us come. We really just wanted to recognize the greater community of people that has helped us to grow.”
Singh hopes to further the growth he has been able to achieve thus far, and recognizes that maintaining his already long-term relationships with suppliers will be crucial to that process. “The success of our growers and suppliers is very tied to my own success,” explains Singh. “We have been working and doing business with the same people since day one and it’s very important that we always remember that. The economy here seems to be getting better and I think we will be able to keep growing the way we have since we opened. Who knows? If the opportunity presented itself there would be nothing to hold us back from opening more than one [store] in a year, because we want to grow in every direction – north, south, east and west.”
Purveyors of only the finest fruits, vegetables, seasonings and pantry staples, provided to bring a feeling of soulful peace to communities comforted by a taste of international homes, Fruiticana continues to provide freshness you can taste always.