An Uncommon Community: The Danforth’s Big Carrot

“We have more than 40,000 products on our shelves, and we’re constantly checking to make sure that every ingredient used in each one of our products meets either our organic or our GMO-avoidance standards.”

“That sounds like a lot of work.”

“It is.”

The Big Carrot is a grocery and health food store on the Danforth that has been around for 33 years, and inspires an almost cult-like devotion amongst its large base of devoted customers. Some patrons drive in every week from as far out as Markham and Vaughan just to shop here. Curious to find out why, I stopped by the store on a brisk winter morning for an interview with Sarah Dobec, the Big Carrot’s marketing manager. Though it was early in the day, the store was already bustling, and beeps from the checkout counters created a constant soothing hum in the background. It wasn’t long into my conversation with Sarah that I realized why the Big Carrot might be worth putting a few extra kilometers on the dashboard. Though the Big Carrot is, at first glance, a retail shop for a large range of organic and Non-GMO Project Verified food, it is also an articulation of a way of eating—and a symbol of our relationship with food, that is quite unique in the GTA.

For most Canadians living in cities and urban areas today, our connection with food and food producers it is at its most tenuous. When you pick up an apple in a Loblaws or a Metro, it’s hard to know where it came from, and how it was grown. That’s not the case at the Big Carrot—their stringent certification standards and rigorous supply-chain checks ensure that your apple was produced organically and sustainably. And if you ask, there’s a good chance they can tell you exactly which farm that apple came from, due to their longstanding relationships with each of their suppliers.

Talking to Sarah about the logistics of how the company sources its food reveals a fascinating web of organic farmers and producers working in Toronto and its surrounding areas, many of whom have worked with the company since its inception. Producers such as Mazak’s Farm, the Pfennings Organic Farm, and the Tansy Apple Farm have all been with the Big Carrot since their early years. And for the Big Carrot, it’s not just about building relationships with suppliers, but also about helping them grow and become equal partners in their larger vision to create more opportunities for local food production. This can be hard given the challenges mounted by the long Canadian winters, so the Big Carrot finds ways to work with and around nature.

One key element of helping their producers and suppliers is the Nature’s Finest Fund, part of an initiative that sees the Big Carrot give back 10 percent of its profits to the community. “For instance—one of our salad and greens suppliers wanted a greenhouse to extend their season. We funded that greenhouse, which hopefully benefits us too, since it will mean we have to import less,” notes Sarah. Another initiative to help fill this need is the programs run through the Carrot Cache Community Resource, a highly active non-profit that directs ten percent of the Carrot Common Mall’s profits towards new ideas focused on organic food and organic projects, with a community focus. The fund has granted more than $1 million to more than 165 organizations and individuals in the last nine years, and the eventual goal is to help local producers move towards producing all the food the Big Carrot needs, which Sarah admits is a long way off, but a goal they’re continually working towards.

In a sense, it’s all about creating trust. The Big Carrot’s relationships with its producers and suppliers is built on a shared understanding of goals and outcomes, and so are its relationships with customers, who can shop in the store knowing that, at least at some level, decisions have been made that make it easy for them to buy what they see on the shelves, without their having to spend a lot of time and effort looking up ingredients or checking the sourcing of the products.

But maintaining this trust and keeping to such stringent guidelines requires a full time standards coordinator, and her job isn’t easy. She is constantly tracking the ingredients in every product the store stocks, as well as checking new products as they come in, down to the smallest details. “If it has sugar our coordinator will ask the supplier if it’s beet sugar, which means its genetically modified, and if so, we’ll remove it from shelves,” says Sarah.

However, the upside to this level of meticulousness is deep trust it inspires in customers. When people first walk into stores like the Big Carrot, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the array of products on sale, and sometimes “they just want someone to do the thinking for them,” observes Sarah. To make this easier, the store has a customer service desk staffed by holistic nutritionists who are there to answer questions and concerns. They also offer store tours, which help customers shop according to their dietary needs.

“They come in, we walk them around and show them what they can eat. So if someone learns that they’re gluten intolerant, or they’re trying to transition to a vegetarian diet, then nutritionists will give you a store tour and help you shop for your new dietary needs. I used to do that job and it was very satisfying because you’d see them go from panic to…oh there’s still food left in the world for me to eat,” laughs Sarah.

This focus on making organic and non-GMO food more accessible is also reflected in the recently renovated Carrot Kitchen. Their former kitchen was tiny, “maybe 12 by 12 feet,” and though “some diehard customers were a little shocked,” at seeing the new renovations, it has really helped the store diversify its offerings. The kitchen offers a salad bar, a sandwich and burrito/taco bar, gluten-free options, vegetarian and vegan options, and four daily soups with a broth in rotation, which is “quite trendy at the moment.” Although Sarah admits that it’s sad that people aren’t sitting down to eat anymore, she feels that the least they can do is provide options for healthier on-the-go offerings that help customers feel good about their choices.

Though it didn’t seem like it on this chilly winter day, summer isn’t far off, and the Carrot Common and the 8,000 sq. foot green roof on top of the store will soon be filled with throngs of people chatting and basking in the sunshine. This promises to be a big year for the Big Carrot, as it gears up to open a new location in the Beaches in the late summer. As with most large changes, there is certain trepidation in the air, and an uncertainty about creating and exporting the Common’s community to a different location. “We’ll never find another Carrot Common quite like this,” says Sarah wistfully.

But their dedication and their vision are unquestionable, and I have no doubt that they’ll be able to bring that to their new location. When the Big Carrot first opened, it was across the street from the Common in a much smaller storefront, and it was hard to imagine the impact that the store would have. 33 years later, it has come a long way, not geographically, but in terms of achieving its vision. At its core, the Big Carrot is about helping people make better choices about what they choose to eat, and that makes the Common’s biggest store highly uncommon.

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