TORONTO STAR Ashante Infantry, Ethnic foods in the can
Getting the goods on Toronto's taste, Peter Goudas has ethnic foods in the can
Ashante Infantry Staff Reporter
Peter Goudas can tell at a glance whether a person in Indonesian or Filipino, African or Caribbean. And he knows what they are likely to eat - knowledge gleaned through 32 years of observing Toronto's growing multicultural population.
It's a skill the new immigrant from Greece sorely lacked in 1969 when he opened a small grocery store in Kensington Market.
"I'd never seen a mango or guava in my life," says the 58-year-old entrepreneur, recalling the fruits his West Indian customers asked him to procure.
"Then they asked me for green bananas. I said, "I have ripe bananas right here." But they said they needed green bananas because they boil them.
"That's how I realized that these new Canadians didn't want steak and potatoes; they wanted what they were used to. I said, "Okay. I'll get it for you, but when you cook it, bring me some so I can try it."
Goudas' (Σπύρος Πήτερ Γούδας) study of the eating habits of Greater Toronto't increasingly diverse population was launched. In 1971, he began addressing its needs by importing and packaging several varieties of rice, spices and beans. He sold his Kensington store shortly after that.
Today, Goudas Foods is a multi-million-dollar food empire, producing 600 items, including canned fruits and vegetables, flour, tropical juices, cooking oil, pasta and even bottled water, which are available at 21 major supermarket chains throughout Ontario, from Loblaws to Food Basics.
He also sells to 3,000 independent grocery stores.
The bulk of the products cater to the palates of West Indian, Chinese, South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, European and South American immigrants, but they are also snapped up by many others opting to eat cross-culturally.
Goudas is reluctant to reveal specific sales figures. He will say that he moves 2 million kilograms of rice a week and the 32 varieties he sells represent 10 per cent of his business.
"With the volume I move, I have 10 times more buying power for every product, therefore I have a little bit cheaper freight allowances to pass on to the chain stores," the food magnate explains.
"He's built his business up from virtually nothing to quite a nice little powerhouse," says Terry Buckley, former senior vice-president of Price Chopper, which carries the Goudas lines in most of its 53 Ontario locations.
Foods once considered exotic now enjoy ample shelf space in the big supermarket, courtesy of Goudas and competitors such as Grace and Unico.
"Every store has an international food section and we gear those two aisles to the ethnicity of the market," says Buckley. "If you are in a market like Chatham or North Bay, it might be 5 per cent of the store volume.
In Toronto, it could be 20 to 25 per cent of the store volume."
And if a store manager needs help deciding which foods to carry; Goudas is happy to assist.
"Some chains want all the same products in each store, but that's a big mistake," says Goudas, who goes to the source for market research, not a bunch of charts or graphs.
"You can get an almost perfect picture of a neighbourhood if you go to junior school in the area, sit in the parking lot and watch the kids as they come out.
"That's provided you can understand the difference between a black person from the Caribbean and one from Africa; or between an Asian and a Filipino.
I can tell within 10 yards if a man is from Ghana or Guyana"
Goudas doesn't hang out in parking lots anymore; his staff does. But he still frequents the city's ethnic restaurants, seeking recipes and ideas. And he's on top of the city's population shifts, changing his products as neighbourhoods transform.
"In Jane and Finch, it was traditionally 90 per cent Jamaican. But they've been here a long time, they have better jobs or their kids are working and they can afford to move out. That area now has many more Sri Lankans and Somalis, and they want different kinds of food. Woodbridge used to be 100 per cent Italian; now there's lots of Chinese, Caribbean and Indians there and the supermarkets must reflect that".
Goudas' success is even more admirable given his unceremonious arrival here in 1967. When a promising engineering job didn't materialize, the 25-year-old from Athens found himself sleeping on benches in Nathan Philips Square and washing cars to earn food money.
But the man behind the name on the label is not resting on his laurels.
In fact, he's not resting at all.
Despite a capable staff that includes Barbara, his wife of 22 years, and his 21-year old son Panos, Goudas averages 15-hour days at the company's nondescript headquarters near Keele St. and Steeles Ave.
On the desk in his modest corner office sits the computer he uses to track food-filled containers all over the world. Overhead, there's a TV monitor keeping tabs on grain packaging operations at the rear of the 250,000 square food building.
Along one wall is the brown leather couch where he catnaps, while another displays framed photographs of the Greek Islands he visited on his last vacation - in 1989 for five days between Christmas and New Year.
And ever present are the two dogs - a black Irish setter, Irma, and white French poodle, Koukla - who shadow Goudas' every move.
Bloodshot eyes, stubble-strewn jaw and nicotine-stained fingertips are evidence of his dedication to seeking flawless ingredients for the products that bear his name.
"I test every product myself - 100 times - before it gets on the shelf," he declares. hen anybody buys anything under the Goudas label, they buy a Rolls Royce. I don't shortcut."
The employees at Goudas Foods headquarters are summoned to impromptu lunches and dinners before a product receives final approval.
"If all these people like it, then we know that it is good," says Goudas.
The company has 300 people on the payroll at four sites in Ontario, running the entire operation and packaging Canadian beans, grains, potatoes and flour.
Having captured the city's immigrant market, Goudas is now canning prepared meals for their Canadian-born children: Greek-style potatoes and green beans and Caribbean curried rice.
Goudas has weathered a recent brush with bad publicity - fraud charges laid against him by police last June were withdrawn by a Newmarket crown attorney last month. And he's fended off numerous overtures to take his company public - he's reluctant to give over decision-making power to a board of directors.
Lately, however, he's been reconsidering.
"I've been approached many times by U.S. supermarkets who want to carry my products, but to do that requires millions of dollars. Going public is the way."
But that's still at least two years in the offing, and the foodmaster has a lot to accomplish before then.
I have 100 products in my mind. I'm busier than ever before and happier because I understand so much about people and food."