Ruth Tal, against her parents wishes, quit high school to work full-time at her then part time retail job. "Tell me I can't, and I'll just want to do it even more," she says.
She spent two years working for independent fashion retailers who became ersatz mentors, teaching her more about small business than she says she ever would have learned in school. Several years later, she would repeat her decision, opting out of University at the last minute, using her student loan to start a business.
That business is Fresh, a vegetarian restaurant empire with multiple locations in Ruth’s native Toronto, three locations in Moscow, and one in Mexico City. Fresh expanded its reach with a series of namesake cookbooks, gift cards, and cold-pressed juice cleanses, sold through a complementary ecommerce store.
And it all started with one simple glass of carrot juice.
Meet a Maker: check out our live interview and juicing session with Ruth!
Juice for Life
Let’s rewind 27 years. Ruth was returning from a seven year travelling stint, working her way through places like Israel, East Asia, and Australia while picking up skills and experiences. Back in Canada, she happened upon a small shop that was selling pressed carrot juice—her first exposure to vegetable juicing.
While waiting for the juice to be pressed, she was introduced to a community of health-minded people. The shop, ahead of the juicing trend, also stocked books on the medicinal benefits of juicing and plant-based diets. Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Juices by Norman Walker and other books like it changed her perception on food. It also gave her a cause.
"Reading these books, understanding what was happening in the meat industry and where food was coming from, it was really hard to look at food the same. So, I pretty much became vegan overnight. I got a little juicer and started making these radical combinations at home. I was feeling so amazing. Everybody was like, ‘You look so good. Why are you glowing?’”
I pretty much became vegan overnight. I got a little juicer and started making these radical combinations at home.
Committed to her vegan lifestyle, Ruth set out to share her new knowledge and sense of wellness with the world. It was 1990 and she knew that, at the time, the concepts were “out there”. Juicing was not mainstream, and even organic farming was met with skepticism, reserved for the hippies and the radicals.
"I wanted to inspire people. I wanted them to change how they were eating, and how they were approaching their choices. Also, I think, deep down, I was looking for a cause. I was looking for something to champion, and, in the 90s, there really wasn't that much to fight for.”
Though she had eventually finished her high school diploma, and was accepted to a university Political Science program that year, she couldn’t ignore the pull towards entrepreneurship—a life path that she had been unknowingly cultivating since her first retail job.
With $10,000 earmarked for tuition and books, she bought two industrial juicers. Juice for Life, as it was called at its outset, was a one-woman outfit, a travelling juice bar that would pop up at music festivals, markets, and health conferences.
"I had applied for an OSAP student loan—it was about $10,000. By then, I had a sense that I could keep going in the direction I was going, and just continue to grow. So I didn't go to school, and I used my loan money to start Juice for Life. OSAP caught up with me a year later. They were like, ‘Hey, where's our money?’ I cut a deal with them. I paid them back, like, $100 a week. And that was how I started my business.”
I didn't go to school, and I used my loan money to start Juice for Life.
In 1992, the business took the leap from mobile to stationary, with a permanent stall set up in the trendy and bustling Queen West Market. Within very little time, she realized she was already outgrowing the space.
“I had two or three people working with me. I was working 80 hours a week. And I knew I was onto something. I just worked my ass off. I built a following, and I grew incrementally. I didn't get ahead of myself. Every time I maxed out the location I was in, and I had people lined up at the door, I made my next move, and I would grow into a larger space. I would make the menu a little bit bigger, and I would develop more categories."
I didn't get ahead of myself. Every time I maxed out the location I was in, and I had people lined up at the door, I made my next move.
At this point in her journey, she realized two things: first, that her dreams of opening a full-scale restaurant were actually attainable, and secondly, she was in over her head. Thankfully, the realization coincided with an introduction to to a friend of a friend, accountant Barry Alper, who would soon become her partner.
She opened her first full-service restaurant in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, and enlisted Barry as a business advisor and he helped with managing her books, and wrangling payroll, and food costs.
“I'd been doing my own books, but they were a mess. I was trying to keep it together, but I started to realize I was in the weeds. And the only way to have a healthy and successful business is to have a strong organized back of house. A strong, organized office. I recognized that having someone who could give me feedback and be the backbone of the business, that would be the key to my longevity.”
The only way to have a healthy and successful business is to have a strong organized back of house.
Barry helped her write a business plan as she was preparing to seek funding. Ruth offered him a chunk of the business in exchange for being her partner. She figured that it was a risk to ask him to bank on her, but she was also reluctant to bring someone else into the business who might question her decisions. But the two developed a partnership, still going strong 20 years later.
