From Market Gardeners To Mass Merchandisers – The Longo’s Story

Founded in 1956 by brothers Tommy, Joe and Gus, Longo Brothers Fruit Markets (Longo’s) is a family business committed to giving back to its communities in a significant, focused way.

As we go about our busy days, fighting non-stop traffic throughout our ever- expanding city, rushing home to make dinner before taking the kids to soccer, dance, gymnastics and swimming, do any of us ever stop to consider how that sun-kissed red tomato, just begging to become a toasted tomato-bacon-lettuce-and- mayo sandwich, came to be? Or how that juicy, lip-smacking watermelon evolved from a tiny seed? As shop-pay-and- go consumers, availability and choice are what we expect: a take-it-for-granted given that’s just part of our daily culture.

Just for a second, imagine the legion of farmers who, once winter has waned and the frost is gone, are on their ploughs, turning and cultivating the soil, then dropping seeds of every imaginable variety — tomatoes, soy beans, green beans, yellow beans, hot peppers, cucumbers (the list is endless) — onto acres and acres of land. And the planting is just the beginning. Total hours of sunlight, irrigation systems, fertilizing and the ever-present throngs of plundering insects are just a few of the farmers’ considerations. Harvest time comes with its own set of challenges: picking the crop before it gets too ripe, proper packing to avoid bruising, refrigeration, shipping to distributors, competitive pricing. Imported vegetables and fruits can travel a thousand-plus kilometres to get to your grocer, as opposed to locally grown produce.

It was into this kind of environment that the family-owned and -run business of Longo’s first began. They were no strangers to getting up at the crack of dawn, travelling to local farms and suppliers in their native Italy. Antonio Longo — father of the late Tommy and Joe Senior, as well as Gus (founders of Longo Brothers Fruit Markets) — was a market gardener in Italy before immigrating to Canada from Termini Imerese in 1949. Tony, the first of Antonio’s sons, followed him to Canada in 1950. By 1951, the rest of the Longo family, which included family matriarch Rosa, Gus and siblings, Joseph, Mary, Zina and Tom, arrived in Canada.

So how does a fledging family business, one started by three Italian immigrant brothers in 1956, grow, in a little over six decades, from one humble neighbourhood fruit market at Yonge Street and Castlefield Avenue in Toronto to more than 36 locations (by the end of 2019) across the Greater Toronto Area? It is a story of hard work, sacrifice (all eight Longo family members lived for five years above the original store, which was only 1,500 square feet), long hours and familial loyalty. It is also a narrative of unimaginable growth, one that started with eight family members and has now grown to an extended family that includes more than 6,000 team members, a third-generation succession plan and a rich commitment to community that is actualized through the Longo’s Family Charitable Foundation.

One of the core values of this family-owned and -run business is its genuine commitment to the community.

Gus Longo, who is 14 years younger than his brother Tommy and 10 years younger than his brother Joseph, remembers coming home from school when he was eight years old and immediately starting his jobs in the store. “I bagged potatoes and oranges, and cleaned up all of the food trimmings from the vegetables. I would pack them up in boxes for the local farmers, who would come and pick them up to use as feed for their pigs. Even back then, we were conscious of the environment.”

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Gus also shares a memory of standing outside the front of the family store, covered in an apron his mom had tied around him, selling flowers to passersby.

“It was a much simpler life back then,” Gus says. “People never locked their doors. Kids stayed outside and played until it was dark and then they went home. With 10 million people in the GTA, it’s a totally different world now.”

Italy, like many European countries, was hit hard by the backlash of the Second World War. A harsh economy, struggling to right itself, resulted in a scarcity of jobs and food supplies. It was an environment that spurred the immigration of many Italians to Canada in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As the country burgeoned with the large migration of people looking to plant new roots, Gus acknowledges that there was a lot of discrimination in Canada, but, he says, it wasn’t something he couldn’t handle. “It wasn’t too bad as a kid going to school. Sometimes we’d get picked on, but we were pretty tough,” he says with a laugh.

