I recently met up with Tony Singh, President and owner of Fruiticana Corporation, at his head office in Surrey. The place was a whirlwind of activity. Fruiticana is the culmination of around 15 years of relentless hard work by Singh, who has become the ultimate purveyor of Indian speciality items for the Lower Mainland and Alberta’s marketplaces. Along with being an industrious entrepreneur, he is a flying enthusiast and a philanthropist.
During our first meeting, his office was bustling with activity – phone calls, employees asking questions, and emails flooding his inbox. When asked if there was something unusual occurring today, Singh looked around and pleasantly stated that this was a typical day. Dressed in his business attire – jeans, shirt, blazer, and black glasses, Singh speaks in an unassuming, thoughtful, and precise manner, which displays the subtle nuances of his fluency in three languages: English, Punjabi, and French.
“I found it interesting that there was an Indian community in Vancouver, but Indian products like bitter melons and okra were not available. This made no sense to me, since they were easily accessible in Montreal. I saw it as an opportunity and decided to pursue”
Born in Jallandar, India, he immigrated as a youth to Montreal in 1975 with his family. Life in Montreal was not very welcoming to foreigners in those days, so there was a propensity for South Asians to stick together. “My parents worked in a factory and it was difficult for us, but there were about twenty South Asian families in the area and we were closely knit. We socialized a lot and created a Gurdwara, which was held out of an existing church.” In school, Singh focused on his studies and participated in sports, especially cross-country running/skiing. This helped him to quickly adjust to his environment and also provided inspiring role models. He most identified with hockey player, Guy Lafleur because he was fast, hardworking, and charming.
Canada has a long history of immigrants arriving, finding business success, and becoming industry pillars. Research has proven that these immigrants have a culture of entrepreneurship that stems from education, thrift, family loyalty, and ambition. Immigrants are described as risk takers, who are achievement oriented, and have a secret weapon: their willingness to work long hours. Immigrants also have been proven to spot and fill unmet needs, particularly in their own communities. They create exciting new business opportunities that provide employment to the local labour force and enhance the production of value added products. It is these motivated individuals, who are driving and transforming communities– Singh is a casebook example.
His determination to succeed was evident at a young age – in addition to school and sports, he had three newspaper routes: one early morning and two after school. No weather, even treacherous snow, stood in the way of Singh getting papers delivered on time. In Grade 9, Singh found a part-time job in a grocery store. “I would ride my bike 15 miles, work four to five hours and then ride my bike back home. There was no time to be distracted by other things.” In his mind, he would become a pilot one day, but instead began college. After two years of schooling as an architect, Singh figured out there were no jobs in his chosen field, so he took three consecutive semesters of business in management, marketing, and accounting. It wasn’t until his last semester that he determined he hated accounting; this provided him the final push to pursue an opportunity with a wholesale food business. “Working in the grocery business is tough work that includes long hours that begin at 3 am.” His wholesale position lasted a few years and then he moved on to other companies; however, his fortitude to keep exploring different avenues never stopped.
“I am very proud of the success Tony Singh and his family have become as business leaders in the province of British Columbia. Tony has developed Fruiticana into one of the Lower Mainland’s best-known and successful food outlets. In addition, Tony has served on the Provincial Small Business Roundtable, providing important advice to guide the Provincial Government in developing further policies that will benefit the small business community in British Columbia.” - Kevin Falcon, Minister of Health Services
During a visit to Vancouver in 1992, Singh noticed an unfilled need in the Indian market. “I found it interesting that there was an Indian community in Vancouver, but Indian products like bitter melons and okra were not available. This made no sense to me, since they were easily accessible in Montreal. I saw it as an opportunity and decided to pursue it.” Singh moved to Vancouver in 1994 and opened his first Fruiticana store in Newton. Rather than being the run of the mill type shop, he had a concept in mind – a store that offers customers the freshest produce straight from local farmers, as well as specialty products from around the world. The first six months were difficult – he worked long hours with the help of his father Tarlok Singh, his wife, and one other staff member. “It was very rewarding to work hard and create something of my own. It was a great feeling to see the produce displayed beautifully. It was also extremely difficult, because there were big chain stores located nearby. No one really knew about us early on, but then people started to drive by, saw our bright yellow signage, and the word spread about our products.”
