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Ran Goel – Founder, Fresh City Farms (Ep.36)

November 5, 2021

In this session we hear from the founder of Fresh City Farms – a multi-brand grocer/baker/butcher operating 8 locations across Toronto which sprouted from humble beginnings about a decade ago as an urban farming experiment in Downsview Park.

Learn more about Ran’s company: https://www.freshcityfarms.com/

Podcast Transcript (Auto-Generated)

Qasim Virjee 0:28
All right, welcome back to another installment of the start will podcast. This time around I’m in studio with Ren goal. Cool Girl go well, yeah, the founder of fresh city farms, who is here to tell us about life on the rangeand other fun stuff. Actually not life on the range. But yeah, fresh city farms, I break it down for our audience like what is fresh city farms and start

Ran Goel 0:54
Ah Fresh City is a company based here in the wonderful city of Toronto we farm. So we have an urban farm, apparently Canada’s largest, based in Downsview park in the northwestern corner of the city. And then we deliver what we grow and what other farmers grow to households across the city. And we also operate a retail stores in central part of Toronto, big focus on organic, sustainable, seasonal, fresh food.

Qasim Virjee 1:29
Now, it’s not just grocery stores that you guys run,

Ran Goel 1:32
no, it’s uh, we basically are here to create a better life for food. And so for us, the way we’ve chosen to interpret that is help the consumer

Ran Goel 1:47
get access to food that is meticulously sourced right. So of course means organic, local produce in our early days, but it’s now evolved to sourdough bread and made from organic flour

Ran Goel 2:01
100% grass fed beef that we butcher in House prepared foods that are organic and local, packaged in jars and you can return to Circular Economy way of thinking.

Ran Goel 2:13
So really connect all those kind of dots together. Because often, you know, we as consumers, you’ll read about Farm to Table and organic, local, and it’s often not that accessible for the average person. Yeah, it’s interesting, because that’s definitely something I’ve heard from a few people is, I mean, in big cities, especially.

Qasim Virjee 2:35
Also,

Qasim Virjee 2:37
there’s an added price point to things being local.

Qasim Virjee 2:42
Because you know, gas, no, it’s got nothing to do with transport. It’s funnily enough transport globally is like cheap. It is. It is very, especially for bringing things by bringing things in by ship. Yeah, it’s not a IT people often talk about, you know, foods coming in from 10,000 miles away. And actually, that’s not a cost issue already an environmental issue, but it doesn’t cost all that much. Can I ask you a few things about groceries that come from afar? Please. Okay, avocados, I know. It’s a big hot topic, avocados. People love them on toast. A lot of Mentos

Qasim Virjee 3:16
but I don’t understand how an avocado can get to me from Mexico

Qasim Virjee 3:24
and be perfectly about to be right.

Ran Goel 3:27
Oh, I mean the if you think about the trip from Mexico or Ecuador wherever they would come from isn’t that far it’s like 234 days by truck.

Ran Goel 3:40
And as long as they’re picked at the right time, timing is not an issue and similarly with things like bananas I mean even you have apples and citrus and stuff coming from Africa and

Qasim Virjee 3:51
New Zealand and South Africa has really grown its exports

Ran Goel 3:54
huge huge huge huge so yeah, for a lot of you know outside of things like say raspberries or blueberries that you know depending where they come from, they have to be flown in which we first study shy away from you can get food here pretty quickly. I mean the the cold supply chain is pretty well developed now in terms of distributors, and obviously trucking companies having you know, refrigerated fleets. So it’s pretty seamless I mean the the problem often comes if there’s problems at the border or problems with weather that prevent you know, traffic from flowing

Qasim Virjee 4:31
customs officials stealing bananas and things

Ran Goel 4:36
all the time all the time.

Qasim Virjee 4:38
I hear about the you know the narcotics you know being seized but they don’t ever stop the bananas. So, I wonder about this okay. So like the idea is that you know, shipping is becoming easier or has become very easy and refrigeration is there and so the practices and spoil on the way and economies of scale enable people to provide, you know, summer fruits in winter and so on. Tell me a little bit more about fresh city Farms is beginning because I really find it interesting that you’ve gone from kind of, in my mind, farmers, urban farmers, that may have been an experiment. Yeah, with the aim of getting to where you are now. But to to grow? Sure. So that transition, did it feel like it doesn’t feel like it happened overnight was it pre calculated?

Ran Goel 5:31
Um, some of it was most of it wasn’t meaning. When we first started, my thinking was okay, I want to create an urban farm. And I realized from the get go, in order to make the economics work, we need to deliver directly to the customer or sell directly to the customer. Because there’s no way Loblaws is going to buy from a half acre plot that we have su 37 Potatoes. Yeah, exactly, I’d like 10 cents in the dollar for lucky. So that was baked in realizing had to be to see. And that meant that our offering had to be wider than just what we grew, right. Because, you know, we only grow so many things at one time, but you want avocados and you went bananas that don’t grow in Canada. So that part of it was always there that we would need to source broader than just what we grew. But the idea of doing full grocery was a bit of a realization that, hey, people would not buy from us consistently, if we’re not providing them with most of their fresh basket. And I’d say today, all of their fresh basket, because otherwise they’ll just end up going to Loblaws Sobeys to just people

Qasim Virjee 6:36
generally stock their fridge the same way every week.

Ran Goel 6:39
Yeah, most people are very consistent, very consistent. And we’re you know, 85% of my basket is fresh. So you know, we’re not the place to go to to get your five kilogram, you know, a sack of quinoa or something like that. It’s a lot of quinoa. That’s a lot. Well, some people love that quinoa. So it’s really fresh focused, it really is fresh focused. And that’s, you know, pretty high velocity items. So you’ll have people, you know, one of the big debates that we had as a as a group, when we decided to go into retail, because we were online for the first seven years.

