In August, 2008, Tiffany Hilman from the Markets team sat down with Asa Copithorne, Floor Manager and Chair of the Products Standards Committee for The Big Carrot in Toronto, Ontario
TH: Can you share a bit of history about The Big Carrot?
AC: Sure. The Big Carrot is a worker owned cooperative. It was founded in 1983 by nine original members of the co-op. In 1987, they expanded their location. Actually, they moved across the street to what is now Carrot Common, which is a much bigger space. The market has gradually expanded so now we occupy 40-50 percent of the Carrot Common mall, if not more. So having started from nine original members, we now have approximately 65 members, out of a total staff of about 200.
I guess back in ’83 it was one of the few health food stores in Toronto and has now grown to be one of the largest. The only others that are physically larger than us are the Whole Foods that are in Toronto, which really are different stores in terms of the products that they offer.
TH: Does the market have a philosophy around sustainability?
AC: We don’t have a specific philosophy, but we do have what we call our ‘standards committee’ which researches and proposes policy to membership regarding the sustainability of the products that we carry and of issues related to our industry. For the most part, our membership is quite receptive and concerned about sustainability issues. So it’s relative easy, as long as it’s a sound policy, to get it passed and to make it store policy.
TH: And do you find it to be a challenge for the market to be sustainable and successful?
AC: That’s a very good question. You would think it potentially would be, but for us, unintentionally, it has actually become a fairly successful sales tool. We find that, because we as a business take stances on issues related to our industry, word gets out. Sometimes we get media coverage. Customers tend to actively seek us out because they’re aware of positions we have on certain issues.
TH: When did you join The Big Carrot?
AC: I joined The Big Carrot in 1991. So I’ve been there a long time.
TH: Started out as a?
AC: As a receiver. I was in Shipping and Receiving. Now, I’ve been there in various capacities, I’ve come and gone, so it’s not as if I’ve been there consistently since 1991.
TH: What or who got you interested in seafood sustainability?
AC: I think I’ve always had a taste for fish and seafood. Having done a fair amount of traveling, especially in Asia, I’ve been exposed to a lot of interesting seafood and fish. I have a strong interest in sushi as well, which is an area that I think badly needs some consciousness around seafood sustainability. So it’s really out of a personal interest from my own experiences and tastes.
TH: As far as salmon, do you think your customers are aware of the differences between farmed and wild?
AC: Definitely, they are. And the sense I get is that they very much appreciate the fact that at the moment are not selling any farmed salmon because of the number of concerns around the industry. We made that policy approximately four years ago. And there was actually an increase in our salmon sales after that. Within about four months after we made that change, there was a noticeable increase.
TH: What was the catalyst for making that change?
AC: Awareness I guess through the industry, through trade shows, through organizations like yours. And in fact Dom Repta, your predecessor, approached us. Prior to him approaching us I wasn’t aware of your organization, but he got in touch with us and explained what you guys were doing. It seemed to make sense and be consistent with our philosophy.
TH: And how receptive are your customers to that message about seafood sustainability and moving away from farmed salmon. Do you see yourself, or your market more specifically, as educators in that area?
AC: On the topic of seafood sustainability, not so much yet, and that is merely because, to be frank, we don’t sell that much seafood. Certainly in terms of other products, within our meat department for example, I think we do have a certain role as market educators, although it is potentially a dangerous position to be in because you obviously have to have your facts straight. But at the moment, I don’t see ourselves as market educators in terms of seafood products. Hopefully, we can play some kind of role like that in future.
TH: How do you think your location in Toronto helps or hinders your message about seafood sustainability?
AC: I would say one way in which it hinders our message about seafood sustainability is that in trying to offer as many sustainable seafood choices as possible, we notice that with fish in particular, our customers prefer fresh to frozen products. I don’t think that is always justified, that priority, but that is a reality, and I guess being in Toronto, not being within close proximity to the ocean, the vast majority of our sustainably caught seafood and fish products are frozen. So that is something that I think we have to somehow market in a different way to customers.
TH: That’s a tough one. A lot of restaurants say they would sell frozen but they want to be able to say fresh on their menu.
AC: And customers automatically assume if it’s frozen, it’s been frozen for months, sitting in a warehouse somewhere.
TH: Unless you say something like frozen-at-sea.
AC: Yes, flash frozen within four hours of being caught or something like that. Which is what some of our salmon suppliers have really pushed, that message.
TH: Are there other sustainability issues that you are particularly involved in or passionate about?
AC: I think there are, but I guess that’s a pretty general term: sustainability issues. Let’s see, in a sense you could apply that to the fact that it is company policy that we do not sell any products with artificial colours, flavours, preservatives, and things like that.
TH: And the GMO (genetically modified organisms) project?
AC: Yes, we have a non-GMO product purchasing policy as well. So as a whole, I do feel that the products we sell, that distinguish us from mainstream stores and from other health food stores, address some sort of sustainability issue and maybe that’s what sets us apart from other businesses and other retailers.
TH: And, lastly, what is your favourite seasonal food that Ontario has to offer?
AC: My favourite seasonal food? Certainly I love wild blueberries and Ontario asparagus. I think probably the biggest one for me is the tender fruit from the Niagara region – peaches, apricots, etc – which unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of organic farmers producing in that region right now. Historically, that has been a great region for tender fruit and produces excellent fruit. I just hope that there will be more organic producers emerging.
TH: Do you sell any of that in the store?
AC: Definitely. We try to as much as possible, but there are a number of challenges with that which can be a bit frustrating as a retailer. And that coincides with the increasing popularity of farmers markets. Obviously, we’re very much in support of local farmers markets, but the majority of these farmers don’t want to sell to retailers like us because A) they might not be able to keep up with the volume and the consistency of price, quality, etcetera B) they always get the higher price by selling directly to the public at a farmer’s market, which is excellent. We support that 100 percent. But the effect that we notice is that we get customers coming into our store asking why we don’t sell it. They think we are refusing to sell it when that’s not at all the case. We’ve tried so many different approaches. We’ve sent letters out to farmers and posted notices for customers to be the liason. It’s a work in progress.
TH: Well great, thank you!
AC: You’re very welcome.