Frequent flyer earns bonus points for good taste

How many Aeroplan points has Oleen Smethurst earned in the last year? That offbeat question is a window into one of the most travelled women in Canadian produce. 


As assistant vice-president, general merchandise manager for produce and a 28-year veteran of Costco, Smethurst meets growers where they live. She’s at ease sliding out of a pickup truck and at home talking with vineyard pickers. She’s honed her listening skills since she started ordering produce in 2005.


“When I started, I had no idea that we sourced produce from more than 25 countries,” says Smethurst. “Growers have taught me produce. They have mentored and educated me.”


Fast forward and she’s part of a 30-member produce team that regularly visits the Fruit Logistica trade show in Berlin, Germany. She is motivated by the quest for flavour. This might sound simplistic, but that singular insight drives the search for ever more tasty varieties that hold their shelf life. 


A decade ago, the produce industry was grateful for the capacity of Canadian greenhouses to produce beefsteak tomatoes out of season. Since then, the search for flavour has evolved, starting with seed companies.  Smaller tomatoes pack more flavour, says Smethurst, and they account for an entire new category of snacking tomatoes.  


Members of the Costco team now visit select hothouse seed companies twice a year in Holland, Spain and Italy to taste test new varieties and to share directions in consumer preferences.  The third meeting brings everyone together in Leamington, Ontario to give the thumbs up on final selections. 


“This has been a game changer for us,” says Smethurst. “It’s a massive challenge to get the best of everything. But in the greenhouse tomato category, by presenting flavour, we see the results in sales.” 


For the entire cover story, go to:​


Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, goes 'Behind the Scenes' of this story and speaks with Oleen on everything from reducing our carbon footprint to packaging alternatives.  Listen to the podcast here.



Publish date: 
Friday, October 25, 2019

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