It almost sounds like the beginning of a fable. The Eagle, The Lion, and The Hawk - Longo’s founding three, affectionately named by their employees and family members. That is where it all began, three brothers pedaling produce over summer streets as they built their way towards one of today’s most well-known and respected retail companies in Canada. More than 20 family members later, and you not only have the history of a company, but also the history of a family.
Tommy, Joe, and Gus Longo; the trifecta of fresh produce founders brought vision and ingenuity into the family fold, which eventually led to a single fruit market in midtown Toronto.
“The Founders built the company around four pillars–ease of service, education and ideas, fresh and unique products, and everyday foods,” Mimmo Franzone, Director of Produce and Floral, tells me as he reminisces about the leaps and bounds that the company has made in the past 60 years. “When executed properly for any business, you can really differentiate yourself from competitors.”
We talk a lot about family legacy. It’s important to us. Much of this industry is based on the roots that two, three, or four generations have planted and cultivated, and that is what makes produce so incredibly unique. They are stewards of the land and they are our storytellers.
Tommy was known as The Eagle for his wisdom, leadership skills, work ethic, generosity, strength, and diligence. Joe was dubbed The Lion, which some will say arose from his thick dark mane of hair, but mostly because he was known to roam his produce displays, always in search of perfection. Always on the prowl, and today, living on through the growth and evolution of Longo’s. Gus, known as The Hawk, has the eye to spot when something isn’t quite right. Whether scoping out the geography of the grocery store, or creating more space for a shopping cart, he always keeps a bird’s-eye-view of the retail landscape.
Tommy and Joe have since passed, but the two brothers really were the driving force behind that early foundation of what Longo’s would become today. Tommy and Joe are credited with borrowing $10,000 in 1956 to buy a five-year lease on the Broadway Fruit Market - a meager 2,000 square-feet in a building at Yonge and Castlefield Streets. They couldn’t have known at the time that leap of faith would forever alter the course of the Longo family legacy.
But the Longo’s family roots in fresh produce began even earlier than that in the small village of Termini Imerese on the northcoast of Sicily. Antonino Longo was a farmer in the distant locale during the 1930s and 1940s who grew and harvested artichokes, grapes, tomatoes, wheat, watermelon, peaches, and olives depending upon the season.
Generations emerged and necessity eventually brought them to Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
“The choices that the three Founders made were based on their family values, and those choices also shaped their ideas of what value meant. They saw this as produce." - Mimmo Franzone
Now, three generations later, Longo’s has grown its footprint to encompass 24 conventional stores, five smaller urban format stores branded The Market by Longo’s,and an online grocery business dubbed Grocery Gateway. Grocery Gateway is essentially a service that Longo’s took on eleven years ago which has proven to be a very successful venture for the retailer. Longo's is currently the largest online grocery retailer in Canada. Everything, to this day, is built around fresh.
The company has taken its growth in stride. In those early days, growth meant something personal and remains a cornerstone in the company’s evolution moving forward. New locations were strategically chosen to address different demographics. But they were also chosen as a way to provide career opportunities to team members and retain that family of talented individuals that made the company so successful.
“The choices that the three Founders made were based on their family values, and those choices also shaped their ideas of what value meant. They saw this as produce. Produce is our signature. Everything is lifestyle focused and driven to exceed expectations and that begins by setting the bar in our produce department,” Mimmo notes.
The company's 280,000 square-foot facility and 11,000 square-foot Central Kitchen function as the company's distribution center and head office.
“We make sure never to shy away from the four pillars. For example, we still walk the food terminal at the Toronto Market six days a week. We live produce every day,” he adds. “The team is always looking for the freshest finds to support our growing program with our local vendor partners. We are incredibly hands-on and diligent, something we’ve learned by example from Longo’s amazing Founders.”
