Aylmer Tomatoes stir up debate
When reaching for a product on the grocery shelves, consumers are influenced by many factors, including their hometown.
Michael Mulvey, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management, who specializes in consumer behaviour, believes residents react positively to a brand name if it’s the same as their hometown. “The name of the hometown is always sweet-sounding,” he said. “There is not a huge variance in the quality of canned tomatoes and I think Aylmer consumers select the product because of the name.”
After calling several Aylmer grocery stores, Aylmer Tomatoes was the top brand in each store. “It’s not surprising,” noted Mulvey.
In 2012, Marché Laflamme recorded more sales of Aylmer Tomatoes than its competitors. The store sold 1,063 units of diced Aylmer Tomatoes cans, 1,000 cans of the Compliments brand and 408 of Primo Tomatoes. “Consumers usually look at the price when selecting a product, the name, and the look,” said Richard Bourque, former manager at Marché Laflamme. Even if Aylmer products are the most expensive of the three brands, shoppers toss Aylmer cans in their shopping carts more often. Aylmer Tomatoes sell at $1.99, Primo scans at $1.59 and Compliments go for $1.29.
The Aylmer brand is also the best-seller at IGA on des Grives Boulevard and the Aylmer Road IGA. “They’re my best product, but their lead is threatened when Compliments goes on sale,” noted the grocery manager. “No, I don’t think they are popular because of the brand name, but rather the quality of the product.”
The Super C grocery manager agrees with IGA’s manager. “I think sales of Aylmer Tomatoes are higher because of the quality of the product, not the name,” he said. A Canadian marketing representative from ConAgra Foods disagrees. “Quality is important, but the product does well because of the name,” she said. “Consumers associate with it.”
The Omaha, NE-based ConAgra Foods, one of the biggest food processing companies in North America, purchased Aylmer Tomatoes from Del Monte Canada last March. ConAgra Foods also own Orville Redenbacher's, Chef Boyardee, Pam, and more. Professor Mulvey agrees with the ConAgra Foods marketing representative. “Local pride influences shoppers,” he said. “That effect is even stronger when the product is actually from the town or city.”
The devastating February 2012 fire at the St-Albert cheese factory proves how strong local pride is and how a community can rally and gravitate around a product. “From what I’ve heard, former Aylmer residents and older Aylmerites are proud of their town, making the brand name that much important,” said Mulvey. “If Aylmer Tomatoes were manufactured locally in Aylmer, Quebec, the local effect would be even stronger.”
The production plant is in Dresden, Ontario. This Southern Ontario town is 130 km away from Aylmer, Ontario, in the Chatham-Kent municipality. Even if it is canned in Dresden, owners kept the original name. A new name did materialize when Aylmer merged with Gatineau in 2002. A picture of a tomato can labeled Gatineau Tomatoes circulated and got lots of laughs. “That wouldn't be too bad for sales, but Hull Tomatoes would hurt,” chuckled Muley. “I think the name Hull would fit better for a strong beer.”
While many believe the name of the product refers to Aylmer, Ontario, Don Roberts, an Aylmer Tomato plant manager for the past 35 years, thinks otherwise. “I heard from old-timers that it was named for a town in Quebec,” he remarked. “Come to think of it, I’m an old-timer myself now,” chuckled the 57-year-old. “Quebecers always supported the label and because of the allegiance we had and still have with Quebec, I always thought it was true.” According to a ConAgra Foods marketing representative, “sales in Quebec represent roughly 40% of nationwide sales; Quebec is a huge market for canned tomatoes.”
While canned tomatoes are present in old Quebec cook books, Stephen Francom, archivist and manager at the Elgin County Archives, encompassing the town of Aylmer, was unable to find anything in his dusty books relating the brand to Aylmer, Ontario. “We haven’t found anything linking the brand name to the canning industry here in Southern Ontario,” said Francom. “It might simply remain a commercial mystery.”
Roberts adds that in the past, Canadian Canners owned Aylmer Tomatoes and the defunct company operated plants in Quebec. “I’m familiar with Aylmer Ontario, it’s just about an hour’s drive away, and I doubt the brand name is not from there,” he added. Local Aylmer Quebec writer Michael P. MacDonald believes the name of the brand refers to Aylmer, Ontario, not Aylmer, Quebec. “I don’t see the connection with Aylmer, Quebec,” noted Macdonald, who lived-in Chatham-Kent.
He did discover the presence of tomato farmers in Aylmer, Quebec. “While doing research for my book Poolroom and Politics, I found a letter to the editor in the Ottawa Citizen from an Eardley Road tomato farmer,” said Macdonald. The farmer was A.J. Nesbitt. His letter responded to Jack Couture, the founder of Aylmer’s Cow Watcher Society. It stated: I am gardener farmer so I cannot show them any cows. However, I can show them 30,000 tomato plants already four inches high.
Joseph Rider, author of The Way it Was, a book looking back at his 40-years in the canning industry finally closed the debate. “I have the story right here,” he said over the phone. “Seven men registered the Aylmer brand on June 16, 1881 in Aylmer Ontario,” he said. “Yes, they just named their company after the town.”
It is fitting that Rider, the man nicknamed closing Joe, because plants he managed always shut down during the outsourcing of labour to foreign countries, would close this argument.