Qasim Virjee 7:13
Oh, wow. That’s interesting. Yeah. What years were those?

Ran Goel 7:16
2011 to 2018. Oh, yeah. So we got into retail fairly recently. Basically, we opened our first store in Arlington in September of 2018.

Qasim Virjee 7:28
And and your online sales? How did it go? Because it’s kind of you had what you had from the harvest? Yeah. So what did that mean for the way that you published the items for sale? And the way that people bought them? Going into retail? You mean, no online, even online where people disappointed that they didn’t get potatoes? Because they sold out that day? Was there an auction? How did you sell No, what

Ran Goel 7:54
we ended up doing is essentially, you know, having for most items, except for some seasonal things like rhubarb, or asparagus or garlic scapes, most of them is always available. And so that, for example, we would say, Okay, we would sell all the potatoes out from our farm. And if you know, ours ran out, we’d buy from another farm, okay. And that’s kind of, you know, when I started the business, it was very romanticized. We have these were called CSA boxes, community shared agriculture, where the main idea is you come to us the beginning of the season, you give the farmer 500 bucks for a share, right? And then, you know, whatever we harvest is divided up between how many shares so we have 50 people who’ve signed up for this and we give you whatever is in being harvested, but quickly realized, you know, that’s for like that point. 1% Hardcore, you know, ecologically minded consumer, for mere mortals, like most of us, that’s not gonna fly, and you want some the ability to customize, you don’t want to prepay. You want your potatoes when you want your potatoes, or your strawberries. So we realized we need to be more more flexible there. And that’s the, you know, where ideals meet reality, sometimes you have to figure out how to, you know, modulate between the two and kind of where we are is the the result of that.

Qasim Virjee 9:12
It’s super interesting, especially because the, you know, where you’ve gone with the retail, at least in terms of the customer experience is very I would say it’s a very quality experience that people have when they go to first city farms. It doesn’t feel like I guess, lets us put the question on you. When you guys were kind of starting to go into the grocery business four years ago, three years ago, three years ago. How did you go about setting up the first store there? Was it a big process where you hired designers and interior, you know, branding people and do the full nine? Or was it a kind of a team led effort to figure out the best approach to formalizing or physical Ising the experience

Ran Goel 9:58
mostly was team lead. So we did Definitely pulling professionals here and there. But, you know, the biggest question or two biggest question is Where? Where will your first store be? And we ended up deciding to say, let’s put our store where our first store where most of our customers are, where our most active subscribers are. And so our first started Ossington was actually smack in the middle of our best postal code. Oh, wait, so

Qasim Virjee 10:19
Ossington Avenue, was the first store? Yeah.

Ran Goel 10:23
Ah, yeah. And that’s our best, our best kind of postal code. In terms of penetration of how many people buy man that was only like three years ago? It was just three years ago. Well, three, what is it? 2019 2018. So that three and a half now I guess.

Qasim Virjee 10:38
Time does move. We’re getting old,

Ran Goel 10:40
as old is your daughter? Yeah.

Qasim Virjee 10:43
That is crazy to think because the brand has also grown in its equity in the downtown core. I feel like when I mentioned fresh city farms to people, they know what it is. I

Ran Goel 10:53
think downtown we have really good brand recognition at this point between the stores. You know, we’ve been around for about 1011 years now. We’ve had a couple pop up things we do a lot of consumer shows a lot of advertising. So I think the in the downtown core, the recognition is pretty good. I think in the inner suburbs, outer suburbs, different story, but say south of Eglinton or whatnot. Between the two rivers. Recognition is pretty good.

Qasim Virjee 11:21
Between the two rivers. Yeah. That could be a show. A wonderful show that airs at 230 in the afternoon. Prime nap time. Between the two rivers Wait, what rivers are you talking about? Man?

Ran Goel 11:39
The dawn in the Humber?

Qasim Virjee 11:40
There you go. Yeah, that’s where Toronto is.

Ran Goel 11:43
For me it is at least so you know, for us. We’re always looking. How the city is divided up is really important for a company does delivery, right? So we often think of like, where you know, where we deliver in seven days a week? Where do we do time slot? So and sometimes those topographical features are what divides key key parts of the city? So

Qasim Virjee 12:04
you guys do your own delivery? We do you own the fleet? Yeah. What does that look like? And how has that part of the business changed in the last couple years with the pandemic

Ran Goel 12:14
we deliver currently on a next day basis. And the benefit of that, for the planet and for us is that we can plan ahead. And you can create fairly dense routes. Each of our events does like 50 or 60 deliveries per run. So it’s vans that are refrigerated. Their driver comes in in the morning, picks up their orders and goes to deliver it. And so the great thing about that it gives us complete control over the cold chain. We no no. dropped off at the customer’s door, there’s a photo taken, you know, we know where it’s left and all that stuff. So that’s huge. During the pandemic, it was a bit of a gong show, honestly, because what happened was demand spiked up.

Qasim Virjee 12:57
Like immediately overnight, literally overnight.

Ran Goel 12:59
But the lucky thing for us is again, my grandmother always used to say you know, you better better lucky than wise. The lucky thing for us is we always had a contactless delivery system, meaning we would push leave the box or bag at somebody’s door. We’d have some dry ice and ice in there so it can stay there for a few hours.

Qasim Virjee 13:21
I was like when I was a paper boy. Exactly. But it was a paper. Well, it was contactless delivery. Just chuck it at the

Ran Goel 13:27
Oh, you’re one of those guys. Yeah, I was a paper guy that delivered right to the porch.