What Singh envisioned as one store, spawned into a phenomenon. His talent of visiting local farms in Abbotsford, Langley, and Surrey and handpicking the freshest products he could find, began to pay off. Within a year, he opened his second Fruiticana outlet in Richmond and then a third location opened six months later. Fruiticana’s growth has not slowed down; instead, Singh has opened a Fruiticana every year, heralding him his fourteenth location in his fourteenth year of business. Along with the store locations, Fruiticana’s head office is part of their state-of-the-art 65,000 square foot warehouse – the largest in Western Canada that is temperature controlled to ensure that spices and produce is kept at the highest quality possible. Fruiticana has grown from four employees to over 500 worldwide – yearly sales of less than a million dollars to sales of over 100 million.
“I want to personally acknowledge Tony Singh for his generous contributions and involvement with the City of Surrey” said Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts. “Tony is a strong supporter of our City and the many events we hold for our community. I appreciate the impact that Tony’s leadership is having here in Surrey, and want to thank him for his hard work and dedication.” - Dianne L. Watts, Surrey Mayor
Singh knows that without the support of his family, the community, and of course his customers, none of this would have happened. “I am so appreciative of the support everyone has provided. I thank everyone who has rallied behind me and has provided me guidance.” Singh didn’t truly realize how much people had been in search of specialty produce and ingredients. At the beginning, most of his customers were South Asians. As time elapsed, Singh realized the potential to reach a bigger market, because there is such a vast ethnic market opportunity in Canada. In fact, there has been much writing about the quiet revolution occurring in the grocery store industry, more specifically, the rapid mainstreaming of ethnic food. As the world continues to shrink, and our desire and drive for knowledge, experiences, and authenticity continues to increase, there is a growth about food in the world. This phenomenon is driven by the broad changes in taste, but more so, because of the massive shifts in the world’s demographics. According to Statistics Canada, while immigration accounts for 70% of Canada’s population growth, by 2017, about half of all visible minorities in Canada will be South Asian or Chinese. By that time, the agency estimates visible minorities will make up 51% of the population of Toronto, 49% of Vancouver and 19% of Montreal, while the rest of Canada is projected to stand at 9%.
The demand for healthier food and exotic flavours are driving interest and much of this openness to new flavour can be traced to the surge in international travel. The Independent Grocers Association has determined that ethnic minority consumers are a key group to target. Minority consumers form a majority of ethnic food spending, but the trends indicate that mainstream population has also attributed to ethnic food spending as well. This clearly is a sign that ethnic food is here to stay and Fruiticana is the retailer of choice for Indian ingredients.
” I have worked at Fruiticana for the past eight years. It is a great place to work and Tony Singh really encourages employees and is a great leader. When I came from India I was driving trucks, I thought that was what I would be doing for work. However, Tony and I met and he asked me to try working for him and Fruiticana. I gave it a go and have learned a lot about the business – I started out in the warehouse and drove a forklift. Today, I am managing a Fruiticana store. I am very thankful for this great opportunity and have really noticed that our clientele is happy with our locations and products available.” - Lakhvir Sanghera, Store Manager of Fruiticana
Living in Montreal early in his life, provided an opportunity to build a network that enabled him to import international products into BC. Singh was bringing in fresh sugar cane, Indian yams, and guavas – items that weren’t readily available in Western Canada. Soon, Fruiticana shelves were stocked with every imaginable Indian product. So important, since food itself is the essence of India’s culture – greatly influenced by centuries of traditions and customs. Not only is it a biological necessity, economic commodity, but it is also the primary ingredient of ritual and social links. Food is the centre of social and familial interaction and has always been, and continues to be, the heart of South Asian existence. The common characteristic of all-Indian cooking is the use of wonderfully exotic ingredients, whether they are spices or vegetables and fruits. With centuries of foreign invaders, like the Greeks, the Portuguese and the British, India was introduced to many culinary influences – several new varieties of vegetables, fruits, legumes and even spices, thus creating a rich tapestry of Indian cuisine, which we are familiar with today. The true art of Indian cooking is defined by an accomplished understanding of the various ingredients.
