I recently chatted with Jennifer Italiano, the co-owner of Toronto-based Live Organic Food, an innovative healthy food business that first opened as a two-seater restaurant back in 2002!
Hey Jennifer! It’s so great to chat with you today! I’d love to know how Live Organic Food all began—can you tell us about that?
Sure! So it started off as a two-seater restaurant back in 2002. I was in the process of leaving a job I had in fashion and my brother at that time was with a girl that was a holistic nutritionist. They had actually opened up an organic juice bar, and during my time of leaving the fashion industry, they said,” Oh, do you want to come cook?” Because I always loved to cook, being Italian, and I had also started to kind of get into health myself at that time. So, I decided to leave my job and help his girlfriend at the time cook. Eventually, I decided to buy that little place out, which was a tiny little place on DuPont Street and the rent was like next to nothing—maybe $600 and they had put about $18,000 into the business. It was a tiny place and I took over that little place and my brother stayed with me and we turned it into this little cafe that was known for raw food. It was 4 raw mains and a cooked soup. So that’s kinda how we started; we were like this little place that had built like a community of people that were into organic and this type of food. The word spread and we had a really amazing group of people that were our customers.
And then I remember thinking and reading in NOW Magazine that there was a “Top 50 Vegetarian Restaurants in Toronto” list and I thought, wow, that’s fantastic. One day, I hope that we can make this list. And sure enough, the editor of NOW Magazine called me and said, “I just want to let you know that you weren’t on the list because we think you guys are so special that we’re going to give you your own page next week!” So, they gave us our first review, which happened to be a five-star review and that literally is what put us on the map back then. So, people that weren’t even into this kind of place, they would go, What is this place? What is this girl making? What kind of food is this?
Wow, what a story! It sounds like that review was really helpful for spreading the news about your restaurant.
Oh yeah! It was insane. And then I was on every show you can imagine because nobody was doing this type of food, crazy enough. I always am entertained by the fact that—even when we were making zucchini noodles back then or energy balls—I never even thought that we were ahead of our time, but guess we were. Cauliflower rice, I’ve been making that since 2002, so it just really blows my mind, because there was nothing back then. Nothing out there.
Can you tell us where you are today with Live Organic Food? I read that you had to close your restaurant on DuPont Street this year, which is really unfortunate.
It’s very unpredictable, the world right now. So, we had the restaurant for 19 years, and the decision to close came for a lot of reasons. Obviously with covid, it was just like the last nail kind of thing for us. Like a lot of small businesses, we thought we’d be back in a couple of weeks, I thought, I’ll see my staff, I’ll see them in a couple weeks, we’ll see them in a month, and then it was two months. And then my brother and I felt that it was our time to exit. And it wasn’t because we were giving up on the industry or anything like that. We had kind of considered it a couple years before this whole event, and we thought, we kept going and going because we had such love for our restaurant, our staff and our customers. But it’s a hard business already, and this whole covid thing kind of just made it more of a realization that it was our time to exit and focus more on our production. So, it was a bittersweet thing for me, I have to admit, because it was my baby, my first baby for so long. And I loved, and still love, my restaurant—like with all my heart, right til the end.
That sounds like a difficult situation for sure, and I’m going to miss eating at your amazing restaurant now! How have you pivoted through this and what are you doing now?
My focus is our Live production facility now and it has given me a little bit of ease having only to focus on one business, which is good. And so, the focus is growing the business and coming up with more innovative products. I’m always working on things and trying to make more healthy food accessible for people. Right now we are in over about 400 stores across Canada. The bigger stores here in Ontario would be Whole Foods, Farm Boy, Healthy Planet, Fiesta Farms and some Metros, as well as a lot of health food stores and some speciality stores. We are hoping to expand this.
We also have our plant boxes that we deliver in the GTA area. So that’s one thing about this whole thing, too. We were always going to do that. So, we sell our Live products to stores across Canada, but it [the covid situation] also made us start doing home deliveries. So that’s a huge part of what we’re doing, too, and I spend a lot of my time focusing on that, which I’m enjoying, and I’m looking to build out more of that too.
What about the organic sector as a whole—it is still a smallish segment of the market and, as someone quite familiar with running an organic food business, what would you say needs to change if the organic sector is to grow more?
