There are many small, new Toronto businesses – or start-ups, as they often prefer to be called – that are thriving. Some are led by people with business experience or training and some are run by passionate newbies who are trying out new approaches. We talked to a few who are definitely not doing business as usual and positively venturing beyond the box.
The businesses featured here are all connected one way or another to Boxcar Social, the espresso wine bar that opened in February 2014 in the Toronto Summerhill neighbourhood. Boxcar has been a successful enterprise itself and is also a member of the ‘outpost’ club. All the entrepreneurs involved are young – in their 20s or 30s – all are passionate about their business and all are innovative about how they promote and run their companies.
Greenhouse Juice Company
Greenhouse Juice Co. produces and sells raw, organic, cold-pressed juices of all kinds. It was started in early 2014 by a tight-knit group of seven friends who saw an opportunity to fill a niche in Toronto. The juice is produced in great quantities round the clock so that it is delivered fresh with no additives, heat or oxidation. It is bottled in reusable glass containers and must be kept refrigerated and used within a few days. This process qualifies as being ‘outside the box’ according to Emma Knight, the company’s director of brand development and former juice seller and bottle labeller. She says, “I also do anything else that needs doing. One of the most fun things about being a start-up is that we all get to wear many hats – or should I say toques.” She continues, “The juice we make bears little resemblance to the boxed juice that lines grocery store shelves or that lived in my lunchbox when I was little. That kind of juice has usually been processed beyond recognition, is often filled with additives and will likely outlive us all.”
In describing the process that goes into producing their juice, Emma gives us some insights. “Creating a product that is this far outside of the box requires a great deal of outside of the box thinking on our team’s part. Our supply chain is incredibly intricate and the man in charge of managing it, Jose Peñate, must perform incredible feats of acrobatics to fill our stores’ fridges with the right amount of juice every day. The same thing goes for every other member of our team. We are a small, young company producing an extremely high-cost, time-sensitive product that was essentially unheard of in Toronto before we opened our doors last January. If we don’t think creatively about everything we do, we won’t survive for long.
The company has succeeded beyond the founders’ expectations. Although they were armed with a sound business plan (developed by one of the business-savvy partners) they began by using social media to encourage people to try the juice. If their presence on Instagram is any indication, they did it right (as of this writing they have 15K followers). Emma concedes, “Without social media, I’m not sure we would have a business.” They proceeded to share the juice with like-minded people and businesses, which included Boxcar Social. Emma says, “We connected with Boxcar very organically – as customers [the original Greenhouse store is down the street. They have since opened additional locations]. They make phenomenal coffee and we all spend an inordinate amount of time there. So over the summer we collaborated on a mimosa for Boxcar’s Sunday brunch combining their bubbly and know-how with our organic orange juice.” It was clearly a hit and a boost for both businesses.
Greenhouse is always looking for interesting ways to work with like-minded companies. They just launched a partnership with iQ Food Co., a lunch spot close to one of the juice company’s locations at Commerce Court. They’re selling co-branded juices in iQ’s downtown restaurants, including a customized green juice they’re calling ‘Genius’, aimed at downtown workers. They also launched a month-long pop-up at Holt Renfrew in Yorkdale and have a long-term pop-up inside The Detox Market on King St. West.
The Greenhouse team is excited and optimistic about the future. Emma says, “We plan to remain true to our original vision of making the best possible juice every day…I don’t think we’ll lose our sense of self, no matter where this adventure takes us.”
Andre Jr. Ayotte and Mackenzie Duncan (standing) describe themselves as Toronto furniture makers who love what they do – even when it’s 20 degrees below zero and their hands are freezing. They might not have frozen hands for too long because their company has taken off and now they’re busy managing sales across the globe. Without a retail location, they began selling their modern but rugged, handcrafted wood and metal furniture online and out of a shipping container parked in a spot on Dundas West. Like all the other businesses featured here, JM&Sons are social media wizards, using their connections to promote their wares and drive business. They have 19K Instagram followers.
They realize, however, that when most people are buying furniture they want to touch and feel the product before committing. So, they set up what they call ‘Outposts’ – or pop-ups in locations where they can showcase their merchandise. A recent ‘outpost’ was at Boxcar Social where they provided tables, chairs and shelving units for Boxcar’s customers to use and ponder over their coffee. The set-up was accompanied by an iPad station dedicated to JM&Sons so potential buyers could find out more about the company, its products and put in an order if they wanted.
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Andre (aka Junior) is enthusiastic about how everything has unfolded and where it’s going. As one of the founders of the company, he saw a niche that he experienced personally and decided to team up with Mackenzie to address it. A young, urbanite working in the finance sector, Andre was living in a condo. He says, “I needed a shelving unit that fit in a condo and had high utility. I couldn’t find anything that I liked that was streamlined, made of wood and that brought warmth into the space. So, I decided to build one. Then I thought, if I need it, others need it.” With an MBA from U of T’s Rotman School, Andre knows his way around standard business strategies. But he and his partner, Mackenzie Duncan, a successful fashion photographer, are not carrying on business as usual. They identified a passion, discovered an obvious niche in condo-rich Toronto and figured how to get their products to customers in creative and original ways.
They have attracted customers from all over the world including the U.S., Europe, Australia, Singapore and Dubai. In just one year their company has gone from selling to discerning locals gathered around a shipping container, to keeping up with the barrage of orders at their Toronto shop – where they actually build and create everything (not a retail space). Of course they now have carpenters, woodworkers, welders and other craftspeople creating their modern but cozy products. They also make a line of handcrafted leather items. The materials they use are locally sourced and, in the case of the wood and metal, usually reclaimed.
