A passion for food
Aliments Mer et Monde is a labour of love for former grocer Normand Duchemin
By Mark Cardwell
If there’s one thing Normand Duchemin likes more than food, it’s business opportunities.
So when he saw the huge demand for the homemade sausages he was making in the back of his IGA store in Montreal, the longtime grocer decided to get into the deli meat processing business in a big way.
The result was Aliments Mer et Monde. Founded by Duchemin and one of his sons 15 years ago in the industrial park of Le Gardeur, a mainland town opposite the northeast tip of the Island of Montreal, the company has grown from a half-dozen products made by four people to nearly 160 products made by more 100 employees.
Sales have enjoyed similar growth, from $800,000 in the company’s first year of operation to an estimated $17.5 million in 2016. New products, new customers and new markets – notably in Ontario – are in the works. “It’s very nice,” says Duchemin. “I never could have imagined any of this when we first started making sausages.”
In many ways, Aliments Mer et Monde is the final destination in Duchemin’s long journey in the Quebec food business. It began in 1959 when Duchemin, a newly minted high school graduate with plans to study engineering at college, got a summer job in the produce department of a Steinberg’s store in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Henri.
“They obviously liked me because they asked me to become produce manager, which I did,” recalls Duchemin, now 75. “I quickly learned that I loved everything about the grocery business: marketing, selling, buying, customer relations, you name it.”
Over the next 25 years, Duchemin worked his way steadily up through the company’s ranks as store manager, district manager, and finally vice-president of Operations. In 1984, he and fellow vice-president Jacques Lacas left Steinberg’s to build and open a new 12,000-sq.-ft. store under the IGA banner in Saint-Laurent, one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in Montreal and Canada.
“I chose IGA because of their humanity and their relations with their store owners and suppliers,” explains Duchemin.
Over the next 20 years, the partners owned and operated up to four IGA stores in and around Montreal. Duchemin notably brought all three of his sons – Richard, Jean and Daniel – into the business. Together they initiated what they say were several grocery store firsts for Montreal, including an in-store café with a coffee roaster imported from Italy, and an in-store pizzeria with pies made using the Duchemin family’s own sauce and pepperoni.
“I’m crazy about food,” says Duchemin, who also imported specialty items like Argentine olive oil and Austrian pumpkin oil for high-end Montreal restaurants and chefs. “I could talk to you 24 hours about it without stopping. My kids are the same.”
It was in the store on Keller Boulevard in Saint-Laurent in 1994 that Duchemin started making artisanal deli products like sausages, hams, cretons and even smoked salmon with meat manager Alain Laplaine. “We had a little nine-by-18-ft. space where we experimented and learned to make products for all the stores,” says Duchemin. “Most sales though were in Saint-Laurent, which has people from 71 different ethnic groups and countries, including many European countries where deli meats are popular. Back then there wasn’t a lot of variety in deli. My customers were always asking me, ‘Monsieur Duchemin, when are you going to make a new flavour or sausage or ham?’ I quickly realized there was a real demand for these products.”
In 2000, Duchemin sold his interests in the IGA store on Keller to two of his sons (they recently closed the store and opened a new 52,000-sq.-ft. IGA nearby), and convinced his son Jean to join him in a new venture he christened Aliments Mer et Monde. “I was due for a change,” says Jean, who had been running the Keller store with his brothers. “I wanted to give wholesale a try [and] I have no regrets. I love it.” Duchemin also convinced Laplaine to join them. “I told Alain that when the bottom line reached the amount of my investment, I would give him a share,” he says. “Very soon it did, and I gave him 24 per cent of the shares.”
The new company proved successful from the start. Located in a small 5,300-sq.-ft. plant that Duchemin built on a small lot in the industrial park in Le Gardeur, which is today part of the larger municipality of Repentigny, it started making several lines of products for his own IGA stores, as well as for stores owned by the many friends he had made during his long career in the Quebec grocery business. “We had 25 lines being made by three people – a meat manager, a cutter and a wrapper,” says Duchemin. “But our biggest seller was and still is fresh sausage.”
It was a visit from a Sobeys buyer however that changed the start-up company’s fortunes. “They were trying to develop different sausage brands and they asked several suppliers to bid on that,” says Duchemin. “They visited our plant and said we were too small to supply the 5,000 kg a week of sausages they wanted for their stores. But I bid anyway and won, because we offered the lowest price and had good tasting stuff. And our being small wasn’t a problem, since we were able to make 10,000 kg in a single day.”
As production and sales grew “a million dollars a year every year until this year, when it will be more,” says Duchemin, the company moved into a new 23,000-sq.-ft. facility two streets away in 2009. Since then it has been running three shifts every day, including two production shifts in the daytime and a washing shift overnight.
Most of the 158 different products the plant makes from beef, pork, chicken, lamb, boar, bison, duck and deer (“everything but rabbit, which is too expensive,” notes Duchemin) are private label. Chief among them are Sensation and Compliments for Sobeys. “We also supply all their stores with fresh sausages,” says Duchemin. “We process and ship two trailers a day. That’s a lot of sausage.”
Other items include Moishes steaks (also for Sobeys), Nagano brand pork products, prepared meals for Super C stores, and cooked sausage for Metro. A recent customer is Ecolait, which is producing several veal products, including bacon and ham. The Duchemins also produce their own Marketere brand of fresh sausage for Super C and Metro.
“Every day we are developing something new,” says Duchemin. “And everything that we put on the market has to go through my mouth first, and more than one time.” New market opportunities, he adds, also abound. “We’ve done very well in Quebec, and now we’re being pushed to go into Ontario,” adds Duchemin. His company is notably producing beef bacon under the Joe Beef label, which Les Viandes Première sells in some 250 stores in and around the Toronto area.
Despite having the room to expand another 18,000 sq. ft., Duchemin says he will leave any future plant expansions or outside acquisitions up to his younger partners. “I still work six days a week and I love it,” he says. “But I’m 75 now and one day I’ll have to stop, like my wife wants me to.”