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From feast to famine

From feast to famine

[photo of Paul Sawtell in front of one of his company trucks]
Tenzing Dorje

This past February, Paul Sawtell (Artsci'02) offered me a tour of the low-slung warehouse in North York that holds his business, 100km Foods. As we walked, he talked about the pride he felt moving into  the space. How when he started the enterprise with his wife, Grace Mandarano, he couldn’t have dreamed of being big enough to need its more than 8,000 square feet.

Back in 2008, they’d started 100km Foods to link the farms of the Ontario Greenbelt to the restaurants and stores that wanted local seasonal food. Now, after 12 years of growth in fits and starts, they were on strong footing. They had hundreds of clients, a staff of over two dozen, and had just been awarded a “Best for the World” designation by B Corp.

As he moved through the warehouse, Paul pointed to walk-in fridges filled with local cheeses, milk, and eggs. He appraised pallets stacked with potatoes, beets, and onions. And he gestured to the empty space where in just a few months there would be stacks scraping the ceiling as asparagus, broccoli, strawberries, cabbage, cauliflower, and cherries were ready for harvest.

Trucks pulled up to the docking bay. They loaded up stacks of food and fanned out like pollinating bees for destinations like Momofuku, Sassafraz, and the Royal York.

Thinking about the long road that brought them to where they were, Paul was contemplative. “One of the less talked-about attributes of business is perseverance,” he said, reflecting on the years he drove trucks, made sales, and hauled potatoes while Grace handled the finances. “Overnight successes are rare. More often it’s blood, sweat, and tears with small increases that last.”

Eventually, with staff handling the sales, marketing, packing, and delivery, Paul had more time for long-term strategic thinking. He was building connections with other food hubs across North America and thinking about how more communities could be fed with the produce of their own soil. He felt like it was a luxury to be able to think that far ahead, especially after so many years just trying to deliver on yesterday’s commitments.

Paul, like billions of others, didn’t realize that all of his plans were going to change.

“When the closure order came, literally 90 per cent of our revenue evaporated,” Paul says. “Not in a gradual way, it happened overnight.” He pauses, remembering the days and hours after COVID-19 hit Ontario and his business came to a grinding halt. His voice is weary; he’s been taking on night shifts due to staffing constraints. “Those first few days were terrible. Truly brutal.”

It’s now late June and the Toronto region is tentatively heading into Phase 2 of the provincial reopening plan. Rates of infection from COVID have declined steadily and the last few days have proffered a modest half per cent increase in the number of new cases. For now, thanks to an unprecedented disruption of millions of lives, Ontario seems to have flattened the curve.

While we’ve managed to prevent sickness on the level that many epidemiologists feared, there have been a cascade of other consequences. Across Canada, nearly two million people lost their jobs. Use of food banks has soared. And countless businesses buckled under the pressure, 100km Foods among them.

Paul and Grace had come to the food sector by an indirect route. After years working in the pharmaceutical industry, both were looking for something that rewarded them with more than a paycheque. Their entrepreneurial bent sent them looking for a problem to solve.

It wasn’t long before they learned there was a fissure in the Greater Toronto Area’s food supply chain. At the grocery store or the food terminal, a farm from the fertile Greenbelt that girdles the GTA is competing against agribusiness giants from California, Chile, and Argentina. Because of global supply chains and monoculture farms operating on a nearly unimaginable scale, a head of broccoli that budded with a view of the Pacific Ocean sells for less than one grown in Ontario.

It’s a major struggle for Ontario farmers, who have to take every step possible to drive down the cost of production. But for chefs who care about the quality of the food they serve, it’s infuriating. If the environmental toll of a 4,000 km freight journey wasn’t bad enough, the taste speaks for itself. While affordable andavailable year-round, there’s a good chance that a strawberry from the Golden State will have the same flavour as a block of wood.

“I want the best ingredients, and I want to do as little to them as I can,” says Chef Brad Long, the restaurateur behind Belong Café. Equal parts industrial heritage and chic farmhouse, it’s a restaurant that prides itself on a menu that changes with the season. “Buying local means I get crops in season, when they’re at their best and their cheapest. It’s just smart business,” he says.“Most people don’t know that southern Ontario isone of the best growing regions on the planet!”

