[Chris] Pete wrote me a letter in 1987, when I was in my last year of university. It said: “Why don’t we start a business together?” The 1980s were a burgeoning time for food, and we decided to launch our food business with croutons, a product we’d perfected through making countless salads in our school years.
[Pete] I’ll never forget heading down to Pusateri’s–this amazing fine food shop in Toronto–on one of our earliest store calls. Imagine us two mangia-cakes driving to the store in our 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit and approaching Cosimo Pusateri with our croutons. Clad in his pristine white jacket, he looked up from his morning coffee and said, “Boys, I’m having my espresso. I’ve no interest in trying this right now.” You could say our first interaction wasn’t a big huge high five.
[Chris] Six weeks later, Cosimo’s grocery manager called us up and said, “Why are you selling product in the city and you haven’t come to see us?” We started our business in May and by mid-June, Pusateri’s was a customer. As our brand grew into a distribution business–with brands like Kicking Horse, LaCroix, Lesley Stowe, Kettle Foods, Tazo Tea and Clif – not only did the Pusateri family become friends of ours, their stores became a calling card of our business.
[Pete] Pusateri’s has single-handedly raised the consciousness of consumers for fine foods for home consumption. Imagine the transformation in the neighbourhood at that time… people went from spending a dollar or two on cooking oil to $20 on fine olive oil. Through education, taste testing and an extensive knowledge base cultivated in their stores, the Pusateri’s have created the appetite for specialty food in Canada. To this date, they continue to grow and change with the times, now offering not just specialty but also organic, gluten free, Non-GMO etc. foods… everything the customer is looking for.
We had our products front and centre at Pusateri’s as they became the gold standard in Canada. Other store owners wanted to replicate what they’d done: What was the secret to their success? What brands differentiated them? They started looking at carrying Neal Brothers. Pusateri’s helped us–they became the influencer store if you will–to build our business. We could use them as the calling card: “You need this. Pusateri’s does an incredible job with it.” It was a great thing for us. They were very very good to us, a true great partner.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with lead buyer John and other Pusateri’s team members and come out of the conversation with a new business insight. We’d always walk in and have a chat with whomever was available and ask them for advice: Where do you see things going? Are there products consumers are asking about? Certain trends? They’ve informed choices on our branded side with Neal Brothers and been supportive on the distribution side.
One of my favourite experiences was flying home a few years ago from the San Francisco food show where I found myself sitting next to Ida Pusateri. We had such a great chat about life, business, kids… It was a really wonderful opportunity to catch up with someone I value a lot and have always had great respect and admiration for. Pusateri’s has done a very admirable job of changing consumers’ buying habits, if you will: showing them that those special purchases can really elevate your home chef experience.
[Chris] Pusateri’s is a fantastic match for the foods we sell: products for the customer that cares what they put in their shopping carts from a quality and health perspective. We’re about to launch a giant rebrand and Pusateri’s will certainly be a focal point for us.
From day one, they’ve never treated us like the little kids on the block. When we travel, we’ve spent time with Ida and John in other cities… The relationship extends well beyond just a supplier/retailer partnership.
Looking back to the memory of Cosimo turning us down initially and then at the friendship we’ve built over the many years we’ve been in business together, Cosimo’s was truly the politest (and the most fortuitous) “NO!” we’ve ever gotten.
[Pete] We’ve got tons of new innovations coming, along the lines of taste adventures. One of the foremost food developers in the world has just reformulated our salsas with local ingredients for a fresh, bright, Tex-Mex take on the original recipes… and all our pasta sauces with 70% Ontario ingredients. These are products we are proud to serve to our family and friends and–just like in our early days–you’ll find Neal Brothers sampling in the aisles of Pusateri’s fine stores.
[Chris] If we were to advise newer manufacturers who are in the position we were in some 30 years ago, we’d say: Be extremely careful who you do business with. We’ve hand-picked the brands we want to do business with and are lucky to like who we work with every day. Be true to yourself. Know your brand and where it should go. Stick to your guns. And of course: Wait until the buyer finishes their espresso before offering them croutons!