Singh’s concept of Fruiticana has enabled anybody the ability to shop for essential Indian ingredients. Whether or not Singh realizes it, he has created a nostalgic connection for every South Asian, especially ones who have emigrated from India. Ask any South Asian about their childhood and they will reply with a culinary narrative that is suffused with nostalgia. For example, eating makkai ki de roti and sarson the saag in spring, affirms a Punjabi identity that strongly resonates at a symbolic level for immigrants.
Their memory banks about food overflow when they set foot on Canadian soil. Even the ones, who had a disinterest in food during their childhood, will transform their interests into a new kind of need for food that acts as an essential connection with home. A longing for food is used to deal with the emotions of leaving ‘home’, provides a sense of rootedness, and becomes both an intellectual and emotional anchor. Food, therefore becomes a symbol for signifying the ethnic veracity of South Asians, serving both as a sign for marking cultural distinctiveness and as a comfort for dislocation. Singh, an immigrant himself at one time, was able to change the marketplace and tap into the nostalgia that drives immigrants and their families.
“It was very rewarding to work hard and create something of my own. It was a great feeling to see the produce displayed beautifully. It was also extremely difficult, because there were big chain stores located nearby and no one really knew about us early on, but then people started to drive by, saw our bright yellow signage, and the word spread about our products.”
Singh, already familiar with India in the sense of it being his hometown and the hometown of his parents, soon began criss-crossing other locales, like Pakistan, Thailand, Dubai, Australia, and the Philippines, in search of products that he felt would appeal to his customer base. Today, Singh and his buyers attend trade shows in an effort to find new products that appeal to Fruiticana’s client base. Singh is so passionate about delivering the best products to customers, he personally visits his farms regularly. “We have created internal promises at Fruiticana, where we have South Asian produce available year round. We strive to buy locally when items are in season, but when they are not, we have products delivered from around the world, so our customers always have produce readily available.” To guarantee the freshest and most consistent quality imported produce, Fruiticana purchased its own farms in Mexico and California. We send the farmers seeds and they grow the produce. Items then are handpicked, hand packed and transported at a certain temperature, so that when customers here bite into the products, it’s bursting with fresh flavour. With no middleman, Fruiticana sells these products at lower cost to customers.
The City of Surrey celebrates Canada Day with many key partners. The merriment has grown to become the largest Canada Day event in Western Canada with attendance reaching legendary status as one of the largest outdoor shows ever staged in BC. The biggest highlight of the day is the Fruiticana Fireworks Spectacular, which is an explosive pyro-technique display set to some of the greatest Canadian classic rock songs of all time. Tony Singh and Fruiticana are integral to the event – Singh volunteers his time and commitment to being a part of Canada Day, while Fruiticana also supplies fresh fruit like watermelon to the crowds. Overall, an event of this magnitude would not be made possible with out the generous sponsorship from local businesses like Fruiticana.
