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Keeping it Fresh at Fortinos

by Marjo Johne

Peter Weicker, Fortinos banner head, Loblaw SeniorVice President

Peter Weicker’s first year at the helm of Fortinos Supermarkets as banner head and senior vice president of Loblaw Companies, has been off to a running start, with a to-do roster of major projects and a big vision to drive greater growth, build the brand and add more points of differentiation.

Today, more than eight months after he took over from Vince Scorniaenchi – whose uncle, the late John Fortino, founded the now Loblaw-owned banner 62 years ago – Weicker is on track to deliver on this vision.

“Our goal is to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations on every shopping visit and deliver on our value proposition, which is to be an industry leader in fresh foods – we pride ourselves on being the best in fresh – and to deliver service excellence,” says Weicker, whose early-career goal was to become a high-school teacher; he has a graduate degree in education from Western University and an environmental studies/degree from the University of Waterloo, where he made the dean’s list, but turned to the grocery industry for full time employment when he couldn’t get work in education.

Among the big projects in the works under his watch is the conversion of a Zehrs Markets location in Bolton, Ont., into a Fortinos, The conversion, expected to finish in December, will bring in features unique to Fortinos, such as its Pane Fresco artisanal bakery and fresh-meals-to-go section, and a full-service floral department staffed by designers who can create custom-made arrangements for weddings and other special events.

“When it’s completed, it will be our 24th store,” says Weicker, who started “pushing carts and packing bags” at a Zehrs store in Kitchener, Ont., when he was 15 years old. “I’m really excited about bringing Fortinos to Bolton.”

Another major undertaking this year is the renovation of Fortinos’ commissary in Hamilton, Ont. This is where all the ingredients and products for Pane Fresco are prepared, explains Weicker. For example, all the dough for Pane Fresco pizzas and breads – the brand boasts about 40 types of bread – are made in Hamilton fresh each day, then delivered to each retail location, where they’re baked and finished in-store.

Weicker says the main goal of the project is to add more capacity for Pane Fresco, which continues to grow in popularity among Fortinos customers and which the banner will continue to feature in its growing network of stores.

“We’re renovating the commissary to be able to handle more stores,” says Weicker. “Pane Fresco is a key part of our business – that program is unique to Fortinos. Pane Fresco offers restaurant-quality, ready-to-eat foods with great value, and none of our competitors currently  offer that in our trade areas.”

Carving growth through unique offerings

Since it was launched as a pilot concept more than a decade ago, Pane Fresco has become a fixture in 21 Fortinos stores and in one downtown Toronto Loblaws location. Pane Fresco is, in essence, a number of mini-restaurants featuring table seating and a vast selection of fresh foods made daily – from sushi and noodles to Roman pizzas, sandwiches and coffee made with organic beans.

Beyond Pane Fresco, Fortinos – which is built on a franchise model – continues to find new ways to stand apart from the competition. In recent years, it launched a burger and kebab program that offers fresh meat burgers in various flavours as well as a selection of meats on skewers.

“Right now, we have nine varieties of marinated kebabs along with a couple of naked skews, which are unseasoned,” says Weicker. “A lot of customers are time-starved; they want easy meal solutions. So we listened and we responded with our burger and kebab program, and our customers are loving it.”

Fortinos also continues to build its strength in cakes and pastries, he adds, with new SKUs that are often inspired by discoveries in the communities served by the banner. Weicker himself is always on the lookout for great products.

“During the pandemic, I went into this specialty store, in my town and found The Pie Commission and I had the best meat pie I ever ate,” he recalls. “So I got in touch with the owner and long story short, we became the first retailer outside of a couple of specialty shops to carry his product. And you know, it’s been great working with him and helping a local entrepreneur bring his product to the next level. And the best part is that our customers are thrilled to be able to get this product without having to make an extra trip.”

Meeting the ever-evolving needs of Canada’s diverse communities is also an ongoing priority at Fortinos. Every Fortinos store in every community is curated to include products that cater to particular ethnic groups in the trade area, says Weicker. For example, a Fortinos in Woodbridge – known for its high concentration of Italian residents – would have the “absolute best of everything Italian,” while Fortinos in Brampton would have a rich selection of products used in South Asian cuisine.

“About 90 per cent of our offering is very similar across all 23 stores and the remaining balance would be adjusted based on the multicultural makeup of each store’s specific community,” says Weicker. “The way we think about it, we’re never going to be able to offer everything that the independent ethnic food store does, but we work to identify the top group of products these stores carry that are really, really popular amongst all customers and that’s what we’ll carry in our stores.”

These are just a few examples of the offerings that earned Fortinos the top spot in Leger’s ranking of in-store experiences among Ontario supermarkets. Staying on top requires ongoing efforts to maintain excellence in products and service, and to stay ahead of trends, says Weicker.

Towards this end, he plans to keep building capability in Fortinos’ leadership ranks and collaborates weekly on continuous improvement ideas with the store support teams.

“Equally important is making time to spend in our stores with the franchisees and their teams every week,” says Weicker. “Fortinos has a very strong culture that was nurtured by our founder and continued to strengthen under Vince’s leadership for many decades. It’s all the customers – they are truly at the heart of all the decisions we make here at Fortinos.”

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