One of the places making the most of that exceptional growing region is the New Farm,just south of Georgian Bay. They were one of the first farms that Paul and Grace partnered with when they started 100km Foods. Their story was surprisingly similar: a couple working unhappily in urban jobs who decided to take  a leap of faith. Their ambition was the same: change our food system.

“When we connected with 100km Foods, it was love at first sight,” says Gillian Flies, who founded the New Farm with her husband. “A lot of farmers try to farm and distribute to make their model work. They tack delivery on to what they’re already doing and it just doesn’t work. Working with 100km Foods lets us doour job and they do their job.”

The New Farm owners are farmer-advocates, trying to resuscitate now-lost techniques to combat the rising tides of climate change. Through a suite of practices called regenerative farming,which include cover-cropping, natural fertilizers, and minimizing tilling, their fields soak up CO2 from the atmosphere and swallow water during heavy rains that make other farms flood.

“Our farming depends on 100km Foods,” Gillian says with conviction.

COVID intervened in their relationship.

When restaurants closed, 100km Foods had more than $750,000 in their accounts receivable. With tears welling in his eyes, Paul tells how they had to call their farm partners to tell them theycouldn’t pay their bills. This after he and Grace had to lay off nearly a dozen staff.

“These are our family, we spend so much time with them and they work so hard for our shared purpose,” Paul says. “We have a bond, and to let half of them go was devastating. That week was
very dark. We were in a full existential crisis. We spent the days asking ourselves, ‘How do we get out of this?’”

Paul takes a deep breath, remembering how they responded. “We were forced into survival mode. We had two reactions to choose from: pull the blankets over our heads and wait for it to pass,or fight like hell to try to save something.”

And so they fought.

They donated everything they could to The Stop Community Food Centre, one of their longtime non-profit partners. For nearly as long as it has been running, 100km Foods has made it a priority to allocate a portion of their high-quality food to people in need. But even The Stop, which directly feeds hundreds of people every day and had a surging demand, was being overwhelmed by donations. The rest of 100km Food’s stock of beets, greens, and eggs went, at greatly reduced prices, to the few of their restaurant clients still open for business.

100km Foods was designed to sell to restaurants. But when that wasn’t an option anymore, they changed their approach. “It took us 12 years to build our wholesale business,” Paul says with a tired smile. “And then 12 days to build our retail business.”

In the first days after the provincial closure order, grocery stores struggled to fend off the mounting chaos. Rumours of lockdowns and shortages had panicked consumers buying stockpiles of flour, yeast,toilet paper, and disinfecting wipes. Grocery delivery companies soon had serious backlogs. 100km Foods wanted to help fill the gap.

Convincing customers their boxes were a better alternative than the dread-inducing grocery store was a relatively easy sell. The real challenge was getting them the food they’d ordered.

“I know it sounds simple: packing food into boxes.” Paul says. “But we were set up to pack up skids of food for a truck, not this small scale. We needed to retoolour warehouse. We needed a team with a new skill set and we needed to package and handle everything differently.” Years of fine-tuning hadmade their warehouse a model of efficiency. Nowthey were doing a full redesign.

“We want to do things as right as possible as early as possible,” Paul says. “So we put our heads down trying to get it right, because if you go too fast you can implode. You can do yourself a disservice by putting out a flawed product early.”

They began hiring back their workers, many to jobs that had totally changed. Selling to families as well as restaurants had been a plan for a long time, but COVID forced their hand ahead ofschedule. They reworked their website and started selling curated boxes filled with farm-fresh foods. Orders trickled in and they picked hotspots around the city to park their trucks and distribute boxes. An old friend they’d worked with back in year one offered them a parking lot in the west end to make the exchanges. Then they found another lot downtown. Then one in North York. Soon they were distributing across the city again.

“The flip side of perseverance is refocusing your energy quickly,” Paul says. “That meant being supportive to our team members who were now wearing different hats. People had to pick up the pieces and recreate themselves and their jobs while we pivoted the business.”