Qasim Virjee 13:31
We made like half a cent per delivery. It was it was tough times, man. Yeah.

Ran Goel 13:35
That was tough. I think we I had a route 126 houses I won’t forget it. Wow. But but the the lucky thing for us was that was already built into our model, because that’s what enabled us to do deliveries efficiently. Right? Right. We were able to, to knock on the door and wait for somebody dance or they’re not there. And then you call them. We always just dropped it off and moved on. So during the pandemic, we had a ton of experience doing that already. And we ended up partnering with a few businesses that were effectively shuttered, that had fleets to do delivery. So wow, catering company did one one was like a home improvement, a business that was like completely shuttered. So there was in the first two or three months there, that’s how we kind of built and then once numbers kind of regularized, we did it all in house again.

Qasim Virjee 14:23
Interesting. It’s super interesting, because so many businesses have been born in in quote unquote, logistics in the last couple of years. You know, I’m sure you guys have been approached by so many people saying, Hey, you should use us for your delivery. Has anyone tried to sell you there are a ton of people Yeah, and there’s so many like we we get calls and it’s like I don’t have anything delivered. Bring people to me, right?

Unknown Speaker 14:46
Deliver deliver customers. Yeah. It’s so

Qasim Virjee 14:49
funny. Um, but owning your own supply chain, you know, to the end to the last mile is really fascinating because there’s a lot of logistics that you guys own.

Ran Goel 15:01
You know what, like, for the businesses of our nature, unless you’re doing kind of Uber style delivery, like one order at a time from the store, it’s kind of goes with the territory to be honest, because if you think of one of our deliveries, you have ambient items have refrigerated items and your frozen items, right? So there’s not much leeway there for things to go wrong for timing to be off. And often it’s, you know, the time when we finished packing sometimes is a bit variable, depending on when cold pressed juice comes in, and when the breads ready and things like that. So it’s hard to get that all done unless you’re you have control over it. I think if you’re doing something like, you know, it’s shelf stable, and if they come three hours later, or two hours before, you know, it doesn’t matter as much. But that’s what you see most online grocers who do online grocery as opposed to just delivery from the store one by one. They take it in us. Yeah, it’s

Qasim Virjee 15:59
funny, because a few episodes ago, I was here talking to John and Eric from Askari. And they were, you know, they did the same thing, but their food delivery and their catering business now that’s kind of grown is, since they want they were like we need to own the delivery pipeline. And some of the orders that we had early on for some meetings that we had in the pandemic here, which was very small meetings. But they came a bit late and they’re you know, they’re, they’re missing one package and stuff. And then they were like, oh, Joe. Yeah, cuz it was just one guy with a van. And I don’t know if they’ve kept that guy on because I see in a scary branded van on Christie Street, like, every day, and it’s just parked in the same place. So I’m like, you know, go to work do your thing. At home. But they’ve grown since they’ve become very, very efficient at like getting large orders now that we’re handling here on time. And a big part of it, they’ve told me has been that they can they don’t need to rely on someone else they can correction curve if they have to. With that guy who’s apparently on Christie, maybe not working with them anymore. parked his van outside, getting free advertising.

Ran Goel 17:09
No, the logistics part of it is and that’s one of the things I think we’re missing in the conversation in the convenience economy is that there is a big price to be had for getting what you want when you want it within half an hour an hour, which is kind of like you know where the market is going. And it has an impact on a the kind of business that can execute on that it has to be pretty damn big because you need to have, you know, like Uber kind of network to be able to tap into and be it has a huge planetary impact. Because suddenly you’re doing one shot at a time you’re not very optimized routes, like, like we are,

Qasim Virjee 17:46
yeah, super inefficient. Yeah, this packaging, there’s like, the cars hoses, so many pollution. So many inefficiencies.

Ran Goel 17:56
I mean, the way we do it in vast majority of scenarios decreases carbon emissions. So for example, if we’re delivering in a typical inner suburban or suburban area, and we’re doing 60 drops, that’s 60 trips that people haven’t had to make back and forth with their 4000 pound SUV to Costco or to Walmart. And so that’s like a net savings. But yeah, when you’re just, you know, somebody’s involved and they’re ordering from, you know, the closest Loblaws through Instacart. That’s a lot of carbon. That’s like somebody’s driving back and forth, you know, just for for your order.

Qasim Virjee 18:32
And who knows where the cardboard goes. That’s a different matter. This one Amazon step. Yeah. Where does it go? They’ve improved it at least like flat packs very easily. It

Ran Goel 18:40
is a bit better now.

Qasim Virjee 18:41
Yeah, just falls apart.

Ran Goel 18:43
And you don’t get as bigger packages as he used to.

Qasim Virjee 18:45
Yeah, although we still don’t you know, I don’t know once in a while we we have like paper towels. kitchen towels come to the house. And it’s like the only thing in a box this big. Oh, really? Yeah. It’s very strange when we put my daughter in it and drag her. Um, yeah, it’s been very interesting to see we were talking earlier right about this idea of like transporting and you can’t, he kind of almost can’t spot trends and consumer demand in the last little while with the pandemic, and with lockdown orders in place and Ontario, stuff like that. But have you seen a return to retail like our people kind of like pedestrian traffic walking into the shops a little bit more.

Ran Goel 19:28
For us, it’s a bit of a mixed bag to be on it. So are so we have eight stores, four of which are bakeries under the labels brand. And those you know, basically went back to normal and probably then some back after the first lockdown ended and they’ve been pretty consistent there. On the grocery side, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag partly because of the location of a couple of stores close to offices which are not open right now. So yeah, definitely less traffic from that. And partly because of this phenomenon of people are generally in during the pandemic, insofar as they went grocery shopping, not online, they went to bigger stores so they can do their whole shop at once. Okay. And that’s kind of hurt us to a certain extent because there’s a small format like very fresh based. So if you’re looking for a full full shop, you typically go go elsewhere. So net it’s been I’d say neutral, but it really depends on which which store format.

