Fresh Thinking: A Look at Ruth Tal’s Fresh Restaurant Empire

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Inspired by her first taste of fresh carrot juice, Fresh founder Ruth Tal embarked on an entrepreneurial journey that ultimately led her to become a pioneering force within Toronto’s (and Canada’s) plant-based food scene.

In 1991, at age 25, Tal started her business as a pop-up juice stand, Juice for Life, at health fairs and music festivals.

“I was young and didn’t have a lot of money, but I was evangelical about sharing the knowledge and my passion,” Tal recalls. “I was getting healthy and feeling really good and there was nowhere to go, as a vegan, for great holistic, plant-based food that wasn’t just healthy for you, but also actually tasted good.”

She followed up the pop-up with a semi-permanent location at the now defunct Bamboo Club, which led to the brand’s first permanent location in the Queen Street Market, across from the City TV/MuchMusic headquarters. This location allowed Tal to “develop the concept and really deepen the following,” and also garnered the brand significant notoriety from visiting celebrities.

“A lot of the musicians and celebrities that were coming from south of the border, [especially] the West Coast, already knew about what I was doing…they were very dialed-in to the planet and their health,” Tal explains. “Having them support and love what I was doing — or mentioning that they were vegan or into juicing and come to [Juice for Life] — gave what I was doing more credibility and helped me build more momentum.”

That said, the tiny location had its limits. “Being in the Queen Street Market, I had eight stools and was obliged to conform to its hours and I knew there was so much more I wanted to do,” says Tal. “[Plus] I was lined up out the door, so I started to look for a restaurant location where I could provide an atmosphere as well as great food and great juice.”

This led to the opening of a 60-seat restaurant location in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, which she built out with the help of friends. “That set me on the path of opening restaurants. We still had a strong juice-bar and takeaway [business], but we started to develop the full-service vein,” says Tal.

By the new millennium, the Queen-Street location had been moved down the street to a space inside a Le Château retail store; Tal had welcomed two partners into the business — her accountant Barry Alper (in 1996) and chef/partner Jennifer Houston (in 1999); and the brand had been renamed Fresh to better reflect its wide range of offerings.

At the same time, Tal and her team were ready to embark on a third location, this time with the budget to “hire an architect and designer and really step it up to improve the experience for customers and defy the stereotypes that all vegans are hippies and service is going to be crappy — play in the big leagues and be on par with all the best restaurants in the city.”

Looking back, Tal views this move as one of the best business decisions she’s ever made. The brand’s first professionally designed location, Fresh on Crawford, garnered the brand a wealth of attention and awards. “It was a beautiful location and it put us on the map. I had already been around for a while, but it was more of a cult following and then, with this location, [people began to take notice].”

As the brand moved to a full-service format, there was room for greater menu creativity and more labour-intensive offerings. “The core menu, initially, was soups, salads, bowls and burgers, but then we were able to get more into items like our quinoa onion rings,” notes Tal. “Developing that recipe and bringing them on was a testament to our ability to be stronger in the kitchen.”

As Tal notes, the brand has always had a fairly broad menu, with several categories. “Basically, what we’ve tried to do is hit all the notes so there’s something for everyone, depending on how they’re feeling, and do it well.”

Maintaining and updating a menu that broad is something of a balancing act, Tal admits. “The problem is, we’re always developing new recipes and trying them out as
specials…but you can’t keep adding new things without editing.” Ultimately, Tal and Houston strive to strike a balance between the brand’s menu categories to ensure its offerings remain well rounded, while incorporating the latest ingredients and flavours influencing global food trends.

“We’re always naturally pushing the envelope,” Tal explains. And this is especially true now that healthy and plant-based eating has entered the main stream. “When you’re inspired by your community and what’s happening around you and you’re not the only one responsible for educating and turning people on [to this way of eating], all of a sudden it’s a much more creative [atmosphere]. The saying that competition is healthy is absolutely true.”

With five locations in Toronto, Fresh is poised to begin expansion in other areas of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), as well as throughout Canada thanks to a new strategic partnership Tal says will help the brand manage the logistics of its growth. And there are plans for new Fresh locations much farther afield — as many as six restaurants in Los Angeles. In fact, Tal says she expects the first L.A. location to open this spring.

However, this will not be Fresh’s first international outpost, as the brand already boasts two locations in Moscow through a partnership with local restaurateurs.

The brand is also in the midst of a transformation, spurred by the opening of its fifth location last summer. The new spot on Front Street in Toronto represents Fresh’s largest location and includes new features, such as a cocktail bar and vegan-wine list. “It’s a gorgeous [space]. We’ve elevated everything — all of the customer-facing points: our service, the level of service experience of our staff,” says Tal. “We do a lot of delivery, so the way we handle our takeaway and delivery at the front was really considered this time. It’s all working so well; it’s actually become the number-1 location, of the five, in the span of less than six months.”

Due to the location’s success, it has now become the template for future restaurants. In fact, the Spadina and Queen unit recently completed an expansion and revamp. “At Fresh on Spadina, we took over the Subway [restaurant] next door and [brought]the Fresh-on-Front concept to Spadina,” Tal explains. “We’ll have some additional equipment in the kitchen that will allow us to do flatbreads — breaking out of the traditional categories people know us for.”

After listing all of the projects the Fresh team is currently pursuing, Tal quips, “I feel like that’s enough.”

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