Produce is nostalgic.
It’s colourful, romantic, and, most importantly, fresh.
“Produce is the most challenging department in all of grocery,” Amanda Labuckas points out to me as we roam the bright displays of my first Chalo! FreshCo store. “It is always ‘just in time,’ and its success depends on people, planning, weather, transportation, and so much more.”
This is all true, and if you are reading this, you understand it is all worth it. Because when you understand produce—how to pick, pack, merchandise, and, ultimately, sell it—you know that it is worth its weight in worries. Amanda was one of the first to recognize this, and subsequently help push an entire division of one of the largest grocers in Canada to make it the centerpiece of its growth strategy.
“Our number-one focus continues to be Stores First—we are passionate about produce and determined to be the leaders in the discount landscape. Our goal is to deliver so consistently that our fresh product isn’t ever questioned,” the Director of Fresh Category Management and Merchandising for Sobeys’ FreshCo tells me, explaining that while every department makes up a store, it is fresh produce that inspires loyalty.
So, Amanda encouraged the teams at Sobeys’ FreshCo and Chalo! FreshCo to choose produce as the centerpiece of growth and meet that challenge head-on.
“Every initiative must start with a strong strategy, and it is reliant on all partners to see it come to fruition. We are only as good as our teammates, and that means the team as a whole, not just FreshCo. In order to work through these challenges, the team relies on strong planning, attention to detail, collaboration, and passion. Ultimately, we want to offer the quality and assortment of big-store resources with the mom-and-pop-store feel to the franchise,” she shares.
“Sixty percent of last year’s immigration to Canada was from India. This is incredibly important to know when understanding your customer, especially when you consider that this customer has a propensity to buy produce.”
Donny Sandher, National Director of Operations, FreshCo
Surrounded by bright red and yellow carts filled to the brim with tomatoes and melons, balanced on bicycle tires to help shoppers think of home, it is clear that Chalo! embraces the poetry of produce and how it ties cultures together.
Established just outside of Ontario’s fast-moving Toronto, where “diversity our strength” decorates the city’s coat of arms, the fresh-focused retail child of Sobeys’ FreshCo franchise is the chain’s next generation of grocery.
“Our Chalo! vision has always been to deliver best-in-class produce departments and provide a one-stop shop for South Asian customers,” FreshCo’s National Director of Operations, Donny Sandher, tells me as he reflects on the first location he opened in Brampton in August 2015. Eight years later, we are standing in yet another of the chain’s stores, this time on Airport Road, discussing how it regularly outperforms its predecessors and sets the bar for retail strategies to come. “Sixty percent of last year’s immigration to Canada was from India. This is incredibly important to know when understanding your customer, especially when you consider that this customer has a propensity to buy produce.”
As we talk about the visa application program bringing waves of students from India, I relate to Donny how, despite picking up a few things on my own, the majority of my shopping modelled what my mom taught me to put in my basket. A habit that stemmed way back from my own college days.
“Exactly,” Donny agrees, explaining how Chalo! leaders travelled to India to bring first-hand knowledge back to the team, both in product offerings and in how everything should be presented. Hence, bicycle-wheeled, colourful food carts. “We are creating a generational basket in which everything works to remind our customers of home, and to attach a new generation to what the older one is talking about. You should see how faces light up when they see these familiar things.”
It is a touch that has proven to drive loyalty and profit. In a chain of 98 FreshCo stores, only 11 are Chalos, but local knowledge and strategy has pushed this growing banner to the top of its playing field.
“Donny has a background in produce that has helped Chalo! succeed,” observes Mike Venton, General Manager of FreshCo. “Our South Asian customers naturally buy produce. A larger percentage of their baskets are based on lifestyle scratch cooking, and Donny has helped balance the business to drive produce. Our Chalo! stores maintain the best produce department conditions and move more produce volume than anywhere else in the entire company.”
Having started his produce career part-time within the Sobey family’s Price Chopper division in 1995, Donny held roles from Produce Manager and Produce Specialist to National Produce Merchandising Manager before his Chalo! FreshCo career began.
“From my years of experience within the community, I quickly learned that value and variety were key to winning over the South Asian consumer. If you don’t do produce right, you go out of business,” he tells me.
This inside knowledge of not just studying a community, but being a part of it, is key to Chalo’s success, Amanda observes.
