Sun-Brite squeezes into ketchup market with 100% Canadian Primo brand

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Windsor Star/Sharon Hill

If you eat at Jose’s Bar and Grill in Windsor or Leamington you’ve likely already tasted the latest ketchup to squeeze into Canada’s colossal ketchup clash: Primo.

Primo ketchup made in the Sun-Brite Foods Inc. plant in Ruthven can claim something Heinz and French’s can’t: Primo boasts it’s 100 per cent Canadian. The ketchup that’s been in Jose’s for about a year and will soon be in stores is not only made with Leamington and southwestern Ontario tomatoes, it’s produced and packed in Canada too at what has become the country’s largest tomato processor.

“It’s the perfect time for us,” said Sandra Macera, the director of quality assurance who is in charge of research and development and developed the Primo ketchup recipe. “Especially around here people really want local product. They’re so excited about buying things that are made in Canada.”

The Heinz versus French’s ketchup hoopla began in February when an Orillia man’s Facebook post favouring French’s went viral and soon Essex MPP Taras Natyshak jumped in with a petition to get French’s served in Queen’s Park. Restaurants started switching to French’s and social media came to the rescue when Loblaws briefly decided not to stock French’s.

The Heinz and French’s condiment are both made in the U.S. but French’s uses Leamington and area tomatoes. In March French’s said it planned to have some of its ketchup made in Canada soon.

Primo had been developing its recipe in the last two to three years. 

“Once we saw the firestorm and the media hype on Canadian products just over a month ago we decided, you know what, let’s move forward. So we expedited our plans,” said John Porco, the chief operating officer for Primo Foods and Unico Inc. which are the brands owned by the family-owned Sun-Brite.

Primo ketchup launched last week and consumers can expect to see it in Remark Fresh Markets in Windsor and London by the end of the week. It will be popping up in other independent stores from Windsor to Toronto and the company is approaching major retailers to get it sold across Canada.

Because ketchup is not on the table at Jose’s Bar and Grill but is served in individual portion cups, it wasn’t obvious what brand the restaurant was using. But people started asking, owner Michelle Nesbitt said from the Howard Avenue restaurant Wednesday. “The customers love it.”

She describes it as having a smoother and less vinegar taste than Heinz.

“I think it’s fantastic and I love supporting the local,” she said of the restaurant that uses other Sun-Brite (Unico and Primo) products.

Macera, who is the daughter of Sun-Brite Foods president and founder Henry Iacobelli, said she focused on bringing out the fresh tomato flavour and she won’t compare her recipe to Heinz. The Primo brand has its own unique flavour. “We are so excited about this project. It’s a great feeling,” Macera said.

Iacobelli said the plant can ramp up production and make as much ketchup as consumers will buy. Sun-Brite has been in the tomato business for more than 40 years.

“We pack every kind of tomato in every which way except ketchup so when Heinz moved out of the town of Leamington we thought that might have been a good opportunity to get into that market,” Iacobelli said.

Sun-Brite buys 186,000 tonnes of processing tomatoes which makes them the largest tomato processor in Canada. Heinz used to be the largest with Sun-Brite always a close second, he said.

The buy local binge in ketchup is good for the entire processing tomato industry, said Bill Thomas, CEO of Thomas Canning in Maidstone.

“This is the first time in my experience that I’ve seen consumer pressure, at least in our industry, start to create a difference. Right now the whole thing about French’s has brought a lot of awareness to the fact that we’re all here.”

Thomas Canning makes an organic ketchup but is focusing on making and selling its tomato paste. Thomas said the company is talking to ketchup producers who could use the paste and claim the grown-in-Ontario label.