The Secret's In The Sauce

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The other night I made myself a surprising Linguini puttanesca. Surprising not only because of the rare occasion that I cook, but also because my heaping plate of saucy noodles, dripping with anchovies and ripe olives, was virtually guilt free - it was made with low carb pasta. That's right, sometimes dreams do come true and this one, ironically named Dreamfields, is a patented pasta creation made with the Atkins fan in mind an is distributed exclusively by Unico Inc.

The Unico brand is no stranger to many of us. I bet if you open your cupboard right now you'll find a can of Unico diced tomatoes or chickpeas right there next to the soup mix and tuna fish. And we've had plenty of time to get to know them. Established in 1917, Unico is the oldest distributor of Italian-style ingredients and products in Canada. The company was founded in Toronto by Edward Pasquale in order to cater to the increasing number of Italian immigrants arriving in the city. Since then, Unico Inc. has grown to stretch from coast to coast and offers more than 160 products to its diverse clientele.

Today, "Unico is the most recognized brand in Canada when it comes to Mediterranean foods," states John Porco, chief operating officer for Unico Inc. Efficiency, a good understanding of the product and close contact to their customers have all been instrumental in Unico's success for almost a century. "We try to identify where the customers are going. Twenty years ago Canadians didn't know what balsamic vinegar was. Today the consumption of balsamic vinegar is tremendous. Sun-dried tomatoes, they were all the rage; roasted red peppers... it is our responsibility to develop these products, to appeal to today's consumer as they fit into the Unico brand. Our objective is to meet consumers' tastes, and I think we've done a heck of a job, to be quite frank." says Porco. As old-world tastes now seamlessly blend with new-world waistlines, Unico's low-carb options (including my puttanesca) perfectly exemplify Unico's innovative thinking. So when Sun-Brite Canning Ltd. purchased Unico Inc. in 1997, they new they had picked a winner.

"Sun-Brite was debt-free in 1997 so we made the acquisition" says Henry Iacobelli, president of Sun-Brite Canning Ltd., a family business located in Ruthven, Ontario. Mr. Iacobelli hadn't planned on going into the canning business, let alone becoming the largest independent canner in Canada. Born into a farming family in the tiny town of Casalvieri in Lazio, the Iacobellis immigrated to Windsor, Ontario, in 1954 when Henry was 12. Although it was originally intended that, while in Canada, the Iacobelli children would receive formal educations and therefore, not need to rely on crops for their incomes, Henry has nonetheless returned to his (pardon the pun) roots.

Henry's foray into food processing began after his graduation from a technical school in Detroit when he took a job as an equipment service supervisor at a large local cannery, Canadian Canners (which was acquired by Nabisco Brands Limited in 1986). Unfortunately, Henry quickly found that the job was too often taking him away from his young family. So when a small local cannery, Ruthven Canning Co., was put up for sale in 1973, Henry, his wife Lina, along with a partner, made the purchase. They christened their new company Sun-Brite Canning Ltd., a name they chose to reflect the freshness of their product.

A hands-on, family operation from the start, Lina worked side by side with the women on the line peeling tomatoes by hand, while Henry worked in the plant. During their first year, Sun-Brite processed 80-900 tons of roma tomatoes from 60 acres of land. All the tomatoes are locally grown and field ripened. "It takes about 30-45 minutes from truck to can," boasts Iacobelli, making Sun-Brite canned tomatoes really the freshest, ripest tomatoes you can by. And the tastiest too, especially since Sun-Brite switched from the common caustic lye peeling process (used by most North American canners) to chemical-free steam peeling, a natural alternative that offers a more authentic taste. And just how many tomatoes are they peeling these days? About 175,000 tons (3500 acres) per year making Sun-Brite the second largest tomato processor in Canada.

Sun-Brite's success has been astronomical. Its original 5,000 square foot facility has expanded to a state-of-the-art 140,000 square foot plant able to process 2,500 tons of tomatoes per day. This tremendous volume has led the company to engage in exclusive crop contracts with farmers - a strategy that allows for greater quality control and results in a superior product. Such volumes have also allowed Sun-Brite to go above and beyond just packaged pomodori. The company has introduced an organic line and is always adding to their lineup with a variety of sauces, purees and bean products.

In 1994 Sun-Brite acquired Country-Side Canners, a packaging facility located in southern Ontario. But it was the purchase of Unico Inc. in 1997 that has truly proven to be, well, most fruitful. Unico had been Sun-Brite's largest customer, purchasing bulk processed tomatoes and bean products and repackaging them under the Unico brand. Through the acquisition, Unico secured a supplier of high quality products and Sun-Brite gained a solidified brand in the marketplace. "Every year since the acquisition Unico has increased their sales and broadened their distribution base right across the country," says Porco.

Unico had been family-run by the Pasquales for two generations and passed through three successive corporate ownerships before being purchased by Sun-Brite in 1997. "Now we are back in the hands of an Italian family and we are in the best position we have ever been in," beams Porco. "I think we understand what customers are looking for, we react quickly not like big multinationals. We've done our homework, we've got a great team here, we've got lots of experience, lots of knowledge and we can go out and make things happen." Clearly, Unico's ties to the Italian-Canadian community have strengthened since Sun-Brite has been at the helm. They eagerly support community festivals such as the CHIN picnic, advertise on Italian networks and sponsor cultural events. "This company was in a tough situation and we weren't moving forward. Sun-Brite has offered stability and has given us the support to move forward," says Porco.

Today, Sun-Brite is moving forward too. John Iacobelli, Henry's son, grew up in the business. He swept floors during his summer vacations from grade school, and has slowly climbed the ranks to director of sales and logistics for Sun-Brite Canning Ltd. and CEO of Unico Inc. In 1990, succession plans were officially made, positioning John to take Sun-Brite into the next generation of family management.

So, am I a loyal Unico customer? Absolutely. Even with my stunted culinary abilities, with Unico I can prepare a masterpiece. Bean salad anyone? Did I hear gazpacho? And yes, even a lean, mean linguini puttanesca.

Atkins fans, eat your hearts out!

Article taken from November issue of Partners Magazine