AB World Foods

Bringing new world flavours to Canadian dishes

AB World Foods, a division of the global giant Associated British Foods, continues to enjoy substantial business growth since opening its Toronto location almost six years ago. The Canadian hub oversees all of the Americas and the selling of Indian and Asian cuisine, bringing tasty new world flavours to a number of various food dishes.

South Asian and Chinese Canadian communities alone account for one-third, or nearly $6 billion, of grocery spending in Toronto and Vancouver, so the opportunities are immense.

“Cuisines are changing,” says Jean-Francois Dery, General Manager of AB World Foods. “People are eating more Indian food, more Asian food and flavours are really mixing. It’s a great opportunity for us to capture continued ethnic growth.”

Having the precise distribution, structure, promotions and making sure that AB World Foods has the correct brand presence in the retail stores was the first step in a successful move forward for Dery and his team.

“Once we got the fundamentals in order we started to innovate and it really helped us as we managed to double the business. It was also engaging retailers in getting behind ethnic food events,” he says.

AB World Foods sells Indian and Asian food solutions and has attained a high level of engagement by retailers to create in-store solutions, merchandising and an inspiration for customers to cook Asian and Indian at home. That was a big milestone for Dery and his team: to get those flavours in front of Canadian consumers, because it’s still less than 15% penetration as far as cooking Indian food at home. Asian is at more than 50% penetration but the frequency is not that high compared with what people will eat at home every week like spaghetti or chicken.

Investing in more in targeted consumer communication and television campaigns and on social media has led to AB World Foods expanding their branding efforts on a relatively small budget.

“We’ve grown the Indian category by double digits every year. The brand is the leader in the category. When we came in 2010 we were No.3,” Dery tells us. “We have many partners because we’re a small team. We have distributors like ID Foods from Quebec who have been very good at helping us with the sales and supply chain for the brands across Canada.”

Prior to joining AB World Foods Dery had spent 19 years at Kraft. During his final three years in that position he spent a good deal of his time taking smaller brands to market, and it’s something he enjoyed, but quickly realized there was a much different approach to it than with many of the larger brands.

Intrigued by his work experiences, Dery envisioned a new role at a smaller company where he would serve as general manager and promote smaller brands, but have more of a say in the overall business. That’s when he and AB World Foods found each another. He says the entire experience has been a very positive one from the outset. “At AB World Foods we can move quickly and have a lot of autonomy, with of course some guidance. A lot of people who join me to be part of the team had also worked for larger companies. But here we can get things done faster.”

The success of any profitable company can always be tracked directly to its employees and Dery is enormously proud of his support staff. Since 2010, there has been a turnover of just one person out of the nine in the Toronto office. His team members come from impressive and very diversified backgrounds having worked for the likes of Loblaw’s, Neilson, Nestle, Parmalat, Unilever and Kellogg’s bringing their own unique international experiences to the table.

“What’s great about a small group is the ability to engage people. Everybody feels they are responsible for the profit and loss. It’s not finance or it’s not a marketing person, but rather it’s all of us. We make decisions as a team,” he says.

In addition to Canada, AB World Foods has opened the U.S. for its primary Blue Dragon brand and they have launched a business and team in Mexico, with Brazil just getting set up now. The other main brand is Patak’s, with authentic Indian ingredients like sauce in glass, pastes, pickles, chutneys and pappadums. The product portfolio for Blue Dragon ranges from dipping sauces, cooking sauces, noodles, coconut milk and pastes.

“Just a couple of months ago we launched a sweet chili dipping sauce and a sriracha, which has been a phenomenon in North America. Because these products come from Thailand they are very authentic,” Dery reveals.

AB World Foods is still considered a small enterprise but one with big geography and excellent support from its parent company. Dery says it’s been a very uplifting experience going to a place where you know that you can make a difference.

“We relaunched the Blue Dragon brand completely with a national rollout that really worked well. We were going against big players but we have a unique format and it has worked well for us,” he says. “We have people that are local in Mexico or the U.S. or Brazil but the team here is cross functional from a strategic standpoint with support on marketing and back-office category management; we support those smaller teams.”

There are five hubs worldwide including Canada, Poland, Australia, United Kingdom and Thailand run autonomously by region but there is leveraged scale in working together on best practices in marketing, sales and category management. There is a constant sharing of ideas, which results in a robust global network. A primary objective of AB World Foods in Toronto has been to assist in retailers’ growth.

“One of the things we’ve worked hard at is to support the retailers with ethnic food events such as the Chinese New Year. We’ve invested to create those promotions and we’ve invested in innovation more than anybody else. We have a good relationship with them and have participated in a big way,” Dery proudly says.

A dynamic observed by Dery is that Canadians are becoming savvy about ethnic world foods, which means many more authentic products are more successful versus the older brands. With so many immigrants in large metropolitan areas such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal you’ve got a consumer that is often much more open to world flavours. In that sense, Dery is certain the company has the right assortment of products and in the right business to succeed.

“We have a five-year plan and goals that we will look to establish. Strategically, on Indian food, in five years if I have doubled the penetration of people eating Indian at home I’ll be very happy,” he says. “Being No.1 or No.2 in every segment we are involved in would be a great accomplishment. It’s all about sustainable positioning. Outside of Canada we want to become a leader in Mexico and Brazil in Asian foods.”

The U.S. is one of the biggest markets in the world, but when it comes to food and you are in a speciality business, the time and costs quickly escalate. Dery advocates taking a slower, more methodical step-by-step approach in penetrating that market. He says you can’t look at the U.S. as one big market. Instead it is far better to focus on somewhere such as New York and make a success story there, or go to the northeast as example, and be a leader and from there you can roll out on an even larger scale.

Regionalization makes sense – be more targeted to the three or four cities in a country that are more apt to accepting a wider international food flavours.

“A main reason why we have success is because of the model of autonomy while getting proper support,” Dery says. “We’re not a top-down organization. Much of our innovation is unique to Canada. It’s going to continue to grow, and the retailers are excited about it.”