I get off the Birchmount Road bus and follow the aroma of simmering lentil soup into the labyrinth of an industrial park. In case I get lost and need to double back, I take note of the distant auto glass sign and the nearby auto parts shop. I stop next to an unwelcoming low-rise building where, through the crack of an open door, I catch a glimpse of a young man wearing a white lab coat and a hair net. “Is this Sunflower Kitchen?” I ask. He tells me to walk around to the back for the front entrance.
Sunflower Kitchen is a family-owned business – an environmentally-friendly company that produces vegan food. The story of how founders Nurith Jungreis and her husband Eldad Jungreis grew the home-based natural food company into one of Toronto’s favourites reveals a little- known reality about the city: food is a major economic driver and it’s a delicious investment. In fact, the food and beverage (F&B) manufacturing industry, which is made up of the companies that prepare and package the food we eat and beverages we drink, is a leading contributor to the province’s GDP and a major employer in the GTA.
Senior Advisor for Toronto’s Economic Development Office, Michael Wolfson, explains, “The sector tends to grow regardless what happens in the economy. It grows three to five per cent a year and shows no sign that it’s going to slow down.” In 2008, it even proved to be recession-proof, registering growth while every other sector experienced a downturn. Wolfson adds, “The city is home to one of the biggest food processing clusters in North America.” It’s right up there with Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The industry is so big that Toronto is second only to Los Angeles CMA (Census Metropolitan Area) for employment in this sector. Its food and beverage cluster had annual sales of about $17 billion, half the Ontario total. The city is home to more than 1,100 food and beverage manufacturing businesses employing over 60,000 people.
The city offers a perfect confluence of interrelated businesses and services: it is surrounded by Class 1 agricultural land like the Holland Marsh and the Niagara Region, which makes it easy for F&B companies to source food locally. According to the Alliance of Ontario Food Processors, the province’s food and beverage sector purchases almost two thirds of the food produced on Ontario farms. In addition, Toronto’s pantry is stocked with food and spices from around the world. And gridlock aside, our transportation network reaches into one of the biggest markets in the world – the U.S.A.
To drive the point home, when we compare the food and beverage processing industry to other major industries in Ontario and the GTA, food comes out on top. According to the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Action Plan 2021, the sector in its area employs more workers than the auto industry. In fact, after transportation, it’s the second-largest manufacturing sector in Ontario and the GTA accounts for more than half of the food processing in the province.
A place to grow
Small to medium-size companies make up 35% of the industry and they tap into local demand for ethnic, religious, and specialty foods like gluten-free or vegan. The GTA’s diverse food scene accounts for over 25 percent of the industry’s production. It continues to grow at more than double the rate of the rest of the sector. In contrast, giants H. J. Heinz and Wrigley recently announced factory shutdowns citing the need to maximize efficiencies and consolidate operations.
What makes the smaller companies tick? I looked into three Toronto food manufacturers to find out and I noticed some similarities among them: they are family-owned or they are headed by partnerships between friends; the people who run the companies have roots in the city and their personal energy goes into the food they make; their products are delicious and you don’t need a dictionary to understand the ingredient list. They take risks, they invest, it pays off for them and, as a result, we get to eat good food.
Nurith, Eldad and Sunflower Kitchen
Imagine you have a delicious hummus recipe. Everybody loves it. Now, you want to make thousands of litres of it without using preservatives. And you have to get it out to grocery stores and into people’s fridges before it goes bad. What do you do? Nurith and Eldad asked themselves that very question. They are conscientious food producers, the kind of people you want to see in charge of making the food you put on your table. “Ingredients are very important for me,” Nurith explains. “No preservatives, that’s the number one thing for me, and sourcing as close to home as possible.”
Nurith, a holistic nutritionist, develops recipes and handles sales and marketing. Eldad who plans and executes the production side of things, teams up with Nurith to make the recipes work at the factory. It’s a busy time of year with important food shows and deadlines on the calendar, but Nurith puts her work aside to talk and show me around.
Everything in the factory is big: the pots, the bowls, the oven trays, the sinks. Nurith shows me the latest batch of hummus. A tray of eggplants, still warm from the oven, cools nearby. There are walk-in coolers and cold storage rooms. A forklift moves stacked skids of fresh vegetables. A packaging machine occupies its own corner. In the background, an enormous kettle looks like a shiny round spaceship that landed on the factory floor. It’s so big you have to climb a stepladder to lift the lid and look inside. It’s one of Eldad’s prized finds.