Qasim Virjee 20:23
Okay, so the company grows from being an experimental kind of farm urban farm. Yeah, into a grocery, along the way picks up a butchery and bakery brands. Yeah. Where did those come from? Were those started by you guys?

Ran Goel 20:39
No, no, those are both long standing brands in Toronto. So Mabels was started in 2007. So who’s Mabel? Mabel is the niece of founder. Oh, one of the founders. Yes. Who liked cookies very much. Like cookies and croissants and all that good stuff. Yeah. Okay.

Qasim Virjee 20:59
So the idea is that the foundation story that it was like, named after the you said, Nice, the nice, yeah, the nice who loved these baked goods. And so

Ran Goel 21:06
I’m not sure if there was a connection with the she loved or not. So that I’m not sure about but I know that’s the end, who’s the healthy butcher, healthy Butcher was founded by a husband, wife, Mario and Tara back in 2000 4005. With an eye to you know, they were kind of lapsed vegetarians, looking for better for you meats or better source meats,

Qasim Virjee 21:29
happy cows,

Ran Goel 21:31
happy cows, with no hormones, no, you know, spend time on grass rather than grain. And they came up with a healthy butcher. So they opened their first store that clear and those are close by here on Queen Street.

Qasim Virjee 21:45
Yeah, remember that back in the day? Still there quite a while ago.

Ran Goel 21:47
So there? Yeah, they’re amongst all the weed shops. You can oh my god, good, good. Good weed in the same shot. It’s dropping

Qasim Virjee 21:53
doesn’t make sense. All the weed shops on Queen Street. There’s a lot. It’s too many.

Ran Goel 21:57
It’s time to consolidate.

Qasim Virjee 21:59
Honestly. It’s like they’re all burn excuse upon their burning through their seed capital. You know, and maybe they raised one two years of least money or something. But it makes no sense. That whole sector

Ran Goel 22:11
and makes no sense. I mean, unless they’re expecting a whole bunch of marijuana tourism, which is obviously not going to happen anytime soon.

Qasim Virjee 22:19
Nope. I don’t see your VR on meta, you know, Facebook, meta, Margo weed shopping, and I’ll save us. There you go. they’ll email you the wheat. The Yeah, it’s actually it’s very interesting. As a soldier and a little bit away from this, this groceries topic is on the farming tip. Right. We’ll maybe talk about wheat again in a second. But what have you seen in the last few years with the availability of products locally? Any trends and what people are growing? To start with? Um,

Ran Goel 22:53
I guess, maybe step back for a second. You know, there’s a lot of talk about local produce. I will say in the mainstream grocery world, it’s I don’t think it’s made a real dent. Like it’s been, you know, the highlight when it is local, but it’s not like, I think as a percentage of sales out, particularly in other nobody’s seeking, you know, but I think the nature of the industry right now is not to actually change how they source it’s just to kind of greenwash a bit and say, Hey, look at this cool local item. We have Farmer John who grew it, yeah, but not necessarily to say, hey, let’s invest in Canadian farming.

Qasim Virjee 23:25
And the garlic wouldn’t be $25 for three bulbs,

Ran Goel 23:28
and from China. So so and so that’s, I think, one part of it. The other part of it, I mean, certainly in our niche, you’re seeing people, more appreciative of local food. You know, they’re learning about parts of the plant that they didn’t use before, plants that they didn’t even eat before. And that’s cool to see. But I’m very cognizant that you know, we’re a specialty grocer attracting a certain kind of customer and they’re very interested in this kind of stuff. So I will say there is a budding sense of terroir, emerging in southern Ontario as people think about where their food comes from. And the food knowledge is becoming more and more textured. Like, you know, you go to France and hear any French person talk about wax poetic about farming and food. It’s a very different ballgame here. Right. But that’s emerging. I think that’s emerging, you’re seeing you know, people, you know, go to Prince Edward County and appreciate the the wineries and the you know, we’re where we grew up was in this in this province, and where we grew carrots in this province. So I do think you’re seeing a much more educated consumer emerging.

Qasim Virjee 24:37
Right. And then on the producer side, though, is there are you seeing, I guess, like, Okay, so here’s the question, right. We’re also talking about this idea of kind of, like maybe were hinting at it earlier, urban flight, and you know, people looking for purpose in their lives and maybe you know, the pandemic pushing people into kind of different career paths and so on. Is it plausible? likely that you’ll see more people turn to working the earth for a living?

Ran Goel 25:08
I don’t think so.

Qasim Virjee 25:09
So is this a problem with the immediate future of our locally sourced food? In Ontario? Like are the big question being, you know, is Joe the, like 65 year old soon to retire farmer, or 75 year old? Because, you know, people work long with when they’re happy. But are they soon? Are they going to have any legacy plant or farms going to go become Bnbs?