"My industry was so early-days that it was hard to explain to a mainstream person why I was making certain choices. I'd had so much resistance from everyone around me. A lot of people laughed. It took a little bit of time for me and Barry to learn how to be good partners to each other. We started off with baby steps, and then, as the business grew and as our confidence in each other grew, it's become an amazing partnership. It’s probably the best thing I ever did.”
It's become an amazing partnership. It’s probably the best thing I ever did.
Together, they opened the brand’s second location.
Shortly after the expansion, the business suffered a blow: two women who were running the kitchen at the original location quit and stole the recipe book. A recently-hired Jennifer Houston stepped in to take over, and soon became indispensable to the restaurant.
“When I wrote my first cookbook, Jennifer helped me test the recipes, and we ended up striking this great friendship and mutual respect. Eventually, Barry and I invited her to be a third partner, as well. We didn't ask her to invest anything because we felt like just having her sign on to be a co-owner was good enough for us.”
Jennifer completed the trifecta, and the strength of the partnership guided the business to expand to new locations, publish several cookbooks, and launch a line of cold-pressed juices.
They focused on people and retention, building a strong team that has grown up with the business. “That's why I'm sitting in LA right now, on my porch,” she says, “and the business is running without me.”
What’s the secret to getting to this place? Sticking with it, she tells me, because success doesn’t happen overnight.
"I have no regrets. I don't look back and wish I had done anything differently because I wouldn't be here today. Everything that I did along the way, even the mistakes that I made, brought me to where I am today. Even in the face of doubt, even in the face of resistance from people around you, if you really believe in what you're doing, and you have a passion for it, it's really about sticking with it and seeing it through. To build the business that I have takes time.”
Everything that I did along the way, even the mistakes that I made, brought me to where I am today.
Vegans in a Dangerous Time
When Ruth launched a business in the 90s, it was ahead of its time, and timing ended up being a huge factor in her success. She was a pioneer in the vegetarian scene. Ramping into the millennium, plant based diets started to catch on, and inspire a rash of new vegetarian, vegan, and juice businesses trying to catch up with the trend.
Before the surge of interest, growing her business and winning over new customers relied on a soft approach.
"The trick was, as Barry always used to say, ‘Just get it in their mouths, and then we have a customer for life.’ The approach that we had, apart from having the confidence in the food or juice that we created, was the environment. We really focused on upping our game and levelling the playing field between us and all the other great restaurants by offering service, presentation, music, and seating that was just as great as all the other restaurants in the city.”
The trick was, as Barry always used to say, ‘Just get it in their mouths.'
The team’s strategy was to build an environment that was a sanctuary for then-under-serviced vegans, but also welcoming to anyone else.
“Ultimately, they're like, ‘Wow. That was so awesome.’ It's an afterthought that it was plant-based. At that time, that was really important, so they wouldn't feel like they were being preached to.”
Cold Pressed Dot Com
When Fresh launched their line of cold-pressed juices, it was the first time that they were producing a product that could be sold easily offsite. Fresh ingredients and preservative-free recipes made for limited portability of their core product.
The partners moved from another platform to Shopify in 2016 to have more independence over managing their ecommerce juice sales. They added cookbooks, t-shirts, gift cards, and cleanse programs to their roster of juices sold outside of the traditional restaurant model, says Barry.
“We have a wholesale operation and we wanted customers at those locations to be able to order products from our restaurants. The web site allows us to expand our reach and provide an in-home experience for our customers that is similar to our in-store experience.”
Returning to her Roots
Ruth may have disappointed her parents with what they perceived as questionable life decisions as a teen, but, she says, they eventually came around.
“When I go get my mom to take her out for lunch, I try to go to different places, but she only wants Fresh because that's the food that she likes the most. My dad used to always carry my cookbooks in his briefcase, and he used to give them away. He'd go to the dentist, he'd give them a copy. Go to the bank, give them a copy.”
My dad used to always carry my cookbooks in his briefcase, and he used to give them away.
Now, 8 locations later, and 27 years after her one-woman-with-a-juicer beginnings, Ruth has hit the sweet spot, that entrepreneurial ideal: she’s hired the best people to take over many of the aspects of the business so that she can focus on what she does best. And for her, that thing is returning to her roots, bringing her lust for juice and plant-based food to the rest of the world.
“I've really been the one to go out in the world and bring fresh to other cities. We opened in Mexico City last summer. We opened in Moscow, five years ago. My new passion is bringing Fresh to other communities and cities that really haven't been exposed to what we're doing.”
Get inside the kitchen with Ruth Tal! As a kick off to our Meet a Maker Facebook Live series, we interviewed the Fresh founder, and discussed the ins and outs of juicing and entrepreneurship. Missed it? Check out the video.