Singh has not taken the phrase, “sky’s the limit,” lightly. In between growing his business into a success, he accomplished his dream of becoming a pilot by obtaining his private license to fly single engine airplanes. “As a youth, I dreamed about becoming a pilot and didn’t want that dream to just disappear. I took action on it and would like to one day pursue my commercial license, so I can fly around the world with my family.” Singh’s inspiration to become a pilot is not coincidental. In many ways, flying a small plane is not unlike owning your own business, because wishing to succeed is one thing, actually making it happen is something entirely different. There is the comfort attached with flying yourself, but also the fear if something goes wrong. The same holds true with business. In fact, a pilot and business person is often faced with the questions of whether or not they should take their chances – purse the odds. In flying, with too much arrogance, over-confidence or bad judgement, results can be disastrous. These again apply to business. Before every take-off, no matter how many previous take-offs/landings have occurred, a pilot needs to know the following about himself – his limitations, comfort levels and skills for the new challenge; his aircraft – the design issues, every system and instrument; and lastly about his flight plan, the weather, terrain, and the navigation problems. For Singh, with each passing year, he has completed his own version of a situational analysis and taken measured steps of risk to attain his success.
Fruiticana has been honoured with many awards and accolades over the years. Singh won the Business Person of the Year Award from the Surrey Board of Trade, as well as the Cultural Diversity Award from the Surrey/Delta Immigration Society. The privately held company has also been awarded an Ethnic Produce Business Award from Business in Vancouver newspaper and the desirable Consumer Choice Award of Canada. Singh believes it is important to give back and ensures that he does it many ways, both personally and corporately. “I am fortunate that I have received so much and want to give back as much as possible to the community. I strive to personally, donate money and my time to many causes. I also strive to ensure Fruiticana has a mandate of charitable donations. It is part in parcel of how I was raised – you earn money, you give thanks, you appreciate it, and you give back. A simple philosophy, but one that I think holds true for my family and our community in general.”
Singh was the first South Asian to donate money for fireworks and free watermelon for crowds at the Canada Day Festivities. “Fruiticana is a community centered operation, so when we are asked for funding for community initiatives, we strive to never refuse any organization. He is also involved in the fundraising efforts for the emergency wing at Surrey Memorial Hospital and donated $50,000 for a new maternity ward last year, where he matched dollar for dollar, a radio-based campaign of raising funds with South Asian listeners.
“For me this has been a personal cause. My father was sick and passed away, during his stay at Surrey Memorial Hospital and the staff was exceptionally good. I feel it is important to give back to the hospital for all that it has done for me and my family.”
Fruiticana also donates money and fundraises on behalf of Children’s Hospital during the yearly Telethon. Over the past 12 years, Fruiticana has established scholarships for deserving students through the Indo-Canadian Business Association. Singh is one of the founding members of the SPARK Foundation, a non-profit organization that assists students in obtaining a university education, who due to economic or cultural reasons, may not attend otherwise. He is a board member of the Cloverdale Chamber of Commerce. In addition, Singh devotes a lot of his time to the Provincial Small Business Roundtable committee to which he was appointed a position two years ago. “We are 15 members from across the province from various business and academic backgrounds. Our mandate is to meet together, typically at remote locations – to analyze a business and try to assess the situation and provide solutions for the business owner. This happens once a month for three days and has been a great experience for me – you always end up learning new things from business owners and our roundtable members. It also reminds you to remain humble, some of the businesses we have assessed are out in the wilderness and makes me think if they can do it in their location, I should have no problems in the big city.”So what is next for the entrepreneur? Well, a new Fruiticana is slated to open in the near future and plans are also being made for expansion into other parts of British Columbia and Alberta.
“I am so appreciative of the support everyone has provided. I thank everyone who has rallied behind me and has provided me guidance.”
Singh is delving more into the nostalgia of India, with many more products hitting the Fruiticana store shelves. “Food and celebration are some of our biggest aspects of South Asian culture. As people immigrate to Canada, they are unsure of how or what to expect – we as a cultural group have these amazing celebrations like Diwali, Vasaikhi, and Lohri, so why not connect India with Canada?” Therefore, Fruiticana has further plans to feed our hearts and souls with everything Indian – for every South Asian celebration you can imagine.Think of every food and party favour associated with South Asian celebrations and you will find them at Fruiticana – and as Singh says, “The sky’s the limit.”