Ran Goel 25:36
Well, this is a big issue, right? Is that the average age of farmers in Ontario or like late 50s. And I think the thing to keep in mind is, you know, I’m a student of economics, I don’t think we’re going back in time, we’re not going to go back in time to a place where agriculture is less mechanized, or less irrigated, or less sophisticated, if you will. But I think what we should be striving for, and you’re seeing a bit of that is thinking about our land as a non renewable resource, as opposed to another place where we can pave over and build more cookie cutter suburban homes, and really wide boulevards. So my hope certainly is that not so much that more people farm but the land that we do farm, that we do have a maintain it and keep it and preserve it, and be that it’s farmed sustainably. And that can mean a lot of things. It can mean more intensive production, like greenhouse production, for example, which can use if done right, use less water, much less pesticides, and be more more productive. It can mean land that’s used in a more appropriate way in terms of using cover crops that there isn’t soil erosion, etc, no and much less or no pesticides. So it’s not so much that I think we’re going to have this at least my utopia, or at least realistic version of Utopia, given where we are today is not that there’s gonna be a whole bunch more homesteaders, essentially. I think that’s going to be a fringe phenomenon. And when I welcome don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think it’s going to be this, you know, where 20% of us are going to be feeding ourselves from

Qasim Virjee 27:10
Yeah, in the near term. It’s interesting with farmers retiring out, there is that question, right of all these wonderful producing farms and whether they’ll get you know, amalgamated by private equity back to, you know, farming behemoths.

Ran Goel 27:24
Yeah. Or

Qasim Virjee 27:28
grow other products? Like weed that seems to be like we’re farming too much weed anyway. It’s not anyone rich. So I don’t know if that’s the answer. But it would be sad if the fields go to waste. Oh, for sure. Next 510 years,

Ran Goel 27:43
for sure. For sure. I mean, I will say there’s probably if you look at Southern Ontario, people are surprised to hear this but we have some of the best land in the world in terms of farmland like fertile, fertile, right climate, you know, enough water like all this stuff that makes a piece of land very commercially viable as a farm. But we don’t necessarily think of it as this resource that it really is that this thing because once you pave it over, you pave it over, it’s done. Right. So So I think what we’re missing in Ontario is really a land use policy, agricultural land use policy. That’s that’s effective. The Greenbelt offers a bit of that in the sense that you cannot develop in the Greenbelt or within certain restrictions. But we don’t see it nearly enough as a national treasure that it is.

Qasim Virjee 28:34
Yeah, Canada is a bit weird, man. It’s weird for so many reasons.

Ran Goel 28:38
Oh, yeah. Yeah, I come from a very I’m from from Israel, very small country. So you know, the sense of how every piece of land there is obviously very contested. But a year, you know, if you drive, but people forget, I think if you drive, say three or four hours out of Toronto in any direction, yeah. That’s half of the best farmland in Canada. That’s it. So the rest of this huge country, it’s great, but it’s not very farmable. Yeah. Yeah, we even do but even that is not you know, it’s only certain areas like most of Canada, he farmed

Qasim Virjee 29:13
wheat or shitty wheat. Why?

Ran Goel 29:16
We like shit. I don’t want to eat that wheat or wheat. That’s all we got. Yeah, wheat or wheat?

Qasim Virjee 29:20
Oh, my God. It’s in the mountains. So we got

Ran Goel 29:23
to get our act together on land, that’s for sure.

Qasim Virjee 29:25
Yeah, it’s really interesting. It’s very interesting. And the idea of stewardship, you know, promoting stewardship of the land amongst urban dwellers, which is like, well, how, what percentage massive, over per, you know, majority of percentage of Canadians are urban dwellers, right and or suburban dwellers as you were alluding to. So I think like promoting young Canadians to have experiences with the land and promote this idea of kind of stewardship and taking interests is difficult. Yeah, it’s not something that is done by the private sector alone for sure. No, no, I have no idea how the education systems in the provinces deal with that, you know, taking the kids out to a farm, do they do that?

Ran Goel 30:14
I’ll give you an example. In Quebec, if you’re a farmer, the government provides funding for therapy for farmers like mental health therapy, free or subsidized. If you’re trying to start a farm, they’re going to subsidize building out your irrigation system and your greenhouses will get you started. They’ll get you started. That’s amazing. We don’t have that in Ontario. Nothing. anything close to that. Wow. Nothing even close to that.

Qasim Virjee 30:44
And province to province agricultural output. I don’t know how you would measure that as a per capita production volume across the board of all products or something like, how do they compare?

Ran Goel 30:55
Well, Quebec has become a bit of a powerhouse now in both I mean agricultural products, in terms of the raw materials, but also even more importantly, in processed as well, like, they’re building champions and in dairy and cheese, greenhouse technology. So Quebec has always been, you know, much more at the forefront of industrial policy, then we have an Ontario sometimes, for better, sometimes worse, obviously, has been some some big failures, like SNC and Bhartiya, to certain extent, but there’s also been big successes that people don’t talk about, it’s smaller, but big successes as well. And I think their perspective and agriculture, to your point, has more of a stewardship lens on it than we think here in Ontario.

Qasim Virjee 31:41
Yeah, it’s also interesting, because I think, you know, Quebec, ours with a with a long standing history of being Quebec occurs, which a lot of native connectors are, you know, they have roots going back, maybe not to the 1600s, but maybe 100 200 years longer than that. Ontarians it seems like, Yeah, that might be a thing. You know, you have your kind of Heritage Village or place in the province where you’re from. And so you remember that culturally, if not through your father or whatever. Yeah, yeah. Agreed. So that’s an interesting thing. But I do see hope, perhaps in trends, like you mentioned, like Prince Edward County becoming a weekend getaway for, for Torontonians. It’s so funny how that happened, by the way, in the last few years, you know, it comes up every day, I think. When was it? On Monday? I was asking someone, I saw them in the office and I said, Hey, how’s your weekend? And he said, It was great. You know, a friend of mine just bought a house in Prince Edward County, has eight bedrooms are all there just drinking all weekend?

Ran Goel 32:44
Drinking cider, cider. Exactly.