100km Foods gathered enough weekly orders that they were able to make the next step for the business’s new arm: home delivery. Over the weeks that followed, they put the enterprise back together in a new shape. Growth has been slow but steady, and they’re now back up to generating 50 per cent of their previous revenue. Paul is circumspect about the experience. Though he and Grace have put in a tremendous amount of labour to make it happen, he’s keenly aware of the help they had along the way.

They have hired back nearly all their staff, and the federal government’s 75 per cent wage subsidy program has played a major role.

“Delivering food for families instead of restaurants doesn’t require more produce,” Paul says. “But the labour involved is significant. It’s a gift to have this kind of runway with the wage subsidy. If we tried to do this under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be possible. We want to build enough so that when the wage subsidy ends, we’re sustainable.”

[photo of masked staff in a warehouse packing food]
Staff at 100km Foods prepare produce orders for pick-up by customers. Photo by Tenzing Dorjé

Sustainability is a concept that Paul brings up often. And it’s one he means in more ways than just carbon footprint. The work of 100km Foods is predicated not just on reducing those international freight trips, it’s
about the health and resilience of the region: our ability to survive during times of acute shock and prolonged stress.

“The fact that if the border closes, Toronto only has enough food for three days scares me,” Paul says. But he understands that right now, it’s a niche question given the economics of the system. Local food is expensive. “It’s a subset of the population that has the power to make it an easy decision.”

They balance this tension with a regular commitment to food justice organizations. 100km Foods makes free deliveries for non-profit partners. They donate produce. And during this pandemic, they’ve been helping people who have become food-insecure. “Access to good food has always been a stress, but this amplifies it exponentially,” he says, informed from the regular conversations he has with staff at places such as FoodShare, The Stop, and North York Harvest Food Bank. “The demand for community food services is through the roof. People’scircumstances are fragile. If you live paycheque to paycheque, this presents an immediate problem.”

Once the new arm of the business was up and running, 100km Foods was approached by Meal Exchange, a student-focused food security organization. They wanted to help get food to students who were now without meal plans, struggling to get enough to eat. Paul was happy to help and offered them produce at steep discount. But, with the newness of the business’s second arm, he wasn’t able to provide the home delivery they needed. “In good times we’re happy to have relationships that are more socially positive if they have a fiscal cost,” Paul says. “But we just couldn’t swing it.”

Unexpected help stepped in. Local moving companies Atlas Van Lines and AMJ Campbell offered to deliver. Now, along with trucks headed out for deliveries to their customers and the restaurants slowly coming back into action, brightly emblazoned moving trucks dock at the 100km Foods warehouse too. “I never would have thought a partnership like that would exist,” Paul says. “But that program helped feed 1,200 students. I’m grateful we could be part of that unlikely collaboration.” In addition to doing tangible good for the community, thesuccess of the Meal Exchange project signalled something more for the business. Contributing to people in need meant they were back on their feet. Four months into a crisis that nearly wiped them out, they had stepped back from the brink.

The impacts of COVID-19 are still unfolding. There are still thousands sick and communities seem to be struck by resurgences of the virus just as they think they’re in the clear. It’s changed the context for everything, and Paul is simply glad his business has survived. “I would be hugely proud and consider it a major success if we get out ofthis year and break even,” he says, adding that even this goal may be a stretch. “Everything pre-COVID is out the window.”

Paul is hesitant to talk about silver linings. Instead, he’s informed by the experience of seeing more than a decade of effort almost disappear.
 

[photo of Paul Sawtell]
Paul Sawtell   Photo by Tenzing Dorjé

“Being in a dire situation completely realigns your goals,” he says. “Over the 12 years we’ve been running, there have been dark days.” Days where trucks broke down, where food spoiled, where a small hiccup snowballed into a major problem. “Sometimes I wanted to quit or Grace wanted to quit. Thankfully, those days didn’t overlap for long.”

For now, they’re all right. There will be more orders tomorrow, and more deliveries, and more unexpected problems.

“The story of the bootstrapping entrepreneur is a fallacy, to say the least,” he says. “You need people, partners, luck, and perseverance. A strong stomach helps too.” 

[cover image of the Queen's Alumni Review issue 3, 2020, featuring Anita Jack-Davies]