New product lines keep old cannery thriving

Dec. 20

Sprague Foods Ltd. is not the last canning factory still operating in Canada, but it is certainly the last cannery standing of dozens which once operated in the Quinte area.

Furthermore, with a solid reputation for quality, several new product lines and sharply expanded facilities in recent years, the company continues to thrive and expand its markets, said Rick Sprague, fourth generation canner and president of the family business.

An interview with Sprague and his wife, Jane, and a tour of the busy plant occurred just as it was preparing to make its first-ever shipment of a large quantity of canned black beans to Japan. The shipment marks a complete new market for the local cannery, which has been shipping across Canada, to many parts of the United States and the Caribbean for some years.

"We've been told that if you can sell to Japan, you can sell anywhere," said Jane, looking forward to more new markets in the future.

Sprague traced how his great-grandfather, famous for starting a local independent telephone company based at Mountain View, started the canning business with local tomatoes and other Prince Edward County produce in 1925. He decided he didn't like it and turned that business over to his son.

Rick said he still recalls the original factory, with all of the belts required to operate the mechanical equipment powered by a large tractor parked outside the frame building.

His grandfather and father expanded that business, adapting to new markets and products as frozen foods edged out many canned goods starting in the 1960s. Even when all the canneries which once operated in the area had closed, the Sprague family invested in a modern new plant at Mountain View and carried on with various specialty lines of dried beans. That 7,000 square foot plant outgrew itself by the mid-1990s and the present 33,000 square foot plant was built on College Street East in Belleville in 1994.

Rick traces his own interest in food and canning back to helping his two grandmothers and his mother cook homemade soups and stews and other dishes as a child. He went on to graduate in food science from the University of Guelph.

New products since the move have included some specialty soups which are now being marketed across Canada, including Walmart stores. There are even prospects of getting them placed in the United States Walmart chain, said Sprague. Now canning several varieties of pulses (beans, peas and lentils) and an ever expanding line of healthy soups, the plant has about 30 product lines, running a different product each day. In recent months, another new development has been added by using glass jars instead of cans, and cooking the product by steam heated super hot water right in the container. That has the advantage of more product and less water and also more flavour and nutrition, the Spragues explained.

In terms of quality and cleanliness, Sprague Foods is certified by the British Retail Consortium, rated as the most stringent standards in the world and placing the plant in a good position to take advantage of European markets in the future. Since some of its product lines are of organic produce, it is also certified by Pro-Cert Organic.

"Our plant is like a huge artisan kitchen," said Sprague, of the flavours and qualities developed.

While new sales and product lines have forced many changes in production methods, the present facility is adequate for more expansion.