Edlyn Diaz places sliced ham into a scale at Tony’s Meats in Antigonish. The local business has been employing people in the community for more than 50 years and is working on expanding beyond the Atlantic Provinces. PHOTO: Emily Hiltz
Local business longevity can be a rare entity but Tony’s Meats has got it.
The Antigonish business began in 1963 and after more than 50 years, they’re still going strong. Today, they process a number of brands, including a Nova Scotia favourite, Mr. Donair.
“I think now we can be recognized for a number of brands: The Tony’s brand and the Mr. Donair brand, the amount of private label business we do for retailers and food service,” general manager Dan MacGillivray said.
“We do a lot of processing through this facility that people have no idea about.”
Originally, when the plant started in 1963, the focus was on marketing an animal. Processors had to break the animal down into all its components to add value to each part.
In 1984, Tony’s began the production of fresh sausages and two years later expanded to include bacon, ham and deli meats.
Finally, in 1987, they launched the Tony’s brand name and expanded throughout northeastern Nova Scotia and up until 2013, they slaughtered their meat on site.
Through their ownership of the Mr. Donair brand, which was purchased in 2005, Tony’s is working to expand their business beyond the borders of the Maritimes.
The donair was first introduced in Halifax by brothers Peter and John Kamoulakos. They opened a restaurant in Bedford in the early 1970s to share their love of the gyro with Haligonians. The gyro eventually became the donair and John went on to open Mr. Donair Ltd., supplying donair products and pizza to restaurants.
Tony’s had manufactured for the Mr. Donair brand since 1995 and when they purchased Mr. Donair in 2005, it fit well into their business. Since then, the Mr. Donair brand has doubled in sales.
“We’ve really taken it to the next level in food service and retail with other varieties, such as pre-cooked and sliced,” sales manager Aaron Tingley said.
“There’s transient work for us because a huge number of Nova Scotians are going to Western provinces to work,” MacGillivray added.
“They know donair and they know what it’s about.”
Tingley said he believes much of the business’s strength is in food service.
“When somebody is in a restaurant in Fort McMurray or some other part of the country, they can relate it to Mr. Donair and the home of the donair,” he said.
Donairs are also trending. Tony’s has been looking at data that suggests there is a growing excitement around Middle Eastern food like falafel and shawarma.
“Our version of donair is a little spicier than some that are out there and people’s appetites are ready for it,” product, research and development manager Lenita Hanson said.
“We feel like now is a good time to really increase that presence across the country and potentially the U.S.”
The managers are also looking at some changes for the Tony’s brand. What began as bacon and ham is now being developed into products that are innovative and unique to take the Tony’s brand to the next level and produce high volume.
“That’s where we see some opportunities,” Tingley said.
“We’re on the cusp of some really good things.”
The food industry has gone through several changes over the years and many federally inspected plants, like Tony’s, haven’t been able to stay afloat. Though the changes have opened up a larger market, it’s also more competitive.
“We’re not on the small farmer’s market scale, we’re in between that market and the large company,” MacGillivray said.
“This business here is a real niche because number one, we’re still here and many other companies have closed.”
Tony’s employs 50 people, including at their restaurant, The Prissy Pig on St. Andrews Street, and the business is also farmer-owned.
In 2007, when Tony Overmars retired, he sold the company to a group of farmers who wanted to see the business continue to bring employment and opportunity to Nova Scotia. Many of the Tony’s employees have been with the company for more than 25 years.
“I think it’s a very unique business because I can say we are very small compared to who we’re competing with,” MacGillivray said.
“We’re competing against the Maple Leafs of this world but we’re small, we’re local and we have the personal connections with good service and retailers and I think that goes a long way.”
“It’s a unique opportunity to produce products you can find in people’s homes and you can see out there.
“You’re feeding people and that’s important,” Hanson added.