Qasim Virjee 32:48
Nothing from the land. I was so surprised. I know. I wasn’t surprised. Cuz I know this is happening now. Right? Because it’s it’s like an inkling little. It’s not a great business. But I’ve always wanted to do a couple things. I’ve always wanted to own a hotel. Or at least, you know, at least one hotel. And I’ve always wanted to own and operate a vineyard. Oh, interest. Yeah. And, and do the two together. So it’s fun for me once in a while to look at what’s available in the in the county, right. And for years, I’ve made that one of my kind of realtor.ca my MLS, you know, certain weekend crushes, right? Yeah, that’s awesome. I gave up on Toronto after I realized we can ever afford to leave our house and buy a different house because it’s just you know, the property prices are crazy. But so I started looking more at this stuff. And a lot of people seem to have had a hard goal. I mean, it’s difficult to grow wine, maybe other products.

Ran Goel 33:48
Oh, yeah. That’s sad. You don’t do that as a business. I mean, maybe they’ll tell part you do as a business. Yeah. Not the vineyard,

Qasim Virjee 33:53
burying vines. The whole production technique here. It’s like, it’s crazy. And I hate saying this. And I’m not insulting, you know, local producers across the board. But you have so many people growing grapes with all these arduous methods to keep them alive. And then they produce just swill. It’s not good. It’s terrible. A lot of it is terrible. Like in Niagara. A lot of the wine in Agra and still to this day is mixed with foreign Imported Grapes. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And then you kind of wonder why do you do it? Like, well, I don’t understand

Ran Goel 34:27
what depends on which case so I mean, we so we just started selling wine in last few months, when the pandemic allowed that from a regulatory perspective. So we have a Sumali on staff now as well. So I mean, there’s some great whites in Ontario, right from Prince Edward County and Niagara and a couple of choice reds as well. pinos right Yeah, exactly. But but it is it’s the climate here is its own climate, right. And frankly, I mean, that’s kind of part of the whole terroir discussion, right? There is certain even within Ontario certain areas areas that are better for certain crops and others. Yeah. And that’s, I think, in and of itself a realization right that Yeah, yeah, we were not gonna grow a good apple those coconuts won’t grow. So it’s realizing that Yeah, you can’t do everything everywhere, right? And some part and that’s, there’s a beauty to that right there is beauty to realizing, hey, these apples from Durham are phenomenal because of the of the climate there. But, you know, maybe caps have not so much.

Qasim Virjee 35:33
I think it’s awesome. And this idea of kind of like, a return to in real life being, you know, knowing, knowing what’s actually happening around you. Yeah, yeah, I have this whole thing of like, even you know, I’m a big student of kind of built environments, you know, and the idea, and obviously, interior design and architecture, in the business that I’m in, but looking at how people who’ve always grown up in cities have superimposed subconsciously, perhaps, a kind of aesthetics of nature onto the built environment around them, right, where the tall buildings or the trees, and so on, and it kind of, like feeds this reprogrammed identity, that that kind of packages, everything ready for commercial consumption, and takes people away from their relationship to the things that they’re consuming. And, and removes the possibility of even that connection being there, you know, yeah. Yeah, a lot of a lot of people, you know, I’ve talked to who become vegetarian, vegan, whatever, and have this meat awakening, often cases, maybe they don’t even have, they don’t have the option to have grass fed beautiful, happy cows. So they realize the horrors of the mass industrial, complex, producing, cut packaged portion meats for them, and they don’t want to be part of it. But can you imagine that realization when you have no alternative? It’s got to be a little heart wrenching?

Ran Goel 37:04
Oh, yeah. I mean, listen, there’s a lot of I mean, one of the things that came up, I think, for us in a very big way during the pandemic, is food insecurity. And not that it’s, you know, predates a pandemic easily. But the pandemic made it worse in many cases. And you realize is huge kind of golf. And you know, the thing I always go back to is, you know, come shopping for our city, I think we provide way better sourced food for your health and the planet than anywhere else. Go to your farmers market, grow your own food. But then today, you got to make the transition from being a consumer to being a citizen. Because this stuff is like, its macro. It’s not a self righteous affair that oh, yeah, I mean, that it could have any local so I’m doing my bit. Exactly. That’s, that’s like, that’s the I wouldn’t say a tip of the iceberg. But a small part of what the change ultimately needs to be

Qasim Virjee 37:58
the difficult thing in in Canada, I find is, and of course, it’s elsewhere. But my lens, being someone who’s kind of like grown up between East Africa, I’ve done business in India, Canada. We’re a nation of recyclers. I tell people, I don’t mean that we’re entirely pathetic, you know, like kind of apathetic, you know, people, but we do have a tendency to what to do good and choose easy ways to do good and, and feel better about ourselves for it. Yeah. Because we also are all of the same middle you it feels like like predominantly middle class, you know, with shelter and so on pejoratively in Canada, there’s definitely people on the fringes, the 1% and the the unfortunate people who don’t have shelter and so on. But what I see, you know, is this great paradox is we’re a nation of recyclers, and we do really a great job of separating different things to put in different bins. And then one of the biggest breaking stories, of course, on the CBC, you know, and other national outlets and smaller regional outlets in the news before the pandemic had literally, I believe it was about a month before the pandemic hit was, was was how all of that stuff just mostly goes to the Philippines and gets burned. Yeah, you know, or wherever, and just gets put in the ground or burned. And it was like 80% of all Canadian waste is like, you know, it’s just the same as putting it in the trash bin. Yeah, exactly. Sold down to Mexico. And this is great paradox, right? Like, everyone likes kind of feeling good about doing the right thing. But if the system that gives them access to doing the right thing is fallible, they will still put faith in the system and want to hold the owners of the the system’s architecture accountable, or its key holders and say, you know, well, I did my bit you didn’t do your bit and it’s all about well, everyone doing their bit, but the thing is, is a little bit more organic, right? Yeah, yeah, people needed to kind of take a little bit more responsibility for understanding things. learning things. And that’s where also this urban farming thing is fascinating to me, because I think you give people the experience through urban farming, to connect with the earth in ways that until they do for the first time, they might never have had the opportunity their whole lives, right?

