Les Mets du Commensal serves up healthy synergies
Quebec restaurant and prepared health foods operator targets the Anglo market

Signs that Quebecers are increasingly concerned about the quality of the food they eat are everywhere. L'Actualité magazine recently ran a cover story on the subject. And GMO labeling and product traceability formed the centerpiece of Quebec Liberal party leader Jean Charest's recently announced agricultural platform.

One company that is well positioned to profit from the trend is Montreal based restaurant operator and health foods manufacturer Les Mets du Commensal.

"The frozen, natural and prepared foods markets are all expected to grow (in the double digits), during the next few years," said Lise Bilodeau, the company's president and chief executive officer. "And we make products in all three categories."

Les Mets du Commensal was founded in 1977, when two local entrepreneurs opened a health food restaurant on Saint-Denis street. The concept caught on quickly and several new outlets were added during the ensuing years.

During mid 1990s, the company got into food preparation business. Today packaged products, which account for about 80 per cent of Le Commensal's $20 million in annual revenues, are available in most major Quebec chains such as Loblaws and Metro.

The company's 400 employees produce about 50 different products including quiches, pastas, rolls and deserts. The products are all vegetarian, GMO free, and made with a minimum of hydrogenated fat and contain no preservatives. The company also manages eight restaurants, four of which are franchised.

The restaurant and prepared foods business lines complement each other well. Le Commensal's restaurant customers are among the most likely to buy its prepared foods and vice-versa.

Despite the group's success, there were several changes in the ownership structure over the years, most recently in 2001, when La Fondation Lucie et André Chagnon bought the operation and installed Bilodeau as president, with a mandate to grow the chain. (The foundation includes about $1,4 billion, which the Chagnon family put into it, subsequent the sale of its stake in Videotron to Quebecor).

Bilodeau's first priority at Le Commensal is to build market share among anglophones. "Although we are better known among francophones, English Canadians are more interested in vegetarian cuisine," Bilodeau said. "It's a natural market for us."

According to a 2002 study by Descarie & Complices, commissioned by Le Commensal, 55 per cent of Montreal anglophones are somewhat or very interested in vegetarian cuisine, compared to just 38% of francophones. However 67 per cent of francophones know of, or have heard about Le Commensal, compared to just 39 per cent of anglophones and allophones.

Changing that will be Bilodeau's biggest challenge. It's a big step up for the Beaconsfield resident, who studied chemical engineering in university. After graduation she took on a wide range of increasingly complex mandates, including most recently a stint at auto parts distributor UAP Inc., where she was vice-president in charge of organizational support.

But Bilodeau's task will not be easy. Le Commensal grew its business through word of mouth and the fact that the company puts most of its available money into healthy, biological, GMO-free ingredients leaves little room for big advertising campaigns.

Nowhere is the company's policy of putting its money where its mouth is on health issues, more evident than in its GMO-free products. Although, keeping genetically modified organisms of the production chain may seem simple, it's anything but.

GMOs have so penetrated the food system, that many GMO-free items, particularly in categories such as corn and soya, are prohibitively expensive or hard to get. That means Le Commensal products cost more than competitor's.

But according to one activist, many are willing to pay the difference. "Most customers, something like 95 per cent, want GMO product labeling," said Eric Darier, a Greenpeace spokesman. "And two-thirds would prefer non-GMO foods. I think anyone who caters to this market over the long term is very clever."

Bilodeau knows that to get the growth she wants, Le Commensal will have to expand beyond its Quebec base. To do so, she recently initiated a complete re-design of the company's packaging line. The new look, which was designed and tested among Ontario consumers, features a Pillsbury-dough-boy-style animated character, and a new brand name: Le Petit Chef.

The package designs' dominant colour is green, which highlights the products' vegetarian and health characteristics. According to one customer the change, announced in November, is already showing results.

"We have seen a noticeable increase in sales, in several categories," said Marie-Claude Nicole, a category manager at Metro Inc. "The new look really stands out on the shelves, and its getting attention."

While Bilodeau is trying to get shelf space in Ontario retail outlets, she has also hired a local manager to start scouting out locations for as many as two dozen new restaurants planned for the next two to three years, which would bring the chain to more than 30 outlets.

"The foodservice industry is going to grow quickly during the next few years," Bilodeau said. "And we want to be part of it."


Photo caption: Lise Bilodeau took over as president of Le Commensal in 2001, with a mandate to grow the its restaurant chain and prepared foods division. The company expects to quadruple its outlets to more than 30 during the next three years.



o Le Commensal opened in 1977 when two health food aficionados opened their first restaurant on Saint-Denis Street.
o The outlets popularity grew steadily, and over the years seven more restaurants were opened
o During the mid-1990s, the chain decided to launch its line of prepared foods. These were an immediate success and now comprise about 80 per cent of total sales.
o In 2001 the Chagnon family trust purchased the chain and gave Bilodeau the mandate to grow the business by targeting Quebec Anglos, Ontario and the U.S. market.
o Approximately two dozen new restaurants will be opened during the next three years.







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