The kettle cooks soups. At first it was used for cooking fresh chickpeas; the peas give the company a tasty edge in the hummus business where canned peas are the norm. Eldad remembers their initial efforts, “The first batch in our new kettle didn’t taste very good. And Nurith said, ‘Oh my god, you bought this machine, we spent all this money, and we can’t even make good hummus. Why did you buy it, can you return it?’” We laugh. Nurith admits it was scary. After all, their hummus is legendary. Eventually, they figured it out, and the packaging system, another Eldad find, guarantees a stable shelf life. I ask Eldad what machine he’s going to buy next. He smiles and throws a glance over Nurith’s way, “You don’t want to know.”
I’m struck by the size of the factory and the amount of food it produces: thousands of litres of soups, and thousands of kilos of dips and pestos. “It’s been a year of growth,” Nurith notes. I can smell fresh cilantro. Sunflower Kitchen’s story reads like a journey of self-discovery marked by food milestones that shaped Nurith’s commitment to good, healthy eating.
Before coming to Toronto, Nurith left her small close-knit Jewish community in Mexico City to work on a kibbutz in Israel. “I fell in love with my cows,” she says, explaining her conversion to vegetarianism. Eldad smiles and can’t resist saying, “Not the cow story again.” She helped birth a calf that went on to suckle her fingers. She was the transition between the mother’s udder and the bottle. Ignoring Eldad, she holds out her hand across the desk, grouping her three middle fingers together, to show me how it was done. Then, in the early 1980s, she travelled to the Far East, “The food and the colours opened something up in me.”
Nurith and Eldad met in Toronto where they both worked at By The Way, her cousin’s restaurant at the corner of Bloor Street and Brunswick Avenue. The couple returned to Israel together where he served in the army and she started a Master in communication, having already completed a degree in anthropology and sociology. Eventually, they moved back to Toronto and returned to work at the popular Annex restaurant that specializes in Latin and Mediterranean cuisine.
“I loved cooking there. I never went to formal chef school or business school. I was passionate about cooking and I was quite good at it,” Nurith explains. Eldad managed the restaurant kitchen.
Nurith took advantage of Toronto’s multicultural smorgasbord and enrolled in cooking courses at Central Technical School where she learned the basics of Italian, Chinese, Indian, and vegetarian cuisine. Her first job cooking for lots of people was at Harbourfront Centre where she put together hors d’oeuvres and salads for a big party hosted by a budding Toronto International Film Festival.
Nurith was a vegan when veganism or vegetarianism weren’t as popular as they are today. Nowadays, Torontonians wouldn’t bat an eye at eating dandelion leaves, but back in the 1990s it was a different story. “In those days, people thought we were weird to put sunflower seed sprouts in salads,” Nurith recalls. Her raw food acquaintances and her friends at the Siddha Yoga Meditation Centre fuelled her creative spirit and introduced her to different styles of cooking. Talking to a friend at Future Bakery on Bloor Street, she hatched the idea for a home-to-home vegetarian food business and opened her kitchen in 1995.
Word of mouth
With no Internet, word of mouth and an advertisement in Vitality, a magazine on natural health, brought clients to her door. “You could call me up and place an order and Eldad would deliver, or you could come to the house and choose what dishes you wanted, always vegan.”
She cooked for busy people, single people, and people with allergies and food sensitivities. Nurith developed individualized menus, which included soups in mason jars, a hallmark of Sunflower Kitchen’s product list. She cooked in her home kitchen for 20 clients like the Forest Hill mother who would rollerblade to her house in the Annex to pick up food for her family. “I was experimenting. It was creative. I was very excited.”
Again, word of mouth brought her catering gigs, so she hired a salesperson, moved production from her kitchen to the basement of her house and, in time, made the big move to a factory facility. But from the beginning, it was a family affair: Nurith cooked, Eldad set up the production and delivered food, and her sister, a graphic designer in Mexico, came up with the company logo.
“To start a car plant you need a lot of capital. The entry barriers to food are lower. In theory, it’s a lot easier to get in,” says Dror Balshine, founder and president of another home-grown Toronto favourite, SOL Cuisine. “We started as a virtual food company. I was young, 27 years old. I wasn’t married and I didn’t have a mortgage so I just tried it.” I meet Dror at one of his favourite neighbourhood hangouts, The Sovereign Café, on Davenport Road near Dufferin Street.
In 1997, Dror saw a gap in the market for good tofu products and together with a friend launched Second Nature. “Products were available in the U.S. but not locally. We sourced the products we liked and then resold them. We started importing and then we learned to make things ourselves.” Eventually, Second Nature contracted a manufacturer to make the tofu products, which it continued to market under its brand name. Contracting out food production is a common practice in the industry. Today, SOL Cuisine does both the production and marketing. “I always say the better quality stuff is from people who do both,” explains Dror.
