Leamington – Tomato Capital of Canada and the Mexican Connexion

Photo above:  “Remember to Hydrate” – Leamington water tower (Talbot rd. W, Leamington, Ontario; 2020)

NOTE: All photos in this post are mine, except when stated differently.

The whole province of Ontario has finally entered stage 3 of the re-opening of the economy plan during the COVID19 pandemic, in which businesses are resuming operations at their own pace, and people are allowed inside stores and restaurants as long as they wear masks and keep their distance from each other as much as possible.  My husband, one of our daughters and I had been following all the social distancing rules this summer, and now we wanted to make a day trip as a family, the first outing for the three of us together since last winter.  My daughter was craving donuts from Colasanti’s (1550 Road 3 E, Ruthven, ON), a gardening and family entertainment centre,  just a ten minute drive West of downtown Leamington, where I wanted to check out a couple of Mexican stores.   The region is connected to the rest of the province by highway 401, via highways 77 and 3:

We decided to go to Colasanti’s first, in case we ended up buying perishables in Leamington, so they would not be sitting in the car for too long.  Last summer, we visited the family centre, and we spent a couple of hours there, not just for the donuts, but playing mini golf, browsing in their green houses, and admiring the native and exotic animals in their small zoo (photos from 2019):

lama at Colasanti's My Slice of Mexico
Llamas are originally from South America, but are not an unusual sight on farms in Southern Ontario.

Pond with gold fish and turtles at Colasanti's
There are twenty species of native reptiles in the region.  In their many ponds, exotic fish and native turtles share their space.

This time around, though, our older daughter is in Japan, and we found the main entrance, leading to the entertainment centre, still locked, due to the pandemic:

The sign posted on the glass doors directed us to their back parking lot; there was an open door to the building, leading to a small area set up with some souvenirs, vegetables and plants for sale; a little further, the restaurant counter was staffed, and only two tables were occupied, with most people ordering food to go.  We checked out the merchandise, and bought our freshly fried old-fashioned donuts: 

002 donuts from Colasanti's

We ate some in the car (after sanitizing, of course).  It was sad to see the place so down-sized in activity, but I am sure they will survive the crisis; there was a consistent flow of cars in and out of the parking lot in the short time we were there, and we even spotted a wedding party taking photographs on the grounds!

As we made our way into Leamington, we started seeing several complexes of green houses, as well as produce markets:

Leamington is a municipality by the Northern shore of Lake Erie, incorporated as a township in 1876, when it was a centre for lumbering, and tobacco plantations.  In 1908, Heinz™ opened a processing plant, and tomato crops started to take over the region.  By the mid 1960s, the company had partially sponsored the construction of a giant tomato booth for tourist information, started a tomato-themed company picnic, and tobacco crops had declined almost to extinction.  Eventually, the picnic turned into the town’s annual Tomato Festival, and Leamington became known as the Tomato Capital of Canada.

In 2013, an investor group took over Heinz, and the Leamington plant was set to close down, but the tomato culture was by then deeply ingrained in the local consciousness and economy.  Sam Diab, a local entrepreneur, had inter-generational ties to the tomato industry: his grandfather was a caretaker at the Heinz plant, his parents harvested tomatoes as children, and his mother was a senior financial executive in the plant.  Sam Diab formed Highbury Canco with other two partners in the region, and managed to negotiate a contract with Heinz, mainly because shortly after the take over, the new Kraft-Heinz conglomerate realized that, unlike in the USA, Canada laws required tomato juice to be prepared from fresh tomatoes, not tomato paste; since the Leamington plant already had the technology and know-how in place, as stated by a Kraft-Heinz spokesperson “Highbury Canco was identified as the ideal partner that would benefit both the Leamington community and Kraft Heinz.”  Last fall, Highbury Canco announced a renewed agreement with Kraft Heinz Canada, and has tripled its business since the 2013 ominous closure announcement, when over 700 employees were going to lose their jobs.  In 2014, the plant reopened with only 250 employees, but as of February of this year, Highbury Canco reported 650 full-time employees and 200 seasonal workers.

In addition to this success story, Leamington boasts the largest concentration of commercial greenhouses in all of North America (many of them hydroponic), and the title of the Tomato Capital of Canada goes along with being amongst the country’s top producers of peppers, cucumbers, flowers, and more recently, cannabis.  This offers plenty of opportunities for seasonal workers to find jobs in the region; for migrant workers, mostly from Central America and Mexico, it is done through the government of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.  According to Wikipedia, in 2006, Leamington had the highest percentage of Latin Americans in Canada, with 4.9%, and according to the 2016 Canada Census, there were 3,225 immigrants in Leamington from Mexico alone.  This has generated the need for services such as several restaurants and grocery stores, catered to the Hispanic population, and the Consulate of Mexico in Leamington, which serves all of Southern Ontario.   

