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Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce business awards announced

When the pandemic arrived in early 2020 and shutdowns quickly followed, Dean Troiani realized the business he runs in Sarnia with his brother, Mark Troiani, and their families would have to change.

When the pandemic arrived in early 2020 and shutdowns quickly followed, Dean Troiani realized the business he runs in Sarnia with his brother, Mark Troiani, and their families would have to change.

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The brothers’ late father, Albert Troiani, started Sarnia Produce in 1976 following more than 20 years of working in the produce distribution business after arriving in Canada from Italy in 1952.

Distroscale

“When the pandemic hit us, it was a double-edged sword,” Dean Troiani said. “We lost all our wholesale business and, rather than close, we had to be very adaptable.”

Restaurants and many other local businesses temporarily closed during the initial shutdowns ordered by the provincial government.

“I decided, ‘I think this is going to be here for a long time; we have to keep people working – what can we do?’”

Troiani said he could see the community needed services it could access online during the shutdowns.

“We were probably one of the first companies to offer curbside” pickup in the community, he said.

“It was almost instantaneous. We fielded a lot of calls from people coming back from vacation who were quarantined.”

A light went on “and I thought, ‘This is going to be a big need for this community,’” Troiani said.

“Successful companies learn to adapt to the environment – to the ever-changing conditions – so we made a quick transition.”

Sarnia Produce launched an e-commerce website in just a few weeks, and it “just blossomed from there,” Troiani said.

“It’s still a huge part of our business. The retail end just picked up steam and rolled,”

This week, the Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce announced its 2021 Ontario Business Achievement Awards, naming Troiani Entrepreneur of the Year.

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“It’s a huge honour – a huge accolade – not only for myself, but for our staff and our work family,” he said. “It has been wonderful.”

Bluewater Power was named Business of the Year, and awards were given in several other categories.

An awards gala originally scheduled for October was postponed to January because of renovations at the Imperial Theatre, and then new provincial restrictions after Christmas closed live performance venues and the event was cancelled.

“It’s nothing compared to the journey many businesses have been on” during the pandemic, chamber CEO Allan Calvert said about the challenges his office faced trying to hold the gala.

Instead, he visited the winners this week to deliver the trophies handcrafted by Tim and Kim Eberle from the wood of crabapple trees that grew near their home in Sarnia.

Artists Tim and Kim Eberle are shown with one of the Sarnia-Lambton Chamber of Commerce 2021 Ontario Business Achievement Awards trophies they handmade. Handout

“You truly are an inspiration to all those in our local business community,” the chamber said in a news release announcing the winners. “We look forward to a time in the future when a more sizable community celebration will be appropriate.”

As well as changing the way it delivered services, Sarnia Produce embarked on an expansion and built a new retail market on Lite Street in Petrolia, next to its building where it had offered a small retail area for the public.

The new 1,022-square-metre (11,000-square-foot) Sarnia Produce Marketplace building opened in early November.

It was “very well received” by existing customers “and we attracted a lot of new business,” Troiani said.

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But the family business first had to get past the challenge of building during a pandemic, with the cost rising to more than $5 million from an earlier estimate of $4 million, and delays in the delivery of construction materials.

“It was really an eye-opener for us,” Troiani said. “I didn’t think we’d see waits for windows and doors for a year. It was insane.”

The market sells produce along with locally baked goods and other food items, as well as pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven installed in the market.

“We wanted to have a novelty,” Troiani said, “but it looks like we’ve created a monster. It’s a business in itself and it just took off.”

He said they plan to expand that part of the business and offer more ready-to-go hot food choices.

Sarnia Produce has nearly 50 workers, compared to 18 in late 2020.

“We look forward to the challenges ahead and we want to diversify and continue to grow and support our community,” Troiani said. “We love what we do.”

Other winners:
  • Agri-Business, Forest Glen Herb Farm and B & B
  • Customer Service, business category, The Shoebox
  • Tech-novation, GFL Environmental
  • Cool Place to Work, Johnny G’s Premium Pizza
  • Customer Service, individual category, Rina Barker, Imperial City Brew House
  • Inclusivity, Beth Kolthoff, The Eye Guy
  • Non-Profit Organization of the Year, Life’s Seasons Care & Support Inc.

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