This month, we spoke with Ran Goel, CEO and founder of Fresh City Farms. He opened up about the pandemic and its effect on his business, opening a bricks-and-mortar location during the golden age of online shopping and why people should spend more time, energy and money on food.
The pandemic has obviously changed the way the world thinks about wellbeing. What are the top three changes you have observed?
Yes. At least I hope so! First thing is that people have noticed the wellbeing of essential workers, or lack thereof. I think there is a profound appreciation for how hard people up and down the food system work from farmers to meat plant workers to cashiers and that they are not getting a fair shake. Second, people are now cooking much more, which is generally a good thing for healthier eating as you have much more control about the ingredients you use. Finally, there has been a resurgence in people growing their own food, which means some physical activity and more importantly, breeding an intimacy with food production.
What have been your top challenges since starting the business?
Top challenge is to compete in a cheap food world. People will buy an expensive car to drive their body around in, they will buy expensive clothes to adorn their body, they will buy expensive creams to make them look younger, but many are still skeptical about the notion that when you cheap out on food, it often impacts your health. And by cheap out I don’t only mean financially, I primarily mean in terms of how much you invest in what you put in your body, whether its how much you learn, how long you spend shopping for the right food or how much time you spend cooking.
What changes to your business plans did you make in light of the pandemic?
Honestly the list is very, very, very long. It literally impacted almost every process in our business. From sanitization practices across our operation—farm, kitchen, warehouse, office, eight stores, delivery fleet—to how many people can work in a given indoor space, to our prepared food lineup, COVID-19 has had a profound impact on our business. In the short term, it meant we had to shutter out two butcher shops because there was so much online demand that we could not keep up with both channels. In the medium term, it will mean we focus on our online channel as that has obviously seen tremendous growth.
The pandemic has accelerated adoption of direct-to-consumer and grocery delivery services. How has Fresh City adapted/built on this?
We have been selling online since 2011, so had more experience than most. For us, it was a question about how quick we can scale during a pandemic. We had to institute demand management early on including caps on deliveries and order size and waitlisting new customers. We are blessed with a team that truly believes in our mission of making a better life through food so everyone was working together to respond to a once-in-a-century public health challenge. Our online business has grown more in a few months than we were expecting in a few years.
Has your bricks & mortar retail strategy changed at all in light of the pandemic?
Overall our plan was to catch our breath this year given we had gone from zero stores in Summer 2018 to eight stores today. So in that sense, there were no imminent growth plans. However, I will say that online grocery or not, pandemic or not, I am a huge believer in the bricks and mortar channel. That doesn’t mean you continue doing what you have always done. But I do think fresh food is not going the way of books or flights, in that most fresh food sales will still be in stores 25 years from today.
You decided to forge ahead with the long-anticipated opening of your Toronto Bay and Gerrard location in the relatively early days of the pandemic, even offering a discount to workers from the several nearby hospitals. Please take us through the decision-making process leading up to that opening.
It was pretty simple actually. The store was ready for opening. The community wanted us to open so that they would have an easy way to access local and organic food. (Our store opening had been delayed because of the inevitable construction issues so there was a live dialogue with our neighbors via social media, email and in person.) And most importantly given the pandemic, the retail team wanted to push ahead with the opening. At the time, Toronto Public Health hadn’t posted best practices yet so we scoured the internet for guidance on how many customers we could let in per square foot of retail space and so forth. It also meant a truncated offering with the meat/fish/deli/bakery cases closed as well as the sit down area. But our retail team did it and a lot of credit to them just a couple of weeks into the lockdown.
What positives have come out of the pandemic for Fresh City?
There is a huge sense of satisfaction of having executed well during a crisis. We have several hundred staff and honestly almost each and every one went above and beyond given the circumstances. It was really inspirational given the risk and uncertainty. Overall, our online channel obviously benefited from the pandemic. But the thing that I am most hopeful for is that this pandemic lifted the hood on our food system for many people for the first time. When I started Fresh City it was to change the food system, but unless you have the time and inclination to start reading about food, you may not realize there is anything to fix. So the pandemic uncovered a lot of truths—from how we should not take our health for granted, to how shoddily we treat essential workers, to how rewarding it is to cook and grow your food.