I think it’s becoming accepted; it’s becoming more accessible and in a lot more stores, which is a great thing. I think pricing is an issue, but I do see that stores are kind of giving it a little bit more of an edge with conventional. I think people just need to be educated and try to support it more. I think when it comes to organic farming, a lot of them are smaller farms. It can be a growing industry and I think if people just knew the benefits of what they’re doing when they support organic farming…it’s just so much more than just an organic fruit and vegetable. There’s a lot more behind the actual scenes of what goes into organic farming, the people behind it. So I think the education part is lacking, and the accessibility and pricing. You’re not just buying an organic tomato, it’s an environmental impact. It could be a little bit more affordable, but I think that may come with people buying more.
You’ve been in business for almost twenty years, that’s incredible! What would you say are important lessons you’ve learned along the way so far?
I think…never to take things for granted. It can change at any minute and I think you always have to be on top of your game. Not that it’s a game, but I think you have to be focused on what you’re doing and try not to be misled by other people and what they’re doing. Stay true to who you are as a brand, but also try to evolve with the times. We’ve had a lot of hardships and times; it’s not an easy business—I don’t think any business is easy. Perseverance, I think the partnership between myself and my brother is kind of what keeps us going, too, because we believe so much in what we do. We really believe in our business and we love it. So, as entrepreneurs, that’s what keeps us going and we’re lucky we have each other, but it never ends. You have to always learn. I think, after doing it for so many years, I can kind of somewhat shut things off so I can have a balance, spend time with my family because, as entrepreneurs, we’re wearing so many hats. Sometimes you are like a doctor on call 24/7, but I think it’s important to have an equilibrium, that work-life balance.
You said that you started to become interested in health around the time you started working in your restaurant. Can you tell us more about your healthy eating journey?
Just a little bit before I was dibble dabbling into it and then obviously, being around all this food, I opened up my horizons to healthier food. So, we’re, my brother and I, all about organic food, whole foods, real food and making food that’s really tasty and that happens to be plant-based, and making it accessible to everyone, and making food that is healthy taste good.
I think it [plant-based/raw food] had a big misconception that it tasted like vegetables— that there was nothing to it. And that’s where we tried to make it better. It can be really tasty, and you can incorporate this into your diet whether you’re vegan or not. But I’m like everybody else, I enjoy eating and I know when I eat well, I feel good. I know that when I eat like crap, I feel like crap. So, for the most part, I try to keep a cleaner diet, but I’m like everybody else, I like to indulge and have my days of not feeling so good.
Would you say that you’ve become healthier since starting Life Organic Food?
I think healthier because I always say that I’m very fortunate to be around such great food all the time and have access to really good, high-quality ingredients and organic foods. For the most part, it’s definitely a lifestyle for my brother and myself. But I mean, we’re also part Italian and like to enjoy food, but like other people, we’ve also come to a realization that we know how our bodies will react to certain foods. So, not that we don’t have our junk days like everybody else, but, for the most part, we know we feel good with eating good food, or healthier food, it makes us function better. Even in business, it makes us function better as a person. There’s nothing worse than me having junk food, maybe on a Sunday, and having a busy Monday and feeling really sluggish, you know what I mean? So, for the most part, I have a green shake in the morning; I’m pretty regimented with how I eat, especially during the week, I’m a little soldier that eats a certain way.
I definitely agree that eating well is so important—especially if we’re busy. Do you have any other ways you destress or keep healthy?
I do like to take care of myself. I learned later in life … when you’re young you maybe workout more for vanity. But it became more for my headspace for me; for my mental wellbeing. So obviously doing some kind of activity daily or at least a few times a week. And then I got into cycling a few years ago and I’ve done some longer rides and I usually have a charity that I ride for every summer to Montreal. So that was put on hold last year, but I’m hoping this year it’ll happen again and I can take part in that. Usually, I like to exercise early and then I can focus on the rest of my day and feel good, although my schedule has kind of changed lately due to this whole pandemic as well, but I still like to keep myself mentally fit by doing something. I actually do a lot of my good thinking then, even things I wanna make, I kind of create things in my mind when I’m doing things.
Jenn, thanks so much for chatting with me today, it’s been a pleasure!
You’re welcome, take care.