Between farm and fork, new distribution business grows

Paul Sawtell and Grace Mandarano at the Toronto warehouse facility for 100km Foods Inc. Their small business sells, markets and distributes products, including eggs and dairy, from 80 small and medium-sized Ontario farms to more than 300 restaurants, hotels, independent retailers and institutions. (/)

On the crest of the Niagara escarpment, Brent Preston and Gillian Flies grow colourful organic vegetables such as Japanese cucumbers, Russian blue potatoes, jumbo golden beets and baby-leaf arugula.

Grown on New Farm’s 20 acres just west of the village of Creemore, Ont., this is the kind of freshly picked produce that fills farmers markets, that makes locavores salivate, that winds up on the locally sourced menus of progressive chefs.

Though the 100-mile diet movement keeps growing, it remains challenging for small producers to stock the pantries of restaurant kitchens and keep on top of planting and harvesting. Similarly, chefs who routinely put in 12-hour days hardly have time to drive from farm to farm to shop for everything from strawberries to Swiss chard.

“Farming is already a really complex business to be in,” Mr. Preston explains. “You have to do a lot of different things well: you have to be able to grow, you have to be able to market, you have to be able to sell. There’s a lot involved in it, and distribution for us is just one too many things.”

One company that bridges the gap between farmers and chefs is 100km Foods Inc., a distribution channel connecting the farm to the fork.

Paul Sawtell and Grace Mandarano launched their Toronto-based local food-distribution business in 2008 after having a “crisis of conscience.” After working in pharmaceutical sales and backpacking their way through Asia, they returned home with a wish to do something more meaningful.

They began learning more about food and sustainability and attended a panel discussion with chefs and farmers about the politics of local food.

“Chefs were saying they wanted to buy from local farmers but didn’t have time to walk down the street to a farmers’ market let alone go to a farm,” Mr. Sawtell says. “Farmers wanted to sell to chefs but were not interested and often not able to drive door-to-door, going to different restaurants dropping off one thing to each place. Grace and I looked at each other and had that cliché lightbulb moment.”

Their company now sells, markets and distributes products, including eggs and dairy, from 80 small and medium-sized Ontario farms to more than 300 restaurants, hotels, independent retailers and institutions throughout Greater Toronto and the Georgian Bay areas. In 2009, it earned an Ontario Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation for creating a new distribution model that provides access to new markets for such farms.

The farmers set their own prices, while Mr. Sawtell and Ms. Mandarano play the vital role of middlemen.

The two buy products from farmers, assume ownership, mark them up, and sell to their customers. Their company is profitable: In 2008, it had a single truck and revenue of $243,000. This year, it is projecting revenue of $5-million. It employs 25 people, has 10 trucks and occupies a 8,200-square-foot warehouse facility.

“In February 2014, we accepted an equity investment from InvestEco and their Sustainable Food Fund,” Mr. Sawtell says. “100km Foods has been growing 30 to 40 per cent year over year since its inception.”

Despite the potential for success, there’s a surprising dearth of businesses like 100km Foods across the country. That’s especially perplexing given that several companies have sprung up recently to deliver organic groceries to people’s front doorsteps.

“Food hubs,” the term used to describe organizations like theirs, are more common in the United States where more than 200 such operations exist, Mr. Sawtell says. Intervale Food Hub, for instance, is a Burlington, Vt.-based aggregation and distribution point for more than 40 regional farmers with 50 drop-off sites that operates year-round, sourcing meat, cheese, fish and produce.

“There are a few in Canada popping up,” Mr. Sawtell says, ”but when I go to events and meet chefs from Vancouver and Montreal, I’m always surprised to hear them say they don’t have the same service. It’s crazy.”

Food hubs come in various forms. Several Vancouver chefs, including Trevor Bird of Fable Restaurant and Curtis Luk of Mission, source some of their local fruits and veggies from the non-profit Vancouver Farmers Market Direct, which makes deliveries from the Fraser Valley into Metro Vancouver twice weekly.

Mr. Bird is also a co-founder of a newly formed company called, in which customers order a “nose to tail” meat box of a whole, grass-fed cow from select local farms. Animals are slaughtered only when they are 100-per-cent funded to assure zero waste. The meat is then vacuum-packaged and delivered to people’s doors.

Terroir Foods & Agrimarketing (TFA) is a co-operative in Dieppe, N.B., owned by 30 farmers that collects and delivers food year-round to schools, calling its program “farm to cafeteria.” Director Patrick Henderson says it’s hard for organizations like TFA to cater to restaurants and compete with national distribution giants.

“We try restaurants here, but it’s difficult because they’re used to working with large distributors like Sysco,” Mr. Henderson says. “We have only two restaurants that buy every week. It’s hard to convince the others to try because they are used to giving an order to Sysco one day then the day after they get the food. We take a little more time. We have to get the order and send it to each farmer, and every farmer grows something different, whether it’s eggplant, mushrooms, or lettuce.

“Also, here in New Brunswick a lot of people want local food but they don’t want to pay the price,” he adds. “Sometimes it’s more expensive but sometimes it’s not, but the reputation of local products is that they’re more expensive. We have to work on that. …We have to grow, because the more volume we can distribute, the less the cost will be. We hope to grow, but it’s hard.”

Despite the challenges involved, entrepreneurs seeking new opportunities may be encouraged by industry members’ unshakeable faith in the farm-to-fork philosophy.

“I don’t know any chef who opens a new restaurant saying ‘I’m going to focus on imports,’" says 100km Food’s Ms. Mandarano. “Local food has never been a fad in Europe; it’s just what they do. When you authentically care about local food, there’s no fear of it going away. The movement is about going back to basics.”