A WORLD OF PRODUCE CHOICES

TORONTO -- According to the United Nations, this Canadian city is one of the most diverse in the world.That diversity is reflected in the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables offered by area supermarkets.The produce departments visited on a recent tour of supermarkets here, sponsored by the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., boasted items such as malangas, yucca, golden raspberries, fresh

TORONTO -- According to the United Nations, this Canadian city is one of the most diverse in the world.

That diversity is reflected in the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables offered by area supermarkets.

The produce departments visited on a recent tour of supermarkets here, sponsored by the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., boasted items such as malangas, yucca, golden raspberries, fresh figs, cheyote, Belgian endive and more -- representing a wide world of fruits and vegetable options, for consumers who know and like the variety.

"Toronto is a well-serviced market," said Gorden Love, manager of produce purchasing for G.A. Love Foods, in Burlington, Ontario.

Canadians seem to be more aware of the benefits to health of eating produce, or at least are more likely to act on that awareness, than their American counterparts.

Reach for It!, the Canadian equivalent of America's 5 a Day for Better Health campaign, was instituted in 1972, 18 years before the 5 a Day promotion made its national debut.

Moreover, the Reach for It! program is encouraging Canadian consumers to eat between five and 10 servings of produce every day, while the American version is pushing just five daily servings.

The PMA tour visited six different retailers in the Toronto market, ranging in size and style from an 11,000 square foot gourmet operator to a cavernous 340,000 square foot store that concentrates on high volume.

One operator, Highland Farms, is a master of bulk displays that has carved an impressive niche for itself in the Toronto market.

The family-owned company runs three stores that, for the most part fit the contemporary mold for clean, somewhat upscale supermarkets.

However, Highland Farms has a big reputation for produce -- literally. The store visited in North York, Ontario, just outside Toronto, featured huge, neatly stacked piles of fresh produce, made all the more impressive by the routinely superior quality of the product.

Fresh produce volume, along with quality and service, is Highland Farms' stated formula for differentiating itself from its competitors. It is clearly the priority at Highland Farms. The department leads the traffic flow in each unit.

Of the North York unit's total selling space of 65,000 square feet, fully 25,000 square feet is produce. During certain times of the year, produce contributes 30% of total store sales, according to figures provided by PMA.

"The visual impact is important," said John Coppa, produce buyer, Highland Farms. "We need to keep the volume strong."

Refrigerated display cases lined one wall. The dominating factor in the produce department, however, was a series of massive nonrefrigerated display tables, running through the center of the department.

Coppa said the big nonrefrigerated displays require a constant turnover of inventory in order to maintain product quality. "But we can move the volume to keep things fresh," he added.

To help offset shrink, items that don't measure up to Highland Farms' quality standards are wrapped and offered at clearance prices. The discounted items were collected in a section at the back of the department comprised of three rolling racks.

During the visit, produce employees were constantly working the department, sweeping floors and straightening displays. Coppa said such activity is essential in order to maintain the department's crucial visual impact.

All produce to be purchased is weighed by employees at weight stations in the department, which helps cut down on the length of the lines at the front end, and also makes employees readily available for questions.

One section of the department featured fresh arugula, parsley and Belgian endives, at one price point of $3.99 per pound.

Of the produce items advertised the week of the tour, most bore the "product of Ontario" symbol. "We really support our local growers," Coppa said.

Ad items included field tomatoes at 79 cents a pound, musk melons for $1.99 each and peaches at 99 cents a pound.

Highland Farms is not the only operator in the Toronto market with a penchant for massive displays. Knob Hill Farms, another Toronto retailer, also makes effective use of bulk.

The unit PMA's tour visited was 340,000 square feet -- and, as owner Steve Stavro pointed out, that is not even the largest of its nine stores.

Unlike Highland, Knob Hill Farms does not fit the typical supermarket mold. The company even promotes itself as a "Food Terminal." The store on the tour seemed more like a warehouse than a supermarket, with 30 cash registers lining the front.

The produce section was on the right-hand side of the store. One notable offering was exotic items, including yucca at 99 cents a pound, cheyotes at 79 cents each and malanga at $1.29 per pound.

Ad prices featured bananas at 29 cents per pound, plantains at 69 cents per pound and coconuts at two for 99 cents. Limes were advertised at 10 cents each.

Mix and match specials seemed popular, with three different types of tomatoes (hot house, field, plum) at 79 cents per pound.

Romaine, leaf and Boston lettuce were also on sale for 79 cents per head.

At the opposite end of the retailing spectrum from Knob Hill Farms is Pusateri's, a single-unit operator that bills itself as "Your Gourmet Food Shop."

The 11,000 square-foot store focuses on an upscale clientele.

The produce shopping experience there was decidedly different. To get to the produce department in the back of the store, customers must walk by a section of Godiva chocolates, which were displayed under glass, as well as a section of coffee beans displayed in huge burlap bags. Opera music was playing on the loudspeaker.

Among exotic produce items, Pusateri's featured "living lettuce," which was hydroponic lettuce with the roots still attached.

Fresh oregano, Belgian endives, fresh figs, wild blueberries, and golden raspberries were also available.

Despite the presence of such successful and unusual independents, the Toronto market is dominated by three chains: Montvale, N.J.-based A&P's Canada group, in Etobicoke, Ontario; Oshawa Foods, a subsidiary of the Oshawa Group, based in Mississauga, Ontario; and Loblaw's Supermarkets, based in Toronto.

The 30,000 square-foot A&P store in Mississauga, just outside Toronto, billed itself as "price competitive."

The store featured about 15 different types of fresh-cut melons, displayed on ice. Exotic items included mangoes and carambola.

Like most other stores in the market, this A&P posted "Product of Ontario" signs throughout the department.

The week of the tour, tree fruit was given prominent play at the entrance of the produce department. Bushel baskets lined the front of the display tables. According to Vern Roe, produce merchandiser for the division, the baskets lend the impression of abundance, while actually using relatively little product for the displays. That cuts down on shrink, he said, while making the tables more attractive.

Oshawa Foods operates supermarkets under Food City, Price Chopper and IGA banners. A North Park Food City store featured a "market-style" format, accented with fake brick walls and faux inside windows.

Value-added produce was prominent. Besides pre-packaged salads and cut-up melons, baking potatoes already wrapped in foil were on display.

The newest store on the tour was a Loblaw's in Mississauga, Ontario, which had been open for four months. Of a total 65,000 square feet, about 8,000 was devoted to produce.

The store is a prototype for some of the 25 new units that Loblaw's hopes to open next year, according to Bill Binder, senior vice president of perishables.

The produce department was positioned at the front of the store. "This store is very service-oriented," Binder said.