Ran Goel 40:19
I mean that, you know, if I think of urban farming, what it means to me, and this is always the case, by the way, from day one was, I see this is like platform to generate eureka moments to get people thinking about what they’re eating and what they’re consuming in their life. Because ultimately, I think that’s what everything we’re talking about is, you know, it sounds nebulous, but it’s, it’s about consciousness, and it’s about how we view the act of consumption and how we view what is a worthy life to live? Because yeah, if you’re, if you’re looking for all these placebos like recycling, or like, you know, you know, eco this packaging, and, you know, slightly better source this. Somebody’s gonna market that to you, right? It might be the your municipality, or might be corporations who are going to market all those labels on fish. Right? Exactly, right. But I think if we just simplify our lives, at least insofar as eating food, you know, more real food, eat a bit more locally, don’t be fanatical about it. Eat less meat, eat less processed food. It’s all pretty simple. But I think the, you need to, like understand, like the consciousness part of it like, well, you have to you have to feel it rather than think it in a certain level. And that, to me, is what the promise of urban farming, where it can help, it’s not that we’re going to suddenly grow 10% of our food. And it’s not because we save X amount of carbon emissions from not schlepping it from, you know, out of town or from Mexico. It’s that it really gets people thinking they’re like, oh, yeah, this is where my food comes from. This is how every pepper starts. And this is what it means to to work the land and to you know, harvest it. And this is how great it tastes and how good it smells. Just get people thinking about that. Just simplify.

Qasim Virjee 42:13
Yeah, I totally agree. It’s, it’s, it’s so cool. Like, for the first time, I feel shameful saying this, right, we’ve had a house for, you know, before that I was an apartment with no land around me. But I think it’s been six years I’ve had this house. And you know, our back garden has always been a nightmare. For some reason, we unfortunately, the house was pre built when we bought it. And it was just good because we didn’t have to deal with the century home falling apart. But they didn’t care about the gardening side of it. Right. You know, they just were focused on the house and dumping it on someone and that we got to dumped on us in a way. And the backyard was literally like pebbles and rocks. And like, it was just the worst earth that you could find. I don’t know where they got it from, they probably dug out the back of the house and just like left all that debris out. Yeah. And you know, cost so much and it’s such an effort to redo all of that. So it’s taken a number of years of me doing hard work to clean it up, and then get it leveled and then put some nice new turf on. And in the process. You know, I put a planter a couple of years ago around the perimeter of the garden, put some new topsoil and everything this year and for the first time this year, planted some tomatoes and some herbs and some eggplants and then a few leafy greens that didn’t taste that great. It was Sakuma Sakuma wiki. Oh, nice. Yeah. So in Kenya in Swahili we called Sukkot wiki but that’s what is that called? Collard greens. Okay, collard greens. Yeah, so Kenya that’s called that’s the number one staple or one of this edition Kenya that everyone has, which is oh, golly, and Sukumar wiki. So oh, golly, is your kind of starchy mass which is cornmeal, right? And then the Sukumar has like really tough collard greens, right? They cook it like crazy with some cilantro and some onions and garlic, a little bit of cumin, a little bit of turmeric, you know, salt, pepper to taste and some chilies. And it’s sauteed. And then you eat the two together. And that’s like the number one meal that people have all the time. Oh, all the time. Maybe you put meat if it’s a celebrity, a celebratory moment and you’ve killed a goat. You barbecue it. And they call it an Yama Yama and you eat it with your guardian Superman wiki. Oh, anyway, so gruesome. Sukumar wiki it is a Kenya throwback Kenya moment. And it was fascinating because not so much for me. The Eureka moment of that was not so much to go through the process. Part of it was and feel the shame of not having done all the time every summer, because it’s so easy. Yeah. Things just grow. Like they just grow. Right? Yeah. And I was very surprised by this. What was really interesting, the eureka moment for me was not that though is seeing other people’s faces when they came over and saw. And we were encouraging them to like pick a tomato like, hey, choose a tomato, just eat it. What do you mean eat a tomato? Unless you make a salad, not just a tomato, choose a little tiny one, try it. And then my daughter is like showing them the little baby tomatoes and say, Take this one. Take this one. Oh, it’s awesome. And people are surprised to there. Firstly, they feel like empowered to be able to eat something. Second, they don’t know if it’s safe, because it’s like in a backyard. Yeah. And it’s like there’s so much rethinking and, and reformatting going on in people’s brains, which is just amazing. You do need that a lot more of that? For sure. I think so. How are restaurants relating to that?

Ran Goel 45:40
Ah, I think restaurants are in a tough place to be honest with you. I mean, obviously, pandemic, but the reality of it is the average consumer, it’s tough to get that message across, I think in a restaurant setting. So you look at the vast majority of restaurants 99.9%, or whatever. It’s completely conventional supply chain. Right, you’re not seeing you have your odd farm to table restaurant, maybe one or two ingredients, some restaurants that are you know, directly from local farms. But for the most part, most part, it’s very, very, it’s actually I find it intriguing. From a marketing economics perspective that the penetration you’re seeing for say, local or organic. At the grocery store. It’s fairly low, but it’s there. It’s like there’s a market. And there’s an offering in restaurants very, very small like you, you really need to dig if you are looking to have a meal at a restaurant that is locally, organically sourced or either.

