“Necessity is the mother of invention,” quotes Paul Sawtell, co-owner of 100km Foods Inc., while reflecting on his business’s response to COVID-19.
Among the many shocks caused by the pandemic, the overnight closure of restaurants in mid-March had essentially everyone in the food sector scrambling to adapt and pivot gears, including Paul and his team.
But a swift and savvy pivot has resulted in 100km Foods launching a virtual farm market that gives customers the opportunity to shop from over 100 local farms, with home delivery offered throughout the GTA and contactless pick-up markets across Toronto.
Paul Sawtell and Grace Mandarano first launched 100KM Foods in 2007 as a business-to-business wholesale local food distributer aiming to connect local farmers with chefs and food businesses — giving farmers access to large urban markets while bringing farm-fresh local food to restaurants and other foodservice operations.
By creating this vital distribution channel between farm and city, their aim from the beginning was to help build a strong local food economy in Ontario. Over the last 12 years, they’ve grown to include a network of more than 100 small- and medium-sized Ontario farms, whose farm-fresh food is distributed to over 650 GTA food businesses.
Then in March, when restaurants and most food businesses were closed down, they lost more than 90% of their revenue overnight.
“It was an existential crisis with no end in sight,” Paul shares, which led to them quickly donating as much food as possible, offering some at a discount, and having to lay off over half of their staff. “It was heart-wrenching,” he says.
But, with necessity as the mother of invention, the 100km Foods team turned to an idea that had been in the back of their mind for a while: a retail component of the business — something they just hadn’t had enough time for, until COVID.
“We joke that we built the wholesale business over 12 years, and the retail side over 12 days,” Paul laughs, “but it’s kinda true.”
In April 2020, 100km Foods launched a virtual Retail Market and began selling farm-fresh food directly to the public on their website. It was a quiet launch initially, as they had plenty to figure out: repacking for individuals, new online ordering processes and warehouse procedures, altered farm pick-ups, and staffing changes. Paul says it’s been a rollercoaster of reinventing themselves.
“It’s been heartening to see a group of loyal customers so early on, we’re grateful for that,” he shares. “We’ve struck a chord with people, providing source-identified food; they know where their food comes from, the growing practices. It’s nice to see that’s translating from restaurants to individual customers.”
As the team worked to recalibrate through the spring, they gradually expanded to more areas with mobile market drops (parking a truck for a certain time-slot in a designated area). Once the dust began to settle, they knew the retail component would likely be a permanent aspect of their business, so they wanted to offer home delivery, which then launched in the summer.
Now it’s a matter of fine-tuning things as they continue to adapt and grow their audience toward direct consumer sales; Paul says it’s going to be a long steady grind, but they’ve already come a long way.
While they aren’t where they were pre-COVID (an established wholesale business is a different game, after all), the retail market has helped them start to recover, and it’s keeping food flowing through the warehouse. They’ve also been able to bring back almost all of their staff.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to our staff, they’ve been incredible through all of this,” Paul shares. “It’s been amazing to see the team embrace the changes and really step up and take our business to the next level.”
Come September, Paul anticipates a surge in demand as schools and more offices reopen, and hopes to see foodservice rebound sooner than later, highlighting the cascade of effects.
“In the background of all of this is a network of farmers that are struggling, and for many different reasons,” Paul explains. “The impact that food system closures have had all the way down the supply chain is greatly underestimated. From people who washed linens and changed carpets in restaurants, to distributors like us, to the farmers themselves. The whole pandemic crisis has really highlighted strains in the food system and food sector in general, the resilience and lack of, and how precarious life is for a lot of businesses. It’s definitely highlighted how interconnected everything is.”
While the pandemic has certainly exposed fragilities, it has also underscored the importance of resilient local businesses and producers. Through all of this, 100km Foods has been able to maintain partnerships with the vast majority of their farms, while continuing to bring locally-produced food to Ontarians.
If you’re hungry for farm-fresh food and eager to support local, 100km Foods is ready to deliver. Visit the 100km Foods here to shop local and learn more: https://www.100kmfoods.com/100kmfoods