Hogtown’s early tofu days
SOL Cuisine’s legacy goes back to Hogtown’s early tofu days and a group of friends calling themselves Golden Age Inc., who in 1979, opened three locations of the aptly named The Vegetarian Restaurant. The only other vegetarian place was the older, 1974 start-up, Annapurna on Bathurst Street. Unable to find good tofu that could meet its standards, the group opened up their own storefront tofu production facility a year later – Soy City Foods, on Dundas Street near Keele Street. In 1986, Soy City Foods, which was run as a cooperative, was the first organic tofu company in the city.
Dror arranged a merger between Second Nature and Soy City Foods and in 2002 gave rise to SOL Cuisine; the company’s name is an acronym for sustainable, organic, and local. “We grow our beans 134 miles from our facility and we deal with one grower,” Dror explains. “We have a special relationship with him because we can pick and choose what we want him to grow, based on the variety of beans and their attributes.”
It’s all in the beans
Dror is a knowledgeable tofu expert, a connoisseur not unlike a vintner who oversees every aspect of the grape to wine process. The company makes organic, non-GMO, vegetarian and vegan protein products like burgers, hotdogs, ribs and falafel. He explains, “In Canada, we are still about 50% non-GMO food grade soy beans; the US is 96% what I would call GMO beans. They crush them and use them for cheap oils and for animal feed.” He adds that Canada grows 2.3 million acres of soybeans with Southern Ontario growing the lion’s share, a whopping two million acres. “Those beans are grown for their protein content, for humans,” Dror points out. “Most of our customers are also in Southern Ontario. We’ve got this really interesting loop of grower, processor and customer all within a small geographic area.”
Today, SOL Cuisine has 25 employees and processes 3,000 to 5,000 kilos of food a day; it has an R&D kitchen, and it has introduced non-soy vegan products for people with soy sensitivities.
An unexpected nugget of innovation is SOL Cuisine’s participatory gain-sharing model which means, in addition to earning wages and benefits, employees share in the profits of the company. Management voluntarily adopts the program that encourages greater worker contribution and input into decision-making. “We have an open book management so the staff knows how the company is doing on a day-to-day basis and it translates very well but, not always,” he admits. “Sometimes, if the company is not doing well, everybody gets down. But overall I think it’s a very powerful tool to get people involved and contributing.”
It’s uncommon to see conscientious capitalism in our North American business structure, but Dror adds, “We try to be progressive as a business and I think consumers are interested in that and we want to be involved with consumers that want those things. That’s what we are about.”
Every day, three delivery trucks leave the loading dock at International Cheese and head out into the city to bring fresh cheese to local supermarkets. “We use about 900,000 litres of milk a month,” explains Michelina Paris, an administrator and second-generation employee. “And you get about a 10 per cent yield. Except for the caciocavallo, we don’t have room to age cheese,” Michelina says. “We only make fresh cheese.”
You would be hard-pressed to find a St. Clair West Italian who doesn’t know International Cheese. The company opened its doors in 1963 and still operates at the same location at 67 Mulock Ave, a residential street in the St. Clair West and Keele Street area. Cheese making is a family tradition for the currrent owners, brothers Domenic and Mike Salvadore, and friend Mario Pelosi, who married the original owner’s daughter. They bought the company 20 years ago.
Under their brand name Santa Lucia, the award-winning cheese-makers make mozzarella (translation: a small cut of cheese), bocconcini (a little mouthful), trecce (braids), nodini (knots), burrata (buttery soft mozzarella), and tuma, a cheese similar to ricotta. They ship out to Vancouver, Calgary, and Quebec. In 2006, the company won the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix award for its ricotta cheese, arguably, the best ricotta cheese in the city.
Click on any photo to enlarge
“People know the store and like that it is attached to the factory,” Michelina explains. While I’m there, a steady stream of walk-ins keeps the sales staff busy. One salesperson regularly rushes back to the production area to get tubs of the still warm ricotta cheese. “We like to do it the traditional way, by hand,” Michelina adds, “We just recently got a separator to separate the cream from the milk, before we did it by hand.”
The original owner started making cheese in the basement of his house, first for himself, and then for his family and neighbours. Before long he was loading up the trunk of his car and delivering to grocery stores. To meet demand, he gradually purchased the three properties around his house and expanded his production facility to what you see today, a big corner building with a retail store area – the original location of the house – a loading dock, and the factory in the back.
As Dror says, it sounds romantic but it’s a lot of work. At International Cheese, production starts between midnight and 2 o’clock in the morning, when the milk is pasteurized and the process for making cheese begins. The first shift comes in between 3 and 5 o’clock in the morning, to shape the cheese – a four-hour process from start to finish.
