Dave Nichol had a knack for making bold bets that paid off in spades.
Case in point: More than three decades ago, the former executive at Loblaw Cos. Ltd. was walking by the firm’s purchasing offices when he spotted a supplier pitching pita breads to one of the grocer’s buyers. It was 1979, and the product was virtually unheard of in mainstream supermarkets.
Intrigued, Mr. Nichol intervened, tasted the flatbreads and, “within seconds,” decided to stock them in Loblaw stores under its fledgling No Name private label, recalls Sam Ajmera, owner of the bakery that made them and still a Loblaw vendor today.
“He said, ‘You’re going to be my pita bread man,’” says Mr. Ajmera. “We shook hands on it.”
Mr. Nichol, who died in Toronto on Sept. 22 of complications from diabetes at the age of 73, was known to a generation of Canadians as the face of Loblaw. Star of the grocer’s signature television commercials and Insider’s Report magazine, he was the folksy pitchman for then-exotic items such as salsa and Memories of Szechwan peanut sauce under Loblaw’s President’s Choice and No Name store brands.
But in the corporate world, he made his mark for doing even more. As an innovative product developer and food expert, he put a stamp of legitimacy on private labels, transforming them from humble, low-cost merchandise to must-have brands. In the process, he sped up the shift to retailers taking more control of their shelves and giving their own products prime space, pinching the previously reigning brand-name manufacturers.
“His marketing and food prowess brought the President’s Choice and No Name products to Canadians,” says W. Galen Weston, chairman of Loblaw parent George Weston Ltd. As boss of Loblaw at the time, Mr. Weston hired Mr. Nichol in 1972 to help revive the company’s fortunes.
“He travelled the world extensively to bring unique and affordable products to Canadians. He was a voracious food tester and only accepted the highest quality of products at great prices.”
Mr. Nichol had a nose for introducing new foods to people, says Mr. Ajmera, who became a friend and travelled with him to find new products.
Still, the No Name pita breads weren’t an instant success. Initially Mr. Nichol called them “sandwich pouches” because he felt consumers wouldn’t be familiar with pita breads. But customers were confused, thinking that “sandwich pouches” were sandwich bags. And the bread went stale if stored in the pantry for long periods, resulting in customer complaints, says Mr. Ajmera, co-founder of FGF Brands.
Mr. Nichol reintroduced the No Name product as pita bread, and it took off with the help of his backing. Years later, he promoted Mr. Ajmera’s President’s Choice Splendido pizza crust, which was an immediate hot seller, among others.
What some saw as flaws in Mr. Nichol – a big ego, impatience and a tendency to get bored quickly – worked in his favour at Loblaw, pushing him to constantly search further afield for the next big thing, says grocery consultant Tom Stephens, who worked with him at Loblaw in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“He was as important to the food industry as Steve Jobs was to the computer and telephone industry,” Mr. Stephens says.
In 1993, Mr. Nichol left Loblaw for private-label beverage producer Cott Corp. His mandate was to bolster store brands for retailers globally, but he wasn’t able to achieve the same level of success or the high profile he had enjoyed at Loblaw.
An early passion for food
David Alexander Nichol was born Feb. 9, 1940, in Chatham, Ont., the youngest of four children. His father, John, a train station agent, and mother, Gladys, lived with their brood above a tire store. When John came home with the newborn, he told the three older children, “That guy is sure to put all you kids to shame,” according to The Edible Man: Dave Nichol, President’s Choice and the Making of Popular Taste by author Anne Kingston.
His father came from a poor family while his mother was raised on a well-off farm in Cedar Springs, Ont. Gladys was a skilled cook whose signature apple pie and roast beef helped draw boarders to the rooming house she ran in Chatham in the 1930s.