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Local food hits larger market

Northlands provides venue to sell and test Alberta food products

By: Viola Pruss

  |  Posted: Saturday, Mar 01, 2014 06:00 am

DRESSING UP – Keith Olivieri of St. Albert's Blue Kettle Foods is hoping a new initiative by Northlands will help his company gain greater market access.
DRESSING UP – Keith Olivieri of St. Albert's Blue Kettle Foods is hoping a new initiative by Northlands will help his company gain greater market access.
APRIL BARTLETT/St. Albert Gazette

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The epitome of success for any small food business is seeing its product on the plate of a local restaurant or sold at one of Edmonton’s larger food venues.

That dream may be coming true for St. Albert-based Blue Kettle Specialty Foods. The company could soon be ramping up production to supply Northlands with some of the 7,000 litres of salad dressing it uses each year. It’s part of a new program launched this week to aid small, local businesses in bringing their food to the market.

Called Alberta Flavour, the program has Northlands testing local food products at its facility and helping businesses connect with commercial kitchens across Alberta.

“We deal with a number of larger venues like that but in terms of them transitioning to Blue Kettle for their primary salad dressings … we’re very excited about this opportunity,” said Keith Olivieri of Blue Kettle Foods.

Founded as an agriculture society in 1879, Northlands is a not-for-profit organization that’s best known for operating Rexall Place, the Edmonton Expo Centre and nearby racetrack. These venues include restaurants, concessions and large banquet halls. On a busy day, it can serve up to 4,000 meals.

The idea for the new program started two years ago from a conversation between Northlands and the Leduc Food Processing Development Centre, a business incubator.

Someone commented about why local products rarely make it into the grocery stores. Since Northlands buys and uses a large amount of food products, its officials thought the organization could play a role in advertising and using food from local producers, said Jessie Radies, local food associate with Northlands.

“We buy a lot of food. We feed a lot of people and then agriculture and sustainability are all impacted in a positive way when we make that change,” she said.

“This was a way to help those companies get access to a fairly large purchaser like Northlands and to also help them be successful in working with large businesses.”

Through the program, Northlands takes products and tests them in its kitchen, then provides feedback on how the products can be used in Northlands operations, and whether anything needs to change with the ingredients.

If everything goes well, Northlands will integrate the product into its operations and help the supplier build relationships with other food service organizations, such as restaurants or other large facilities like the University of Alberta or Shaw Conference Centre.

Market access

Getting your product to market is extremely important for any small business, said Olivieri. Many large purchasers are skeptical whether smaller companies have the necessary equipment to supply a larger venue.

It’s also harder to build trust with a company that is not well known in the market, compared to big suppliers such as Kraft, Olivieri said. Usually companies the size of Northlands switch to a different product if they don’t like the one they’re using, he said.

“Whereas they committed to providing us with the necessities to make a better product,” he said.

Blue Kettle Foods has been in business since 2000, producing salsa, soup stocks and dressings out of its Campbell Business Park facility since 2007. While the company has dealt with large venues before, it’s never had anyone offer to provide feedback, he added.

“That was a big thing. Getting our product out there and hit a test market as well. And having the feedback to make it a better product,” he said.

It is complex dealing with smaller companies, said Radies.

For example, Blue Kettle can’t provide individual portions for salad dressing yet. So, for now, Northlands will continue to use other businesses to supply dressing for to-go salads and use the St. Albert business to supply the dressing for larger, in-house dinners, she said.

But eventually Northlands wants to change over to using local food entirely, she said. Using local products provides jobs and encourages investment in the local economy, she said, adding that the food also doesn’t travel across the globe, which holds some environmental benefits.

“If we can find ways for those organizations to buy more local and be more successful at buying Alberta products then everybody wins,” she said. “We want it to be easier for us, we want it to be easier for our customers, and we want it to be easier for other members of the community.”


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