Over the years, the company restructured its factory to meet requirements for important food safety certifications like HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) and BRC (British Retail Consortium). Paul Garcia, a microbiologist and a graduate of the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto, is in charge of the Quality Assurance Department.
With 45 employees and production increasing, the company is looking for a new place to call home. “We haven’t expanded because, to start with, the next door neighbour doesn’t want to sell,” Paul laughs. The owners want to stay in the neighbourhood despite city surcharges and taxes that have driven other companies to surrounding areas like Mississauga and Vaughan.
Paul takes me through the building. He points out the in-house laboratory room where analyses are done. The nearby production area gives off a sweet milky aroma. Besides cow’s milk, the company also works with goat’s milk, and water buffalo milk from Quebec for the mozzarella di bufala. Before we go into the production area I have to remove my jewellery and watch; put on a white coat, a hair net, and shoe coverings. I’m instructed to wash my hands, twice.
Water is a big part of cheese making and the factory is warm and humid. Steam rises out of huge cauldrons. Workers are suited up and look like doctors and nurses in an operating room. “It takes months to train a new employee in the art of cheese making and even more time to make sure everyone fully understands the food safety procedures and what goes on in a food production plant,” Paul comments. While he patiently explains the cheese making process and how the machines work, his attentive eye scrutinizes the workstations.
Ricotta means cooked twice. The cheese is made from re-boiling the whey left over from the cheese making process. It’s added to milk along with lactic acid and salt. A worker watches over two large tanks. A batch of ricotta has just been scooped into its characteristic punctured white tubs. The whey drains through the holes leaving behind a moist sweet cheese, perfect for stuffing cannoli or spreading on toast topped with a drizzle of honey. Paul notes there are no additives in the cheese, “It’s the same as if you made it at home.”
Click on any photo to enlarge
“Italians still want hand-crafted cheese,” Paul comments. They buy the trecce and the nodini because you have to shape those by hand. Some cheese devotees ask for and pay more for hand-crafted mozzarella and bocconcini. “They know we have a machine that shapes and cuts the bocconcini and mozzarella; you can see the straight cut,” Paul explains. “The machine makes every single ball into a perfect shape but the hand-shaped balls are all going to be different. ‘I want the bocconcini done by hand,’ they insist. So we have to get a piece of cheese and manually shape it for them.”
It’s an impressive undertaking. The company manages to handcraft cheese and meet multi-level governmental and international certification standards. By the time a ball of mozzarella leaves the factory, it has been coded with a log number (if a food product had a passport, it would be the log number) and checked through a metal detector for added security.
The same goes for the process used at Sunflower Kitchen. Nurith Jungreis explains, “From the moment a chick pea enters Sunflower Kitchen, it is recorded, given a lot number and followed through the hummus-making process.” It’s a lot of complicated paperwork but companies invest heavily in certifications. Strict rules also govern certification for Kosher, Halal, gluten-free, vegan, and organic. After a one-year process, Sunflower Kitchen recently added a Non-GMO verification (certification for Hummus + is coming soon) to its list of guarantees.
You are what you eat
People want more than to fill their bellies. Increasingly, food choices are linked to identity politics and ethical and environmental issues. Dror, at SOL Cuisine, has noticed, “When we first started we were targeting the food service industry and teenage girls and their parents who were shopping for them. But what we discovered is that today it’s the flexitarian consumer, people who are moving away from meat; baby boomers who are being told by their doctors to cut down on saturated fats, and millennials at the other end, that look at the environmental impact of the meat industry and at social issues when they purchase a product.”
Toronto’s enthusiastic palate is the beneficiary of a commitment to a way of life and a passion for good food. That’s how Sunflower Kitchen’s famous soup made it from a busy Jerusalem restaurant to Toronto’s vegan tables. “In Jerusalem, to make ends meet, I worked in a Moroccan restaurant as a waitress,” Nurith recounts. “The restaurant had a very popular soup made of beef called Harira. I liked to snoop around in the kitchen and I got the recipe. I had never seen Harira soup here but I had the recipe from the restaurant. Years later, I experimented with it and made a vegan version with chickpeas and lentils. Now it’s one of our bestsellers. I’m really proud of our soups.”
– Elizabeth Cinello
Photos by Elizabeth Cinello and courtesy Sunflower Kitchen, SOL Cuisine and the United Soybean Board
Graph courtesy Alliance of Ontario Food Processors
This article is part of our issue FEEDING TORONTO.
Your recent edition on food is really delicious.
Angela Muto, Toronto
Without a question, this is a very informative and interesting post. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. Keep up the good work!
John Martin, Toronto