In 1980, a young Craig James arrived in Vancouver from Regina with very little money in his pocket. What he did have was two talents: sales skills and a nose for trends.
He noticed burritos were hot in convenience stores south of the border but hadn’t yet made it into Canada. James boldly approached 7-Eleven in Vancouver and suggested he could manufacture burritos for the Canadian market. Would they buy them? They would. With a new business grant from the government, and a lot of help from 7-Eleven’s burrito manufacturing company in the U.S., Rosita’s Fine Foods was launched in Vancouver.
When the 7-Eleven folks decided they could produce their own burritos, James put his sales skills to work. In his battered orange VW van, he visited bars, convenience stores and grocery stores to hand out samples of burritos, a food few had tasted before. They were a hit. It wasn’t long before Mexican food — and Rosita’s — was making inroads into Canadian markets.
But James decided his talents were better suited for brokerage than manufacturing. Leveraging the many contacts he had developed through Rosita’s, he began to build a client list of brands, some large and some very small, bringing often-overlooked newcomers to the attention of the market. Once more, he called on restaurants and convenience stores, promoting brands many had often never heard of before.
And, 30 years ago, in 1984, the uniquely named Inform Food Brokerage Inc. was born in Vancouver, later moving to Burnaby, B.C. “It seemed the right name, because it’s what we do,” explains James. “We inform the market about new products available, and we inform the manufacturers about the new trends in the market. You might say we’re a conduit.”
For five years, working out of the basement of his home, he expanded his list of products. One of his earliest clients was Umberto Menghi who had begun marketing his pasta sauces commercially; James took it into supermarkets. Brands such as Delta, B.C.-based El Torito tortilla chips, Richmond, B.C.-based Norpac frozen vegetables, and soups from Eagle Flight Kitchens based in Portland, Ore., joined the list.
With growth came offices and staff. One of the first sales reps was Jennifer Martin, now a buyer with Vancouver-based White Spot restaurants, one of Western Canada’s most successful chains.
There have been notable achievements. “Twenty-five years ago, [Brampton, Ont.’s] Maple Lodge Farms was virtually unknown in Western Canada,” says James. “We turned it into one of the largest suppliers of deli meats in Western Canada. It was a major success story for us.”
From the outset, Inform has taken a chance on small, emerging or unique products. “We believe in the evolution of products,” says James. “What’s different about us is our willingness to look into the future and see brands that have potential. We take something that was virtually unknown a year ago and turn it into a hot trend.”
One of his favourite examples is corn dogs from the U.S.-based Foster Farms, which most dismissed. “When two business colleagues from Neptune Foods (now part of GFS) teased me about the crazy stuff I sold, especially corn dogs, I told them, ‘Boys, corn dogs are the food of the future!’” James laughs. “I was right. That success says a bit about who we are as a company; we find opportunities when others don’t see them.”
In 2000, Napoleon Veltri, then GM of Vancouver-based Pennine Marketing and a well-reputed foodservice executive in Western Canada, brought his considerable skills to Inform Food Brokerage, along with some major clients who knew and respected him. James and Veltri became partners. “It’s a great complementary synergy,” says Veltri. “We have different skill sets that work together very well.”
The two set about expanding the business with more large clients such as Canada-based Dare Foods Ltd., Brampton, Ont.-based Italpasta Ltd. and Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Dole Food Co. But a quick scan of the company’s brands might be surprising. Several very small-scale producers are finding their way into restaurants and grocery stores, because these two have created a market for them. “Craig and I spend a lot of time sourcing products from around the world, looking for new trends and innovations for our customers,” says Veltri, who recently returned from a foraging trip to food shows in Italy. “In most cases we bring back ideas, but in some cases, a customer might request we bring something specific in. We have, over the years, gained the trust of the industry and have become their eyes and ears into what’s new and up-and-coming.”
The current consumer passion for authenticity has created strong markets for naturally produced foods that have historic roots. For example, Fentimans, a U.K. producer of botanically brewed sodas, has been established since 1905. Now produced in Canada, they are distributed by Inform. “These all- natural sodas are used by some of the best mixologists in the world,” says Veltri. “We also import Parma hams, aged for 24 months in the mountains of Parma, Italy using sea salt and mountain air to cure meat from pigs whose diet includes parmesan-cheese whey and acorns.”
A recent successful promotion with a large restaurant chain introduced FaLuCioli roasted porchetta from the town of Arrici, outside Rome, where the pork is slow-cooked for four to six hours in clay ovens. “We bring the world’s foods to our customers,” says James.
Indeed, the company has created a unique niche in the industry. “That was the opportunity Craig saw early on, assisting restaurants and giving them ideas. He was a real pioneer in sourcing products,” says Veltri. “There’s a lot of risk and a lot of work, but because there aren’t a lot of guys doing it, we’ve filled a void in the market and built a culture that complements the other side of our business. A lot of major clients rely on us to bring those products in for them.”