They like using the Outpost concept and will investigate how best to use it further. Andre says they will likely look for a longer-term pop-up arrangement but doesn’t see an actual store in their future any time soon. Whichever way they choose to go, Andre says they will stay local. That is, they will continue to produce their goods locally, hiring local artisans. Even if their international business grows beyond their current capacity, they are committed to setting up shops in other countries using the same model of locally sourced material, made by local craftspeople.
Kitten and the Bear
This recent addition to the Toronto food experience specializes in handmade artisan jams, preserves and marmalades in small, limited batches out of their space on Queen St. West. Kitten and the Bear is Sophie Kaftal and Bobby Zielinski, a husband and wife team who started this project in 2012 in the New York area. Although Sophie has a BSc from McGill and had been employed in branding and marketing in Manhattan she was more passionate about the culinary world. She decided to study at the George Brown Culinary program and worked in various upscale Toronto and New York restaurants. Bobby’s background is in music production and photography.
Sophie had made preserves as a hobby for years and as time went by, her technique and flavours became more elaborate and Bobby became more involved. Sophie explains, “We started Kitten and the Bear as a collaborative project that we could work on together, flexing our creative muscles and combining our strengths to create a beautiful, genuine and homegrown product.”
They started as an online boutique featuring limited batches of jams in seasonal flavours and rotated throughout the seasons. They see this approach as the core concept of their business.
When they decided to open a shop in Toronto they determined that the most important thing to their brand identity would be quality. Since most of the packaged food market is a quantity business they knew they had to stand out. So they would make their jams in small batches using traditional copper jam pans in the traditional French confiture style. Sophie describes their approach, “To scale the business, we knew that we would have to create a ‘patchwork’ model – an arsenal of jam-centric products that would add up to a successful business. So, we now have our café/tea-room/tasting room where we serve our preserves alongside our signature Ontario buttermilk scones, tea and coffee in a traditional tea service style that we call ‘Jam Tasting’.” They also offer take-out, a retail section, small-scale catering, a wholesale business, ‘food service’ accounts (where they customize jams for particular sellers like Boxcar) and a program that includes gift baskets and boxes.
Kitten and the Bear clearly sees itself as an ‘outside the box’ kind of business. Sophie says this was clear from the beginning, “By producing seasonal flavours in limited quantities we have had to re-adjust the mindset of the majority of our customers. The notion that a flavour will sell out and be unavailable until the following year is almost unheard of. The upside is that this has forced many of our customers to try new flavours or change the way that they think about (and purchase) preserves. For retailers, this makes us both fun and different to work with, as we have much more flexibility in creating a unique, perfectly tailored product for them.”
Like all the other businesses featured here, Kitten and the Bear have a close network of friends and like-minded artisans in the city who support and promote each other’s work. They began supplying Boxcar Social with bespoke jams to serve and sell through their connection with Alex Castellani, one of Boxcar’s partners. Alex is essentially a coffee ‘guru’, well known to Toronto cafés and roasters, who advised the K&B duo about the coffee they serve at their shop.
Sophie also credits their social media circle for the success of their company. She says, “We have never paid for any advertising or sought out any press whatsoever. We found that for our product, word of mouth via social media makes much more of an impact […] than more traditional forms of marketing. Many of our customers are so talented and take the most beautiful images of our products and our space. Every day people come in who have seen our product either at another business that we collaborate with or on Instagram.”
The success of Kitten and the Bear does not mean that Sophie and Bobby are becoming complacent. They have ambitious plans for the future. They would like to re-launch their online sales and make their jams available across North America. They’re also creating a wholesale program to allow bigger retailers to order a smaller line of seasonal ‘wholesale-able’ flavours that are available year-round. Moving beyond jam, they plan to create a new product: packaged, ready-to-bake frozen scones. Sophie says, “We started as a jam company and when we opened our café, we thought, what goes with jam? Scones of course! However, they have truly taken on a life of their own and become popular in their own right. Because we are not set up to be a bakery […] we would love to create a foolproof, ready-to-bake frozen scone that our customers can bake in the comfort of their own home and have a freshly baked, right out of the oven product if they are entertaining, or for a special breakfast.”
Raw cold-pressed juice, gorgeous handcrafted furniture and extraordinary tasting jams are all lovely and delightfully sensuous creations. But nothing will make your mouth water like the treats that come from Bake Shoppe. Mostly because their Instagram photos take food porn to whole new level. And of course, everything is delectable.
The Shoppe is owned by the Coelho sisters, Sarah and Cindy. Until recently they operated the Wedding Cake Shoppe but decided that they wanted to broaden their repertoire and expand their reach. As it says on their website, they specialize in old school treats and re-creations of past favourites. This results in such goodies as: Nutella brown butter chocolate chip cookies, retro pop tarts, passion flakies and a throwback to that old standby, rice krispie squares made with Ruffles (that’s right the potato chips replace the rice krispies) and marshmallows (somehow gluten-free). Everything is baked on site from scratch using all natural ingredients and organic or local when possible.
Recently, Sarah spent an afternoon at Boxcar toasting up s’mores to order. Bake Shoppe supplies Boxcar with many of their other treats but this was an opportunity like no other. We watched and salivated.
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– Miria Ioannou
This article is part of our issue OUTPOSTS: Ventures Outside the Box.
For more information on the businesses featured here, click on their websites below:
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