The larger-than-life spirit and commitment to family ties, so important to Italians, were values instilled in the burgeoning Longo family, which includes cousins, in-laws and large groups of extended family members. Groups of 40 to 50 people, all intertwined and connected, would gather for picnics every Sunday in places such as Niagara Falls or Midland, Ont.

When Joseph was 20 and Gus was 10, the brothers were working at the family’s second store on Toronto’s Woodbine Avenue. “It was 2,000 square feet, 500 more than our first store. It was then that I decided I would go into the business full time,” Gus says.

One of the core values of this family- owned and -run business is its genuine commitment to the community. Every Sunday (as well as for special occasions), the family would donate flowers to the church; they also supported the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and gave out fruit baskets to those in need.

After selling the business to cousins (but keeping the Longo name), the family opened a store in Malton, Ont., in 1967 and a supermarket in Burlington, Ont., in 1972. From there, Longo’s was on the fast track to success, opening store after store in quick succession. By 1990, the second generation of Longo’s had joined the business.

The family as a whole credits the values the founders started with — quality personalized service and identifiable value to customers — as keys to their 63-years-and-counting success. “Those things haven’t changed and are what has set us apart from our competitors,” Gus says.

Rosanne Longo, who is Longo’s spokesperson and chair of the Longo’s Family Charitable Foundation, is one of Gus’s three children. Gus’s son, Mike, is VP, food services, and his daughter Carolyn is the customer response specialist. “While our original founders did not have a formal education beyond early high school, they had a level of innovation and entrepreneurship that has allowed us to stay ahead of the competition and the trends,” Rosanne says.

Being a small, independent proprietor, as was the culture in the 1950s and 1960s, allowed the family to serve their community in a way that multiple decades later has come full circle. “We were pioneers around taking phone orders and delivering groceries to local homes,” Gus says.

And now, six decades later, Longo’s owns a huge share of the online grocery market through its Grocery Gateway property. “We are proud that Grocery Gateway is an extension of our in- store experience,” says Rosanne. “And in fact, under the Longo umbrella, we have continued to expand the brand and develop a greater trust in online shopping.”

In fact, Longo’s has just recently tripled the size of its Grocery Gateway dedicated pick centre, which now has a total of 400 team members (employees are referred to as team members) and a delivery scope that extends from Oshawa, Ont., in the east to Waterloo, Ont., in the west and Newmarket, Ont., to the north.

Longo’s Rewards Program also drives “guest” loyalty. (Longo’s considers all of its customers valued guests.) “It is our way of saying thanks to our guests,” says Joseph Longo, the son of Joe Senior. Rose Buick, who is the marketing specialist for Grocery Gateway, and Jenny Longo, who is director of private brands, are Joe Senior’s other children who work in the business. Joseph, who is the general counsel and VP of real estate, was a litigator for 10 years before joining the family business. “We are currently in the process of revamping and enhancing these programs to make them even better going forward,” he says.

The ability to stay ahead of trends has served Longo’s well. The fact that it is an independent, family-owned and-operated business means it has the ability to be more agile, test new initiatives and get to market quicker than the competition, setting them apart. “We are willing to take risks,” Rosanne says. “And by testing and evolving, we know that we will continue to meet the needs of shoppers.”

The company also considers their employees integral to its long-time success. In fact, some of Longo’s team members have been with the company for close to 50 years, while others have been there 30–35 years. Not only are there first-, second- and third-generation Longo family members working at the stores, but also second generations of long-serving staff members.

Marie Iuglio, front-end specialist and daughter of Tommy, says the emphasis on family values for team members at every level is a vital attribute to Longo’s success. “From our customer service reps (buggy boys) right up to our senior levels, we are committed to our team members. We encourage each one of them to speak up if they think core values are not being followed, even to the extent of calling the company president. We treat every person who comes into the store like family. We are all ambassadors of Longo’s, which means we share and are accountable to our values,” she says.

