When Gerhard and Gabi Latka started out making organic fruit spread in Parry Sound more than three decades ago, the pair were considered outliers for their non-traditional approach to business.
At that time, noted Gerhard, demand for organic products was generated by a niche demographic of consumers, with the product largely sold in natural food stores in select regions across Canada and the U.S.
But that didn’t deter the Latkas, who launched their business out of a former laundromat after immigrating to Parry Sound from Germany, drawn to the area for its beauty and the lifestyle it offered.
“We always were the renegades, on the outside, hippies, or whatever,” Gerhard laughed.
“It was grassroots-driven, and the consumer appreciation driving it — demanding it, actually — got us really on the right track.”
Far from a passing craze, Crofter’s Organic continued to grow in popularity, finding its way onto the shelves of mainstream grocers and gaining loyal customers.
Now in its 33rd year, the family-run company has expanded again, recently putting the finishing touches on its brand-new, 24,000-square-foot production and warehouse facility, which includes 3,500 square feet of frozen storage and a new process room.
Gerhard said it’s the capstone project on a decade-long, near-continuous building project that got underway in 2013 and was completed in phases, bringing the total square footage of the operation to more than 100,000 square feet.
“It’s giving us the infrastructure to sustain the growth which we’ve seen,” Gerhard said.
The company employs 60 full-time people year-round, a benefit in a region known for seasonal and contract work, many of whom have been with the company for a decade or more.
Among them are the Latkas’ three sons — Dan, Sebastian and Luke — who have been involved with the business from a young age.
From the outset, responsible farming and sustainability have been guiding tenets of the Crofter’s operation. Fruit is sourced only from organic producers around the globe — strawberries from Turkey, blueberries from Québec, peaches from Spain — which don’t use herbicides or pesticides in their crops.
When it came time to build the new facility, sustainability led the way.
Heat generated by the plant is reclaimed and reused for warming offices and labs, melting ice and snow from truck ramps, and heating the facility’s water, eliminating the need for a separate heating system.
Ninety-five per cent of wastewater is recycled at the facility, which is home to a micro-scale wastewater treatment plant, built to order by General Electric. It filters out dirt and other contaminants, purifying the water so it can be reused for washing equipment.
Crofter’s also recycles 99 per cent of the packaging its raw materials come in, in turn packaging its jams and spreads in recyclable glass jars.
“There are all these little things which nobody pays you for, but we’re awfully proud of what we have done, because we’re an organic company with 100 per cent organic output; we’re not doing conventional stuff,” Gerhard said.
“I think it’s more critical for us to sort of put our money where our mouth is, basically.”
Now, customers are following suit.
Crofter’s commitment to sustainability is part of the allure for savvy consumers seeking to make more conscientious choices about their shopping habits.
Sebastian Latka, the company’s supply chain manager, said a greater awareness of the world’s mounting environmental issues is pushing many people to speak through their wallets, buying products from companies like Crofter’s that build sustainability efforts into the business.
“You can't really come on social media now without seeing things about how the environment is being degraded, and I think that's driven a lot of, especially, people in the younger generation to really become aware of what they're buying and how it's affecting the environment,” Sebastian said.
“And I think that's really pushing companies to sort of take it to the next level and be more environmentally conscious like we're doing.”
Support hasn’t wavered much through the last two years.
At the outset of the COVID pandemic, Crofter’s experienced a 50 per cent surge in sales as people stayed out of restaurants and instead started preparing more meals at home, Gerhard noted.
Business has dipped slightly now that more people are again venturing out, he said. But one area in which the company does anticipate growth is through its private label division.
Crofter’s is the leading producer of organic private label preserve, jelly and fruit spread for store brand programs in North America. If you’ve tried a store brand of strawberry jam or grape jelly, there’s a good chance you’ve tasted a product made by Crofter’s.
Dan Latka, Crofter’s director of sales, said with the globe still facing economic uncertainty, there may be a shift in consumer buying habits, with more customers opting for a lower priced store brand jam, so that company could see more demand on that side of the business.
It’s unique for a company to find success with both revenue streams, he said. But for Crofter’s, it works.
“It’s not often that you find a food manufacturer that excels in both spectrums, private and branded label,” Dan said. “A lot of the time they are sort of mutually exclusive — you’re either a private label manufacturer or you’re a branded manufacturer.
“So we have a little bit of a natural hedge in that way for these tougher economic times, which is obviously great for the business.”
Over three decades, the Latkas have watched as other organic jam companies have come and gone. None seem to have the same staying power as Crofter’s.
Dan credits his parents’ focus on making one product — 100 per cent organic jam — and doing it very well instead of always chasing the next best trend “for the sake of making a sale.”
“Our thought process has always been if you can make a product that is superior quality and you can sell it for better than the competition, then you’re bound to succeed, and it’s shown in our business,” he said.
“We take pride in our products and we are able to offer them to our customers at a fair price.
“It’s a model that I don’t think will ever fail you.”