Like giant ice cream trucks, supermarkets on wheels get ready to roll into the neighbourhood

Consumers are being offered a growing number of new ways to bring home the bacon, along with fresh produce, eggs, milk and whatever is else on their grocery lists.

Instead of waiting in line outside a supermarket, or trying to secure a slot with one of the grocery delivery apps — which have been slammed with demand during the COVID-19 lockdown — new startups and established companies alike are eager to offer Canadians a fresh alternative.

The grocery industry is highly competitive and has been moving online for some time, but it now appears the competition will be intensifying further, with a range of new entrants looking to help Canadian shoppers buy from the safety of their homes.

Toronto entrepreneur Frank Sinopoli has just launched Grocery Neighbour, a fleet of trucks that will each operate like a supermarket on wheels.

“We’ll have technology to tell you when it’s pulling up, or to notify you to where the grocery truck is,” he says. “It will be like the ice cream truck when it pulls up: it will create that type of experience.” He says the vehicles will be in service by summer.

Then there’s Sysco, one of the country’s biggest distributors of food products to restaurants and hotels, which has just started to offer delivery to regular households with a new program called Sysco@Home.

Food supplier Sysco normally sells only to restaurants, hotels and other industrial customers, but the company has just introduced Sysco@Home to deliver food to regular households. (Sysco)

“The response has been outstanding,” says Sysco Canada president Randy White. “There has been tremendous interest in products like steak, chicken, and what we call value added products, like chicken satays and items that are ready to go.”

Another way to get groceries at home: farmers markets across the country are rushing to fulfil demand in a new way, signing up with a three-year-old Canadian e-commerce platform called Local Line. It gives local farms from across Canada better technology, so that customers can pre-order their favourite mixed greens, fresh cheese, honey and other artisanal products online.

Orders can be prepaid ahead of pickup, so that shoppers can avoid the need to handle cash or browse around a crowded market.

“Our business is onboarding farmers at about nine times our normal rate,” says Local Line founder Cole Jones from the company’s headquarters in Kitchener, Ont.

The grocery truck

Grocery Neighbour’s Sinopoli says the ultimate goal is to have 1,000 grocery trucks country-wide, although there will be just three in the Toronto area to start. The company is currently working to outfit trucks with shelves and refrigerated compartments. Neighbourhoods will be alerted via text message when the truck is set to arrive in their area.

A promotional image from Grocery Neighbour illustrates how shoppers can be alerted when a grocery truck is on their street. (Grocery Neighbour)

“There’s only one aisle, but that aisle will contain all the necessities,” says Sinopoli, who has founded a number of ventures in the past, including one of the first digital grocery coupon apps. “There will be just one lane, going one way, so you never have to pass by anyone.”

Sinopoli believes Grocery Neighbour will remain popular even beyond the lockdown.

“Time will always remain the most precious thing we have, and convenience wins most battles,” he says. “The lockdown inspired us, but it does not limit us.”

How expensive will it be to buy from a grocery truck though? Shopping at neighbourhood convenience stores typically costs more than at regular grocery stores.

“There are some items where it will be hard to beat big box retailers, and we simply won’t carry those items,” says Sinopoli. “You’ll come to us for that farmers market quality and experience, but you won’t necessarily have to pay farmers market prices.”

Online farmers markets

Farmers markets are adapting for the lockdown as well, however. Although they’re allowed to be open as an essential service, provincial governments in Ontario, B.C. and Manitoba have agreed to cover the monthly service fee farmers normally pay to Local Line to allow consumers to access their local farmers market virtually. That fee ranges from $15 to $2,000 a month, depending on the size of the operation.

Hermann Bruns has been running Wild Flight Farm with his wife Louise for 27 years along the Shuswap River in Mara, B.C. The couple sell their spinach, lettuce, green garlic, chives and cilantro at farmers markets in Revelstoke and Salmon Arm.

The farmers market in Revelstoke, B.C. takes pre-orders so that people can pick up their fresh produce and other products while maintaining physical distance. (Hermann Bruns/Submitted)

“Around the middle of March, we wanted to reduce the number of people coming to our market stand to buy things, because there was always a lineup and a crowd,” says Bruns. “And we need to encourage people — especially those that are really concerned about coronavirus — to order online.”

Bruns had already signed up with Local Line, the Kitchener company that provides back office software and support to farmers in every Canadian province and 49 U.S. states. But once the lockdown began, the couple decided to go online in a bigger way.

“We put photos with all our different vegetables on the website and then promoted it to our customers, so everybody at the market would know about it and start ordering that way instead,” he says.

‘People are finding it quite convenient’

He expects to keep operating with his online store through the spring. “I’m not sure if we’ll continue for the entire summer, but we’ll continue with the online store for the rest of the season,” he says. “People are finding it quite convenient, because they can just put in an order and not worry about something selling out before they get there.”

Local Line founder Cole Jones of Kitchener, Ont., whose company provides back office software and systems for farmers who want to sell online. (Cole Jones/Submitted)

Local Line’s Cole Jones says the company is currently signing up 60 farmers markets in Ontario, which will be up and running in the coming weeks.

“Since COVID has begun, the last six or seven weeks, we’ve done provincial-wide with Ontario, B.C., Manitoba, as well as statewide-deals with Illinois, Hawaii and Virginia,” says Jones.

Some drawbacks

Sysco’s Randy White says the food distributor’s pivot from restaurant clients to regular households has been a success, despite the large quantities individual customers need to order.

“Through social media there’s a lot of feedback,” says White. “And initially, the feedback was our packages were much too large.”

Sysco has repackaged some of its restaurant-sized produce orders into smaller, assorted boxes for use in households. (Sysco)

For example, a $37 order of frozen Cordon Bleu stuffed chicken includes 24 pieces. Strawberry Greek yogurt is also only available in a package of 24 servings, at $22.

“If you’re a single person or a small family and you don’t have storage like a freezer or a larger fridge, I would say this isn’t for you,” says White. But he says demand levels indicate many Canadians are willing to buy in bulk.

As for other products, such as the restaurant-sized package of 24 heads of lettuce, Sysco has repackaged those into what Smith calls “variety” packs for consumers, with an assortment of fresh produce.

The company is active in every province except P.E.I., and is supplying indigenous communities in Northern Canada. “We are absolutely shocked at the volume we’re seeing in those areas,” he says.

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