Toronto Retail Profile: The Big Carrot

Tri Color PeppersPhoto Courtesy of The Big Carrot

Taking a hybrid health and nutrition concept to the next level.

The Big Carrot began in 1983, when five employees at a health food store found themselves unemployed. But instead of crying in their wheatgrass, they joined with four other partners and put all their eggs (or egg replacer) into one basket to start a cooperative.

Produce section

Photo Courtesy of The Big Carrot

They opened a store in an area called Greektown, or The Danforth, but outgrew the space in a few years. They moved across Danforth Street to a lot that had previously been a car dealership. The landlord envisioned an environment of wellness, and dubbed it Carrot Commons, hoping to attract only environmentally aware tenants.

The Commons’ stores sell gemstones, books and sustainable clothing, and its professional offices offer massage therapy and alternative medicine.

The produce department carries only fruits and vegetables that are certified organic (with the exception of those that are grown wild) and non-GMO verified.

“Our customer base is very intelligent,” says Sarah Dobec, public relations and education outreach coordinator for The Big Carrot. “They ask a lot of questions. They’re savvy and often bring food issues to us before we know about them.”

Standards COS Label

Photo Courtesy of The Big Carrot

Since local crops are seasonal, not everything is local, but “getting a peach from British Columbia is better than Argentina,” says Dobec. She says Chris Cascanette, produce manager, is diligent about sourcing locally.

“I know what I am buying, and I feel good about it,” says long-time customer Carol Coiffe of Toronto. “I am particular about my food.” Confined to a wheelchair, Coiffe feels a sense of control shopping at The Big Carrot, because she can find products to help her cope with health issues, while enjoying a social atmosphere. She gets shopping help from Laura, one of the Carrot’s 10 holistic nutritionists. “Without Laura’s help, it would take ages to get my groceries.”

The 12,000-square-foot building includes 8,000 square feet of public space — the grocery store, vitamin department and deli/juice bar. Employees do educational outreach, work in the community and donate a portion of profits to a local farm. Every fall, during Canada’s National Organic Week, The Big Carrot offers farm trips to customers, so they can meet the farmers and see where their food originates.

In March 2015, the store introduced Localize, a labeling system that highlights key details about each product, giving the consumer a quick measure of how local it is. When customers spot the Localize label, they can use the app to scan the QR code.

The Big Carrot is still employee-owned — with 72 shareholders out of 160 workers. “We’ve outgrown the old plan, so we intend to revisit the model this year,” says Dobec. “That way we can open ownership opportunities to more staff, not just full-timers.”