Longo’s ensures that a majority of its produce program is sourced locally when each category is in season and whenever the conditions allow for them to support the local community. The Ontario grocer is also continuing to cultivate its relationships all over the world, building great partnerships with international growers and bringing product in direct. Produce has always been the backbone of Longo's, and its family of fresh-forward stores is seamless in its vision.
As the company evolved from that single fruit market in midtown Toronto, Longo's has always held true to their fresh purpose. The trends evolved, and though they are now a full service grocery chain they still rely on the foundation they laid to carry the company's message – fresh is key. And Longo’s has continued to elevate and differentiate its fresh departments as well as its progressive programs and unique features.
“We are celebrating our 60th anniversary throughout 2016 with year-long promotions that engage consumers, along with team members, vendors, and family members,” Mimmo says. “Our ultimate goal over the course of the year is to increase social media participation in a cross platform conversation, drive sales and profits, and ultimately support our ‘Customer for Life’ strategy.”
“We will be continuing our work with vendor partners to bring new items to market."
The company will also be creating collateral around its flyers, magazine, reusable bags, and activities like local chef charity events.
This year, Longo’swill be putting out limited edition products as the team works closely with vendors to feature monthly items for a limited time, and exclusively, for its anniversary. These products will traverse all departments, with the emphasis as we would expect, on produce. While the company is not quite ready to announce the delicious and unique items that its fruitful partnerships have created, I can say that they are something to aspire to. Off the record, of course.
“I like to think of our stores as great testing grounds for new products as well,” Mimmo adds. “We will be continuing our work with vendor partners to bring new items to market. Whether it is a trial crop of new grape varieties, or a new added-value produce component, we look to celebrate our partners as much as the consumer at the end of the day.”
Longo’s Flavour Corner is a perfect example of this. Here, the company features new varieties of produce for its consumer base, from grapes bred for new flavors to tomatoes that bring a different taste or texture to the plate.
In addition to exclusive anniversary branded products to keep an eye out for, Longo’s will also highlight its vendor partners in mass media executions as well as featuring their brands and products prominently throughout the year.
Another important part of Longo’stradition, and a focus as well for the upcoming year of celebrations,is the Longo’s team itself.
“We want to actively engage all our team members, whether it is with specially designed decade t-shirts throughout the year, or with in-store events, activities or contests, our success is built around our employees,” Mimmo says. “For the family, it is about recording and celebrating the Longo’s legacy and ensuring that future generations will never forget the past when helping to plan the future and continuing the legacy in the communities that we have built.”
So what does the future look like for Longo’s?
Mimmo tells me that as Canada’s demographics change, Longo’s must change with it. Produce, being the focal point and claim-to-fame for Longo’s, will be leading the charge as the produce team looks to tailor its offerings to different international groups within its own communities.
“It’s important to stay ahead of trends but also still continue building our vendor partnerships and relationships within the diverse communities that make up Canada’s growing population."
Enter the company’s new International Flavours initiative. Mimmo tells me that his team has been growing this sub-department within produce to include different items specific to a community’s demographics. Currently, 80 percent of the International Flavours program is based around Asian and South Asian produce commodities, with the other 20 percent built to fit the demographic, or rather, a community-based assortment.
“For a location that is in an Eastern European community, let’s say, we make sure that we have the right variety of cabbage for making sauerkraut or ensuring we have the right variety of okra in stock whether we’re in an Asian or South Asian market or community,” Mimmo says.
Speaking of sub-departments, the growth in organics has accelerated as well, as consumer behaviors have changed. Longo’s now has over 100 items guaranteed.
“It’s important to stay ahead of trends but also still continue building our vendor partnerships and relationships within the diverse communities that make up Canada’s growing population,” he says.
Built on a dedication to fresh, quality food offerings, Longo’s doesn’t seem to be slowing down its evolution anytime soon. Between renovating store locations, establishing new strategically placed footholds in local communities, and growing along with the changing demographics in Canada, the team at Longo’s has their plate full.
But with a Longo’s family that continues to grow along with the retail powerhouse, I am sure that this story is far from over.