Sysco grows in Langford

Sysco Victoria moves to a huge new warehouse in Langford and new owners take over the old Northern Junk buildings downtown.

Sysco Victoria, the biggest wholesaler of food and related supplies on Vancouver Island, has built a new 215,000-square-foot warehouse in Langford’s new industrial neighbourhood. Langford Lake is beyond the trees seen from the second-floor offices of Italian-born president Uby Lupozone, who’s been with the company since 1980 when there were just 10 staff. Then it was called North Douglas Distributors, a European specialty food importer that immigrant Armando Barbon had started in the 1970s and sold to Sysco a decade ago. Now it has 210 employees, a number that rises to about 300 in the summer in line with the tourist economy.

The new food distribution centre on the 17½-acre site opened on the last weekend in October. Over the previous weeks, it was “preloaded” with product. Then, on the designated weekend, they shut off usual Saturday deliveries and moved 200,000 cases of food in 36 hours with its fleet of 21 semitrailers, 10 smaller trucks, and a borrowed fleet. Lozupone says the changeover was invisible for most customers. While it happened literally overnight, the switchover was just the last act in an immense logistical effort, the culmination of eight years of planning and construction.

The warehouse and second-floor office area is a straightforward design. “That was the easy part,” says Lozupone. The new plant is about 70 per cent bigger than the former North Douglas Sysco operation in Saanich, which had grown by degrees since the company located on Boleskine Road in 1979.


“We bought the road [behind the North Douglas plant] and expanded and expanded and finally bought the church. It just grew and grew,” he says. The road was renamed Barbon Place to honour the company founder.

By this decade, North Douglas Sysco had reached capacity in town. “The growth was definitely tied to population,” says Lozupone. No surprise, more people eat more food. The 1991 census counted 288,000 residents in the Capital Regional District. A decade later, it was 326,000, and today, there are an estimated 370,000 people in the CRD.

Sysco Victoria has also grown through acquisitions. Lozupone names off some of the more than two dozen food wholesale businesses here that have gone, some absorbed by Sysco: Pope, Slade & Stewart, McDonald’s Consolidated, Switzer, Victoria Unity Produce.

Sysco Victoria (since the move to Langford, the company dropped the North Douglas) says what it delivers in a year to customers from Victoria to Port Hardy would fill a hockey rink to a height of 30 metres. A $1.5-million “robo-forklift,” the first of its kind in Canada, is a feature of the dry storage area. It runs up and down a bay as long as a football field, climbing as high as 10 metres to slot product onto shelves. Its computer memory recalls where it put product and, as orders flow into the database from the 40-plus marketing reps, the forklift brings the items to shelves near the floor where employees can access them.

The building also has better temperature and humidity controls, essential when handling food. Depending on use, different areas of the building have their own temperature settings: dry storage, produce coolers, ice cream freezers, offices.

In its category, Sysco Victoria beat the new Vancouver convention centre and won a B.C. Hydro Power Smart award for its environmental controls. One feature: motion sensors turn on office lights when someone walks in and off when they’re vacant. Per square foot, the building is 40 per cent more energy efficient than the old building.

There are 146 Sysco locations in North America with a total of 47,000 employees. North Douglas never stopped growing and Sysco Victoria isn’t going to stand still at the new location where there’s room to expand to twice its size. “I’ve said to people, if you like change, this is the place,” says Lopuzone.

‘Junk’ Buildings Sold

They’ve been vacant for decades, and now a Vancouver developer has plans for the Northern Junk warehouses on Wharf Street.
Reliance Properties Inc. has renovated numerous heritage buildings in Vancouver, mostly in Gastown, and bought the Northern Junk buildings for $1.5 million from longtime owner Clara Kramer. Her late husband once had a scrap metal business there. Reliance general manager Jon Stovell says well-used old buildings are “structurally quite sound.”

The Northern Junk buildings are designated heritage, which prohibits exterior changes. One of them is stone and the other is mostly brick, and some suggest they are among the oldest in the city, built in the 1860s from stone ballast brought by sailing ships. Stovell thinks they may be a decade or two more recent. “We have done a lot of buildings like this in Vancouver. We just love heritage buildings. We just couldn’t figure out how such a building could be boarded up on the waterfront,” he says. Merrick Architecture of Victoria will design the makeover, but there’s no firm concept yet.

While this is Reliance’s first Victoria project, the company owns 25 buildings in Vancouver, a mix of conventional older apartment blocks, heritage warehouse and office conversions, and live-work units. Funding programs for owners of heritage buildings were a factor in the purchase, says Stovell. “It’ll certainly require existing incentives.”

The finished project will apply for the city’s heritage tax break, which forgives property taxes for the first decade after completion, and for grants available for restoration work. The tax break is significant. For example, on a building assessed at $3 million, the restored building would be exempt from $69,000 a year in property taxes, at least $690,000 for the full decade using the business mill rate, not counting future tax rate increases. If it’s a residential building, the one-year tax exemption would be $18,500.

Reliance recently fixed up a Hastings Street building in Vancouver and created Vancouver’s smallest rental units, at 275 square feet, which rent for $675 a month. Three-dozen similar apartments could fit in Northern Junk’s two buildings, although Stovell says there will likely be a mix of commercial and residential.

The sale creates momentum for cleaning up old buildings in Old Towne. Last year, Kramer sold the Morley’s soda works building in Waddington Alley, which developer Chris Le Fevre is renovating for condos. Only the Janion Hotel remains, and it’s a possible Reliance acquisition, although there are some issues with control of the foreshore and an adjacent piece of property, says Stovell.