Many Albertans are more than familiar with the Sunterra brand: the company’s markets, cafés, and catering services are an established part of urban life in both Calgary and Edmonton.
Most of us know Sunterra as a place to grab a specialty gourmet item or an inexpensive but healthy lunch or take-home dinner, but there’s a whole second division of the company that many market customers aren’t aware of.
Sunterra started as, and is still very much, a farm-based company. The Price siblings — who, to varying degrees, own and operate the Sunterra markets that we all know and love — grew up on their parents’ farm near Acme, which continues to be not only providing Sunterra customers with premium pork products, but also ships high quality Alberta pork all over the world.
This year Sunterra Markets celebrates its 30th anniversary, while Sunterra Farms celebrates a whopping 50 years, though the Price family’s farming roots go back even further than that. In addition to some grain cropping that’s primarily sold through the commodity market, Sunterra is primarily focused on hogs — raising, processing, and selling its own pork. The company raises about 400,000 pigs a year between its Alberta farm and additional properties in Ontario and the United States, with up to 80 percent of them being shipped to lucrative markets in Asia.
“We’re a bit of an oddity because there are a lot of producers that are smaller, but also many that are much bigger. We’re sort of medium sized,” says Ray Price, the Sunterra Group’s president. “And if you look at us as a food company, we’re relatively tiny. So, we’re actually a pretty good sized farming company, but a very small food company.”
Much of Sunterra’s success, particularly with foreign markets, has to do with the quality and breeding of its pigs — Price says that the Japanese market in particular demands a certain level of quality, which is also present in the pork you’ll find in Sunterra’s markets, essentially the only place you’ll find the products in Alberta. In addition to different processing techniques that come with its relatively small processing plant, Sunterra has nurtured a breed of pig that Price believes is genetically superior to the typical pork found on grocery store shelves.
“Our genetics give the pork a higher marbling — which gives more juiciness to the meat,” Price says. “The feed we use also has a big impact. The wheat and barley rations we use give you a firmer fat that doesn’t cook the same way. The meat is also a deeper pink, and that all comes from the feed.”
While Japanese consumers prize these qualities, it’s somewhat rare for Canadians to even notice differences between different breeds or kinds of pork, despite our relatively keen interest in genetics and feeding methods when it comes to Alberta beef. That’s why Sunterra mostly reserves its pork that stays in Alberta for its own shops, where they can sell specifically to niche customers who are interested in higher-end meat, while providing some education at the till or deli counter.
In addition to fresh cook-at-home pork cuts, this includes bacon and other meat processed in partnership with Valbella Meats in Canmore and Sunterra’s increasingly sought-after Soleterra D’Italia line of Italian-style cured meats produced right here in Alberta.
Soleterra D’Italia has been a unique product for Sunterra Farms. Beginning in 2016, the company worked directly with Italian sausage makers to formulate recipes that would mirror the quality of sausages and ham found in Italy. The Soleterra D’Italia products are all made in Acme, but look and taste like imported Italian meats — made even better thanks to that well-bred and fed Alberta pork. The line includes salami, prosciutto, mortadella and other cured meats, all available at Sunterra stores (and are utilized in many of the cafés’ hot meals), as well as Co-Op stores in the Calgary area.
Ultimately, Sunterra Markets and Sunterra Farms work symbiotically: the stores and cafés provide a market for the pork products, and the pork quality differentiates the stores from other specialty shops. It’s a smart system and one that bolsters the success of both businesses. As more and more food enterprises embrace the concept of farm-to-table and even try to develop their own farms to help create a closed loop, Price and his family take pride in the fact that it’s simply the way that they’ve always done business.
“The genesis behind the Sunterra stores was always that we were producing with our pork didn’t work with regular retailers,” Price says. “As naïve farmers we thought the best way to get our product to market was to serve it directly to consumers. We knew that we had to have talented chefs, because they would recognize and enhance the quality. That’s always been the fit.”