It’s opening day for The Big Carrot’s new store in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood and a large crowd is gathered outside, long before the doors are set to open. It’s late June, sunny and there’s a definite jovial vibe in the air as young kids dance to live music, and people pose for photos with the store’s cheerful carrot mascot before joining the line for a cup of freshly squeezed carrot juice. After a round of speeches, the store’s doors open and the crowd floods in; within minutes the aisles are so packed you can barely move.
This may seem like a disproportionate amount of excitement for the opening of a small, 6,300-sq.-ft. natural health food store, only the second for The Big Carrot brand. But this is not your average health food grocer. First opened on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue 35 years ago, The Big Carrot is widely known as a pioneer in the natural health space.
As a worker-owned company, The Big Carrot has always prioritized organic, non-GMO, local, fair trade and sustainability in its purchasing. “The Big Carrot purchased organic products before organic was fully defined; they supported local farmers and vendors and helped build the organic industry in Ontario and in Canada,” says the store’s manager of public relations, Sarah Dobec. The original Danforth location has developed a cult-like following in the city—and if the enthusiastic posts on the neighbourhood Facebook page are any indication, Beach residents had been eagerly awaiting the opening day of their own local Big Carrot for months.
Fast-forward two months later and store manager John Gousvaris says reception of the store, known as the Beach Community Market, has continued to be positive. “We’ve had very, very good feedback from everybody,” he says. Weekends seem to be the busiest times so far, he says, aside from the second Monday of each month, when the store offers 10 times the points on its loyalty card program. “We’re very busy on that Monday.”
Although smaller than the original store, the new location features all the same departments—including grocery, fresh produce, fresh grab-and-go foods, a personal care and dispensary section, and an organic smoothie/coffee bar. “We’re smaller than the Danforth location [which is about 10,000 sq. ft.], so we really had to think carefully about what we were going to sell. We took the bestsellers from Danforth, the popular and most requested items, and brought them here,” says Gousvaris, who has been with The Big Carrot for nearly 12 years, having worked as a produce manager at the Danforth location before becoming store manager at the Beach location.
Upon entering the store, the first thing customers see is a collection of colourful signs on the right-hand wall that declare The Big Carrot’s various affiliations and commitments to sustainability and health. One sign states the store’s commitment to local while another describes its partnership with the Canadian Organic Growers, The Organic Council of Ontario and the Canada Organic Trade Association. Yet another sign affirms that The Big Carrot is a founding member of the Non-GMO Project while others demonstrate the store’s commitment to sustainable seafood and fair trade-certified coffee and sugar cane.
Once past the signs, your eye immediately goes to the all-organic produce section, which Gousvaris says is the most popular area of the store. “Everyone comes in to load up on their fruits and veggies.” That said, The Carrot Kitchen (a hot counter/foodservice area featuring organic meals made in house) and the grab-and-go section have both proven more popular than he expected. “Our grab-and-go section is constantly getting filled, and constantly getting emptied again,” he says. “There’s a lot of clientele here that just want a good meal, ready to go. That’s definitely the trend here.”
While the new store sells a lot of the same grab-and-go items that are popular at the Danforth location, it has also added a several new items, including a meatless burger called the Southwood Smash (named after Southwood Drive, where the Beach store is located). “It’s our take on the Big Mac, basically,” laughs Gousvaris. “There’s no meat in it; it’s made out of chickpeas, but it tastes like it has the Big Mac sauce in it … everyone is going crazy for it.” The grab-and-go salads also sell well, and Gousvaris says items like chicken wings, pulled pork and ribs at the hot food bar are big sellers, too.
The success of the new location’s grab-and-go fare has prompted an expansion of the menu. “We’ve realized how popular the grab-and-go meal section is, so we’re in that development stage right now of trying to get new menu items,” says Gousvaris. “We’re expanding our bakery section as well, so we’ll be offering more cookies, muffins and baked goods that are made here in house.”
Strolling through the store’s aisles, it’s clear that The Big Carrot isn’t just paying lip service to its commitment to local. There’s poultry from Peterborough, Ont.’s Yorkshire Valley Farms; baby food from Toronto’s Love Child Organics; cheese from Aylmer, Ont.’s Hope Eco-Farms; cookies from Toronto’s Sweets From the Earth bakery; coffee from Etobicoke, Ont.’s Birds & Beans; chips and other savoury snacks from Richmond Hill, Ont.’s Neal Brothers Foods—the list goes on. “The clients in this area are really on board with [the local focus] and that’s obviously our big priority here,” says Gousvaris.
Then there’s the Organic Smoothie & Coffee Bar, which can be accessed both inside the store and from the street via a window so passersby can quickly grab a coffee or smoothie without having to go into the store. Posted in the window of the smoothie bar is a sign promoting The Big Carrot’s new running club, which meets at the store every other Wednesday (in partnership with Fearless Fitness, a local gym). The running club seems to not only reflect The Big Carrot’s identity as a hub for health, but also its efforts to integrate itself into the community.
“I started on this project when it was a hole in the ground. I came in here pretty much every day and I learned about the community,” says Gousvaris. He currently lives at the other end of the city, but says he’s reached the point where he and his wife are now considering moving to the neighbourhood. “If anyone asks me how it’s going at work, I say I’ve always loved my job—but I really love the people that live in this community, so I’m especially happy to be here.”
This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s September/October 2018 issue.