Fresh Restaurants has expanded to its eighth location in the Greater Toronto Area with a new space in the city’s Danforth neighbourhood and plans to continue the plant-based brand’s growth eventually into markets beyond its home base.
For more than 20 years, Ruth Tal, founder of Fresh Restaurants, has been on a mission to prove that a plant-based diet can be satisfying, energizing and crave-able.
Randall Papineau, Vice-President of Growth and Operations, said the company has a couple more locations that are coming inside the GTA.
“And we are looking actively for sites outside of the GTA, across Ontario and across the country. We are looking in places like Guelph, Oakville, Port Credit, Hamilton, Dundas, Kitchener, Waterloo, Ottawa, Kingston, to name a couple of strategic markets that we’re moving into in the coming months and years,” he said.
How many locations does the company want to grow to in the future?
“As big as we can take it honestly. The brand has legs to grow across the country. We’re excited about BC. We’re excited about US expansion in the future as well. The Fresh brand is unique, true omni-channel, takeout, delivery and pickup. We launched the Fresh app a couple of years ago and we’re currently working on a new iteration of that Fresh app with new features,” he said. “We’re looking to open a location a month starting in 2023 essentially for as long as we can take it there.”
“I only want to grow at the pace that won’t damage or dilute the integrity of the concept of the brand, of the mission. The quality. And just staying true to our roots and being community driven, being community based . . . It’s really about the quality and the neighbourhoods that we’re in,” added Tal. “It could be one a month but I would rather have fewer that are fantastic and are true examples of the brand than too many. So we’ll go at the right pace.”
The history behind the brand is an interesting one. When Tal was 16, she dropped out of high school and worked at a full-time job because her dream was to travel the world. She left when she was 18 and ended up traveling all over the world and working until she was 25.
When she came back, “intending to please my parents and really get going on my future, I went to Ryerson (University) and I was getting the credits that I needed to complete high school and get accepted hopefully to U of T,” she said.
“That summer I had my first glass of carrot juice. I walked into a little health food store at Avenue and Davenport and up to that point I’d never seen anything juiced. I’d seen people cut oranges and juice them. But seeing a whole carrot go into a machine and then come out this beautiful bright orange liquid. Drinking it and feeling how alive it was. And getting to know what the concept was about eating live foods and freshly squeezed juice – so wonderful and amazing and energizing and nutritional benefits of vegetable juice.”
The health food store had a number of different books that were not widely available in regular bookstores. Tal started reading these books about the plant-based lifestyle and saving the planet and being more proactive in health by eating more plants and vegetables.
“This lightbulb just went off for me and I bought a little juicer and started juicing at home and making all these amazing and wild combinations using beets and carrots. Going on long juice fasts. I became plant-based, 100 per cent vegan pretty much overnight,” explained Tal. “I was feeling so good, so vibrant, the best that I ever, ever felt. I became a bit evangelical about it. I wanted everyone to feel this way.
“I looked around the food landscape in Toronto and there was nowhere for someone like me to eat. Someone who wanted to eat yummy, good food who was in her mid 20s and hip, still wanted to hang out with cool people and not be the vegan eating the iceberg lettuce salad by myself at a health food deli. I wanted more. I wanted great atmosphere and beautiful presentation and great service and innovative gorgeous plant-based food that wasn’t a sacrifice in flavour or in experience.”
Her first full-service restaurant opened on Bloor Street in 1995. But the springboard was opening a pop-up juice bar in 1991 called Juice for Life. After developing a cult following with her pop-up, she opened a permanent location in the Queen Street Market across from CityTV, developing the signature juices and vegan dishes that form the core of the menu.
She identified this need in Toronto really out of her own need to have an all-vegan juice bar, cafe. That was the founding of the business in the early 90s. She scraped money together, got a student loan to go to U of T and took that student loan as seed money for the original name of the brand Juice for Life. She paid back the student loan and ended up employing a number of students.
“It all worked for the best. I realized that my calling was not to go to university and please my parents so to speak but to spread the word, to spread what for me at that time was the plant-based gospel,” said Tal, who has published five cookbooks. “There are other ways to take care of yourself and take care of the planet and enjoy your food at the same time and that became my mission. And then it grew and grew.”