A good example would be Sweetypepp Peruvian peppers, which are appearing on restaurant menus across the country. These tiny, grape tomato-sized peppers are slightly piquant and flavourful; they also provide chefs with unique presentation opportunities. And they’re on Canadian plates courtesy of Inform Food Brokerage.
Ricky’s All Day Grill is one of many restaurants now using Peruvian peppers. In 1984, when Roy Hildebrand began to expand Ricky’s, James became one of his suppliers. “He sold himself to us,” says Roy’s son, Darryl Hildebrand, director of Purchasing for Ricky’s, now a chain of 65 restaurants and part of Burnaby, B.C.-based FDF Restaurant Brandz. “When someone looks after you like that, you stay loyal. And Craig has been good to us through the years, helping us to find products and getting the best deal he can.”
Hildebrand recalls when he, along with Ricky’s executive chef, and the heads of operations and of marketing, would attend “innovation sessions” at Inform’s test kitchen. “We were introduced to some new foods and usually got some good ideas about how to use them. Just recently we did a promotion with Etuvé, [a Vancouver company begun by chef Benjamin Côté, which] makes really lean and tender meats. We have several suppliers, but three are top of my list, and Inform is one of them.”
Inform’s now well-known innovation sessions have helped many restaurateurs and chefs discover new products. “We break open the boxes and show them what they can do with them,” says James. “Certified Red Seal chefs work with us, offering ideas and unique approaches. We build relationships and rapport with customers.”
But, Veltri is quick to add, the business is a lot more than Italian porchetta and Peruvian peppers. Inform Food Brokerage works with a core client base of 10 to 15 brands, which grows to 20 to 25, depending on customer needs and specific projects in the works, he explains, adding, “Although this innovation side of the business is important and exciting, it has also enabled us to build strong relationships with our end-users. It’s an often complicated, value-added component of our business, but it separates us from others.”
However, only 10 per cent of the company’s volume is new products. Today, Inform Food Brokerage works within all sectors of the foodservice industry. “Our primary focus is working with our principals as their sales agents facilitating their need to showcase their products to specific sectors of the food industry,” explains Veltri. “We work hand in hand with our distributor partners and end customers. Our dedicated sales team is responsible for tradeshows, product launches, innovation sessions and a whole lot more to ensure we meet the needs and objectives of our customers.”
One need the partners have been successful in meeting has been quality home-meal replacement. “We do a lot of business with camps in Northern Alberta. The labour up there expects quality food, so a lot of logging chains in Canada come to us to source products for them,” says James. “We’re always looking for opportunities for our customers.”
Another opportunity comes this month at Food For Thought, the biennial conference hosted by Inform Food Brokerage. It will give invited guests an opportunity to participate in a unique business forum. The innovation session showcases key manufacturers who share the newest trends and products in their portfolios. Here, customers can taste and see for themselves how the market is evolving. More significantly, customers and manufacturers can network and collaborate, one on one, in what has often proven to be a breeding ground for unique solutions and innovations to grow their business. The program also includes educational seminars where manufacturers and key customers participate in round-robin discussions. In addition, an international speaker will discuss pertinent industry challenges and resolutions.
Food for Thought provides an opportunity for manufacturers and customers to meet across the table with fresh ideas. This year will also include an evening at River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C., honouring the 30th anniversary of Inform Food Brokerage; industry leaders will be invited to share in the celebration. The master of ceremonies will be Al Murdoch, the voice of the Vancouver Canucks.
Food for Thought alternates years with the Incredible Edible Golf Tournament, the company’s thank you to its customers and business colleagues. The Inform team invites guests from across the country. A dinner and casino evening allows new and old business friends a relaxed environment to get reacquainted and share fine food. The next day, at the golf tournament, each hole features a different manufacturer or fun event, and the groups of four enjoy sampling new and innovative products. After a day on the links, guests enjoy cuisine from around the globe. Much more than a thank you to their customers, since it began in 2000, the tournament has raised more than $150,000 for charities such as Toronto-based Kids Help Phone.
Although sales numbers aren’t disclosed, the little company that Craig James began 30 years ago has grown into a strong partnership with Napoleon Veltri. Over the years it has represented more than 100 brands and now boasts 40 full-time staff who provide manufacturers with sales management and administrative support. And, these days, the personnel list includes family members of both the partners and staff. “The young people will be the future of Inform, but Nap and I love this business; we really enjoy the challenges it presents,” says James. “One of the key elements of running a successful brokerage company is being able to balance the interests of everyone with whom we work. And that’s what we do well. And, of course, we will continue to present the Canadian foodservice industry with new and innovative products. We do that well, too.”