With Longo’s having been recognized as one of Canada’s 10 Most Admired Corporations, as well as one of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies, Nick Yeatman, assistant category manager of produce (a third-generation Longo, Nick is the son of Tommy’s daughter Rosie Yeatman; Tommy’s other children are Anthony Longo, president and CEO; Joey, chief development officer; and the aforementioned Marie Iuglio), credits the family values handed down from one generation to the next as key to the company’s success. “Our values have remained constant from the very beginning and are defined by a sense of honesty, trustworthiness and mutual respect,” Nick says. “We share what we say in Italian, Voglia, which means a passion and a desire to always strive for a better tomorrow. We say to team members, ‘You have Voglia.’”

“At any given time, between 20 and 30 family members are working in the business in a diverse set of roles,” adds Rosanne. “The three generations range from 18 years old to Gus, who, at 70, is the oldest.” (Many of the third- generation family members start as part-time students, as did the second generation.)

As each generation joins the family business, they bring their own insights and perspectives with them. The foundation for Longo’s success was crafted by the first generation. The second generation expanded on that foundation and put an infrastructure around it. The third generation brings what Nick calls uniqueness. “They work alongside each other and have found their niche within the organization, with a focus on the technological side and a fresh perspective,” he says.

A broad range of topics are discussed at quarterly meetings, and a lot of new ideas are brainstormed and welcomed. But, as was true in the days of Tommy, Joe Senior and Gus, team members might not always have the same ideas going into a meeting, but they always come out with one answer.

“We are seeing great passion and strategy from the third generation,” Joseph says.“They are bringing a different lens from which to view strategy.”

Longo’s has just launched a new meal-based shopping program called Meals Made Easy, which was initiated as a strategic response to consumers’ wants. “We are focusing on healthy programs that are customer-centric,” Joseph says. “There will be kiosk-like centres, where guests can buy all the fresh ingredients to make a full meal, including recipes, which can be emailed to the guests’ phones. We have a huge selection of prepared meals, but what we are finding is, guests want to have that feeling of accomplishment, of making their own meal. Depending on the meal, the time factor to make it is about 25 minutes.”

Since 1956, leaving a better footprint has always been on the minds of the Longo founders. Building strong relationships with local farmers has been an important initiative for the company from the get-go. “In fact, we are working with the third generation of the initial families with whom we began our relationships,” Rosanne says. “I think that is pretty special and unique. It is a working partnership to develop a better product for our guests.”

In fact, 70 per cent of Longo’s meat and seafood products is now locally sourced, with meat being Ontario-based, seafood being Canadian-based and cheeses sourced from Ontario and Quebec. And in addition to Longo’s commitment to sourcing local, its commitment to the environment is a sustainable blueprint. “In 2017, 79 per cent of our waste was diverted from landfills,” Rosanne says. “By 2020, we are aiming to increase that to as much as 85 per cent. Also, we are the first grocery store in Canada to open an energy-efficient store (the store produces 65 per cent of its own energy), which is located in Stouffville[, Ont.]. Annually, that store reduces between 1,500 and 2,000 metric tonnes of greenhouse emissions, which is equivalent to taking 300 cars off the road annually.”

In tandem with its commitment to the environment, a big part of Longo’s values centre around giving back to the community through both its corporate giving and Longo’s Family Charitable Foundation. Last year, Longo’s donated more than $2 million to local hospitals, kids’ camps and charities across the GTA. “The goal of the foundation is to complement our corporate giving, to give back in a more impactful, focused way as our business grows,” Rosanne says. “It is not just about writing a cheque; it is about time, talent and money. Many of our executives sit on charitable boards, and many team members volunteer as coaches. And a lot of our team members are involved personally in raising money for several of our initiatives.”

So,what’s on the horizon for Longo’s? In addition to its recently launched Meals Made Easy program, three new stores will be opening by the end of the year, including the Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue (in Toronto) location on July 31; the Green Lane store, located on the East Gwillimbury/Newmarket border, on October 1 and Toronto’s Liberty Village store on November 1. “We are still on a growth curve, providing new opportunities for our team members and the community,” Rosanne says.

Deeply grateful for the myriad opportunities the country has provided for him, Gus says that being Canadian means the Longo family has been blessed with a better life, one that has allowed his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to grow, prosper and give back in a meaningful and impactful way.

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Cece M. Scott

Cece M. Scott