THE EDIBLE MAN: DAVE NICHOL, PRESIDENT’S CHOICE & THE MAKING OF POPULAR TASTE By Anne Kingston (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 365 pages, $26.95)
Dave Nichol is a dog man. He has owned a succession of French bulldogs whose pugnacious faces have become almost as familiar as his own. Nichol, the only Canadian food-industry leader who might be recognized in a checkout line, would routinely dress the dogs up in T-shirts or hats that matched his own and pose with them to advertise his President’s Choice (PC) line for the Loblaw chain. In her account of Nichol’s rise to supermarket stardom, Toronto reporter Anne Kingston links his goofy affection for canines to his decision to create an Italian meal for dogs. The Edible Man documents how a pet-food manufacturer had to try 40 recipes before he came up with a mixture of meat, tomato sauce, macaroni, olive oil and spices that satisfied Nichol. Although Kingston does not back it up with personal research, she quotes Nichol’s recent business associate, Gerry Pencer, on the quality of the product: “You could put PC Gourmet Italian Dog Food next to Chef Boyar-dee in a blind taste test, and PC would win.” More important, Nichol called the market right. Even priced at $1.59 a can—while Bee-
faroni, an Italian-style dinner for people, sold for 99 cents—dog owners lapped up Gourmet Italian. It was another triumph for Nichol, the flamboyant former product developer for Loblaw Companies Ltd. Nichol, now 54, left Loblaw in 1993, ending a 21-year association. In 1972, armed with degrees in commerce and law, he joined the food company, after a long friendship with Galen Weston, son of the family that owned Loblaw. Along with Weston and Richard Currie, now chairman and president respectively, Nichol set about revitalizing the stodgy chain, which spans all the provinces. Despite the trio’s success, in 1984, Nichol was appointed president of a new division with the mandate to develop storebrand products—in effect a demotion. But as Kingston points out in her entertaining ramble through Nichol’s life—and the supermarket world in which he operates—Nichol went on to make his biggest mark there.
In his vigorous efforts to develop No-Name gourmet brands that could rival heavily advertised national products, Nichol found a role for his big ego. Appearing in his first TV commercial in 1986, he was stiff, untelegenic—and endearingly down-to-earth. Shoppers believed his corny sales pitches and trusted that his taste for the mildly exotic matched theirs.
But in her authorized biography, Kingston portrays Nichol as quite different from the
common-man image he projected in Loblaw’s advertising. He referred to his customers as the “unwashed masses.” And, although he loves food, his tastes were refined by a massive Loblaw expense account that allowed him to jet around the world dining at exclusive restaurants. His preferences ran to classic French cuisine loaded with butter, meat and calories. Although in later years he did bow to pressure and introduced healthier, lower-fat food, he personally remained, she writes, a “triple cream cheese kind of guy.”
Nichol resisted the notion of introducing a President’s Choice salsa for months, even ridiculing the buyer who was pushing it. Kingston writes that Nichol, the son of a small-town Ontario stationmaster, disliked the notion of spicy food because he thought of it as peasant fare. Eventually, Nichol succumbed to the pleas of his product developers and introduced salsa. And Kingston notes that by the time he started touting it as the best-selling salsa in the country in 1992, he was taking all the credit. He claimed that he heard about it from a lawyer on a flight from Hawaii.
Despite his personal preferences, Nichol mostly understood his customers’ tastes. That, combined with his insistence that product developers meet his requirements of high quality and low prices, revolutionized the private-label business (that is, foods created by and/or for stores, and not by food giants). With President’s Choice, he launched products that consumers perceived as being even better than national brands. Despite Nichol’s success, his bosses reacted coolly. “Publicly, Currie declared that No Name—not President’s Choice—was the real money maker for the company,” writes Kingston. “ ‘Turkeys are very dumb birds,’ Currie said, explaining the role of President’s Choice within Loblaw. ‘In order to get them to eat, farmers put glass pellets into their regular food. The glass is shiny. It attracts them. So they come to eat. That’s what President’s Choice is to us: it brings shoppers into the store.’ ”
A year ago, Nichol and Loblaw announced that they were parting ways. The split prompted speculation in business circles of wrongdoing on Nichol’s part, but Kingston suggests that her subject chose to leave because he felt unappreciated. He now has a loose association with Pencer’s company, Cott Corp., a private-label soft drink manufacturer. And what has Nichol’s departure meant for Loblaw? Kingston reports that some employees believe that energy has been sapped from the company. “He may have been a bully,” says one Loblaw staffer, “but he pushed everyone to the limit and created a lot of enthusiasm.” Consumers can still buy President’s Choice products. But now that the president is no longer the bulldog-wielding Dave Nichol, it remains to be seen whether PC products will continue to be the shoppers’ choice.
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