Because of the pandemic, we could not visit any landmarks, so we concentrated on the Mexican stores.  Our first stop was at Tortillería Leamington (131 Talbot St. W), a tortilla factory and bakery, which also offers a few dairy products and soft drinks: 

Tortilleria Leamington, store front

We bought, of course, a pile of corn tortillas freshly out of the tortilla machine, still warm and wrapped in paper, just like in Mexico (photo below, left), and a few conchas, a traditional Mexican sweet bread:

Freshly made corn tortillas
Conchas, traditional Mexican sweet bread

We also got some soft drinks, and a nice brick of cheese:

Mexican soft drinks (remember to hydrate)
Chihuahua style cheese

Then we made our way to the Mexican Variety Store (114 Talbot St. E):

And the recently opened El Charro grocery store (91 Erie St. S):

We bought an assortment of snacks, dairy products, dried hot peppers, herbs, pastries, and canned and bottled goods.  I am sure to post about particular items as I use them in my kitchen in the near future.  One item that surprised me enormously on the shelves of both grocery stores, was Salsa Huichol™, which, just two posts ago,  I had labelled as “elusive outside [the Mexican state of] Nayarit”:

And it was very reasonably priced, too, at $1.75 CAD.  That evening, I pan fried a few fish fillets, and we had them on fresh corn tortillas, topped with chunks of local tomatoes, and a few drops of Huichol sauce:

Even the corn on the cob was local!   The Huichol sauce was much hotter than I remembered, and a few drops went a long way.  Now, I will be able to use the original sauce for recipes from Nayarit, such as (click on highlighted text for stories and recipes): Pescado Zarandeado (grilled fish), Tostadas de ceviche de sierra (mackerel macerated in lime juice, served on crisped tortillas), and tacos de requesón (unripen cheese tacos).

The municipality of Leamington is full of interesting sites and rich in History and natural wonders, so when the pandemic is over, and travelling restrictions suspended, we definitely want to go back and explore more of both the urban and natural areas, such as the Point Pelee National Park, with the southernmost point of mainland Canada.  Point Pelee consists of a peninsula of sandy and marsh land (marked on the map at the top), that literally tapers to a sharp point as it extends South into Lake Erie:

The Southernmost point of mainland in Canada, at Point Peele National Park (facing South from mainland, 2019)

Although the park is Canada’s second smallest national park, it is home to five unique ecosystems, with more species of Flora and Fauna than any other place in the country, including species at risk, 70-plus species of trees, 20 species of reptiles, and thousands of species of insects and other crawlies.  There is also another very special Mexican connexion of seasonal migrants: every year, up to hundreds of thousands of Monarch Butterflies pass through Point Peele on their journey south to Michoacan, in Mexico:

Male Monarch butterfly (From Wikipedia Commons © Derek Ramsey / derekramsey.com / Used with permission)

And to finish this post as it began, with a water-related image, a beautiful sunset at Point Peele:

Sunset at Point Peele National Park, Leamington, Ontario (Can you see the mermaid? She remembered to hydrate; 2019)

I am linking to Cee’s On the Hunt for Joy Challenge: Remember to Hydrate.  

18 thoughts on “Leamington – Tomato Capital of Canada and the Mexican Connexion

    1. Hee hee I like your comment on “My Slice of Leamington”. So you find Huichol ok in Jalisco? Maybe the sauce is getting a broader market these days, that’s great!


  1. Nice to see what a wonderful place you live in, Irene. So wonderful you’re right on Lake Erie. Very interesting-looking place. I really enjoyed learning about the tomato factory. Those are some nice-looking tomatoes. I remember reading about a town in Spain where people run a gauntlet of tomatoes and the streets turn into a river of sauce. We have those soft drinks in our store. Have you heard of Coco de Bebido? (I think that’s the name?) which is coconut pieces in water and I’m sure other ingredients. I was on a real kick of that stuff for awhile.


  2. Saw your blog as I was looking up images of the water tower. Read the blog and found it very interesting. Especially the part about the Heinz plant and the Leamington area. My wife and I are doing a road trip along the north shore of Lake Erie, one day at a time, from Amherstburg to Fort Erie and Geocaching along the way for our YouTube vlogging channel Cache Canada. Using a snippet of info about the area for our vlog.


    1. Sounds like fun! Leamington is a very interesting place; the Amish community is also important, I hope to write about that at some point.


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