“Our Chalo! stores maintain the best produce department conditions and move more produce volume than anywhere else in the entire company.”
Mike Venton, General Manager, FreshCo
“Franchisees live in and are the face of each store’s community, so they are truly committed to that community. Chalo! is best-in-class in loyalty,” she shares with me, recalling how this inside experience made the first Chalo! one of the most memorable and dynamic grand opening ribbon-cuttings of her own 22-year career. “I can’t believe it’s been eight years, but I still remember it as the most exciting store opening—you couldn’t see for people, which is a testament to Donny and his commitment to that loyalty. It’s a unique proposition no one else matches.”
In fact, there is that crucial second half to Chalo’s name, initially added to garner support for the chain before it solidified its solo act.
While FreshCo is the more established chain, its focus is more specialized. Where Donny emphasizes the one-stop shop of Chalo!, FreshCo maximizes offerings with minimal space.
“Winning produce and multicultural offerings are two major initiatives at FreshCo, as well as Chalo!. Both areas are differentiators for our banner, and our intention is to drive successful programs that enhance customer loyalty. Both rely on each other to be successful. Incredible produce is a must for a multicultural shopper, and when FreshCo launched, then later Chalo!, the strategy was based on fresh excellence and catering to the demographics of the local communities,” Amanda tells me.
Nothing backs this focus up more than FreshCo’s Double Fresh promise that proudly decorates the walls of the store’s produce department in what I will now forever think of as FreshCo and Chalo! FreshCo green.
“Our Double Fresh promise is both a guarantee for shoppers and a standard for ourselves,” Amanda explains. “If a customer brings in a bad-quality fresh item with a receipt within 14 days of purchase, it will be replaced—plus a product will be added free of charge.”
Why? Because, as Amanda clarifies, people need to believe in produce.
“It all comes back to loyalty. We see produce as the core reason a shopper is loyal to their store, and that depends on knowing you will like what you take home. Ultimately, we want to make sure they never need to take us up on Double Fresh,” Amanda says. “Our team knows we make this promise, so it’s up to everyone to ensure we keep it. As our product performance reinforces that trust, the cycle keeps going, and that loyalty is built.”
“Winning produce and multicultural offerings are two major initiatives at FreshCo, as well as Chalo!. Both areas are differentiators for our banner, and our intention is to drive successful programs that enhance customer loyalty. Both rely on each other to be successful.”
Amanda Labuckas, Director of Fresh Category Management and Merchandising, FreshCo
Speaking with Donny and Amanda and watching them play off each other amid the grocery aisles, it's impossible not to see the alignment of their vision.
“Amanda and Donny have a few things in common,” Mike agrees. “Both have been operators with produce experience, and both have incredible passion for this department. Amanda made the transition from a Fresh Specialist to a District Manager, then to our Director of Fresh Merchandising. She knows this inside-out. Donny was our first Franchisee at Chalo!; he put Chalo! on the map in Brampton, Ontario. Now, he is one of our Senior Operators, managing all 11 Chalo! stores and a good handful of FreshCos in our multicultural markets.”
Both have been critical to reflecting a formula that is leading the charge for both banners’ futures, as well as mapping out potential changes for their parent company. A unique position for the discount sector at large.
“As a discounter, it’s very normal for a customer to shop without buying all they need with us, visiting other retailers for fresh food, including produce. We believe we can up our game and create a larger percentage of customer food dollars. Produce is the most important fresh department for driving loyalty,” Mike observes.
To accomplish this, Donny recognizes the need to continue focusing on delivering on value and expanding Chalo’s assortment to reach all consumers.
“The market has seen many challenges with the supply chain and inflation. As a consumer-focused business, we need to continue to adjust and adapt. From third-party partnerships with Halal- and Punjabi-style meat shops to our South Asian sweets and hot-food offerings, we are catering to everyone’s family tastes. This gives us leverage over others and the ability to provide great value, which is much needed in today's economy,” Donny says.
Chalo! means “let’s go” in Hindi, and perhaps this is why the name is so fitting. The entire team behind this fierce fresh provider knows what it takes to win the loyalty of a changing landscape and is ready to execute. To push the envelope and explore what is possible when diversity isn’t just embraced, but integral.