Qasim Virjee 46:43
Yeah, it’s a shame. It’d be kind of cool. Also, with real estate being the price that it is, it’s a difficult racket in general for restaurant tours to like do their deals, so they have to find margin wherever they can get

Ran Goel 46:53
it. Oh, yeah, no, no blame, honestly, like, it is what it is. Ultimately, I think it’s just hard to translate that to the customer. And to be frank, it’s, I think, ultimately, easier for it’s easier to do, like, you know, a bit of tokenism, you’re in there and say, you know, these are organic eggs or farm fresh eggs. But the rest of the menu is just conventional. Cuz that’s enough for most people, most people are gonna dig much deeper than that branding. Whereas I think when you’re shopping yourself, especially, you know, there’s moments of transformation for people, often we find, you know, people start shopping with us, when there’s thinking getting pregnant or having kids and they’re thinking, Okay, what am I putting my body for when, you know, God forbid, somebody got cancer, or they’re starting to think, okay, hey, why, you know, how does Why eat

Qasim Virjee 47:43
dairy Cheetos, you gave me cancer, something like that.

Ran Goel 47:47
So that is the correlation, it’s much easier to see that you’re like, hey, that tomato, don’t have pesticides on it. That one didn’t, I should maybe choose that one. Whereas in a restaurant, I think that’s kind of lost in the overall experience

Qasim Virjee 48:04
for sure. Yeah. And restaurants typically selling atmosphere, you know, exactly more than the food per se. Yeah, it’s fascinating, especially because of everything being up for grabs right now with the pandemic, you know, in the hospitality side of food. I’ve definitely just anecdotally through people that I know. And even some of our members and customers that start well, we’ve been talking a lot about this idea of kind of a return to cooking, right? And I’m like, Okay, Michael Pollan, guys, you know, everyone growing your own psychedelics in the backyard, eat the non psychedelic mushrooms with some butter from your friends go. Um, but it hasn’t happened, like people are not that people might be cooking more. My friends and people that I know are not necessarily a representative segment of society. But there are representatives funnily enough segment of, you know, professionals that are all doctors and lawyers and stuff. And I’m like, I don’t know enough entrepreneurs to talk to a dinnertime, you know, it’s crazy. Anyway, that’s a side note. That’s a brain fart. But going to other people’s houses who essentially have nine to five lives, and they’re very regular with their grocery shopping and their fridges typically always the same. You know, maybe the odd dragon fruit to appease a whimsical child’s interests in the in the in the store. And then a quick Google search as to like how to cut dragon fruit, you know, and then it’s on the table. But the experimentation and cooking I guess is what I’m getting at. I haven’t seen you No, no, no, no. And the way I look at it is like, I love my house, and it could be any house that I live in, right? But when I go home, I’m like, I’m gonna do stuff here, right? Like, I cook like crazy, and I make all sorts of stuff. Then the kitchen is like the greatest thing in the world because you get to like open things and smell things and tastes and throw them together and experiment and this fire this fire, as wine and as fire. It’s fun, you know,

Ran Goel 50:08
although it is and I think yeah, there. I think hopefully we’ve regained a bit of that. But uh, you know the other part of it, it’s, you know, it’s interesting, I’m the same as you, I love cooking, you know, my love roping the kids into it and making them peel garlic and stuff like that, and they won’t admit it, but they have a great time. Yeah. But, you know, it is there’s a privilege as well to that right privilege in terms of time, ingredients, knowledge, infrastructure, you know, obviously, you need to have a certain amount of things to be able to cook. So I’m, I’m cognizant of that, right? There’s, there’s serious time poverty. And, you know, one of the reasons why people don’t cook is it’s hard to keep, for people who are trying to live in a budget, fresh food goes badly bad, obviously. And that’s what ultimately we often cook with. So for them, it’s often makes easier to get the TV dinner, or to get takeout or something like that, that they can consume right away, rather than something that might go bad in the fridge if they don’t get to it or something like that. I mean, that’s what these why at least studies are showing that.

Qasim Virjee 51:18
Like, I get it, I get it, but I think that’s the halftime, you know, for those people.

Ran Goel 51:23
Yes. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, if they push themselves for sure. Yeah, for sure.

Qasim Virjee 51:27
Yeah. And I think I mean, okay, on the meta. Again, food education is a really problematic, like, I think this is like, should be a number one thing in school systems is like getting like cooking should be part of the curriculum. Yes, I agree. Every child should know how to cook for themselves. How do you not know how to nourish yourself? You know, like, they’re like, I would say that about six, seven out of 10 people that I meet, don’t

Ran Goel 51:52
cook. It’s interesting. It’s it actually speaks to what is the society we want to privilege and what we want to prioritize. So you say we should learn how to cook? Should we learn how to sew? Should we learn how to woodwork? Should we learn how to a number of things that, you know, we can theoretically do our cells, but we typically outsource? And I would argue, and I think it sounds like you agree that their food is different than some of these other things. Like, I don’t know if my kid needs to know how to knit scarf, but they should know how to cook, because that goes into their body, and they should have some autonomy over how they make their food and not just rely on somebody else to be making.

Qasim Virjee 52:27
Yeah, and defining taste around what you can do for yourself will empower your ability to buy the best. Yeah, exactly. Wherever you go, and have a good time eating as well.

Ran Goel 52:40
With your brother

Qasim Virjee 52:40
awesome. was wicked talking nebulously as you say about so many things? Yeah. Thanks for joining me on the podcast. Thank you for having me. It’s been awesome. absolutely a pleasure.

/ Business
Ran Goel from Fresh City Farms on the StartWell Podcast

Ran Goel – the founder of Fresh City Farms

Fresh City Farms sprouted from humble beginnings about a decade ago as an urban farming experiment in Downsview Park.