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From idea to dinner plate: How the City is helping food entrepreneurs cook up their dreams

Robert Fuller’s cold-brew coffee dream saw him riding the streets of Toronto on a bike. Fuller, who owns Duke Brothers Coffee, first tasted cold-brew coffee on a trip to the US, and he saw a gap in the Canadian marketplace he might be able to fill. Last year, Fuller launched Duke Brothers—the company is named for his grandfather, a former motorcycle shop owner and one half of the some of the oldest living identical male twins on record—hoping to bring coffee directly to the masses. When restrictive city bylaws prevented him from carrying out his original vision selling cold-brew coffee directly to caffeine addicts by bike, he pivoted and began targeting wholesale coffee kegs to bars, restaurants and cafes.

As his business grew, he struggled to keep pace. “I was renting and using commercial kitchens around the city, and bringing a lot of equipment in and out of those place was quite difficult,” he says. “Before I start reaching out to a lot of bars and restaurants and cafes, I want to be able to to service them effectively. I don’t want to be able to sell myself to twenty cafes and then not be able to deliver on those promises.”

As a member of Food Starter’s inaugural cohort, Fuller will have a year to figure out how to capitalize on his success so far. Born from the City of Toronto Food Business Incubator (TFBI), Food Starter, which opens early October, will be a revamped and rebranded initiative. It targets Toronto and Ontario’s small- to medium-sized food manufacturers, as well as start-up businesses like Fuller’s. The 20,000 square foot facility, located in the Keele and Lawrence area, offers specialized kitchens and food preparation areas, bakeries, packaging stations, and storage.

“We’ll even have a room available to companies who want to do specialized chocolates and candies that will be chilled to 4 degrees and have humidity,” says Dana McCauley, program manager at Food Starter.

Critically, Food Starter also expands and solidifies the TFBI’s previously ad-hoc training program. “We’re going to go through the whole gamut: food safety, labelling laws, finance, marketing, how to establish HR, and protecting intellectual property,” McCauley explains. Partnerships with George Brown, Conestoga, Niagara, Durham, and Georgian colleges, as well as the University of Guelph, will provide advanced understanding of food manufacturing processes, while MaRS will provide entrepreneurial contexts. ”It’s training—no one gets a diploma with what they do with us—but we wanted the best people with the most up-to-date knowledge.”

Part of Fuller’s program will consist of in-house testing his product’s nutritional content and shelf life. “I originally looked at doing that myself at the Guelph Food Technology Centre, and it’s really expensive,” he says. “It’s two thousand dollars for each day in the lab, they want you to be there for three days, so it’s a big chunk of change. That’s half of what the entire program costs at the Food Incubator, and they’re bringing in these resources that are critical.”

For Denise Edwards, enrolling in the training program will be her chance to scale her business to the next level. Edwards, who markets coconut confectionaries under the names Tropix Coconut Drops, has been working out of a borrowed banquet kitchen for the last four years. “I would fill orders early in the week before their events would start. But you want to have your own space!” she exclaims.

Edwards anticipates that a year in the program, plus dedicated access to equipment and marketing tools, will be enough of a launchpad that she’ll be able to find her own kitchen by next year. “I’m hoping that with all the connections, and the people who are on the Food Starter board, there will be a push. What’s the point of going into the space if we’re not given the tools to market, to scale, and then to make room for the next person?” McCauley estimates that Food Starter will be able to train roughly forty businesses each year; they can either graduate to the facility’s accelerator spaces, or strike out on their own.

“If you told people we have the second-largest food cluster in North America, after Los Angeles, they’d be astounded. But it’s a huge economic driver, and we want to proactively assist the creation and flow of innovation into the sector,” says Michael Wolfson, the Food and Beverage specialist for Toronto’s Economic Development department. “The strength of Toronto’s food industry is the small- to medium-sized culturally diverse manufacturers. As the city expands, it becomes very difficult to keep a fifty-acre food manufacturing facility downtown when you have a condo across the street.” As those larger production facilities close, smaller companies owned by local producers can help fill the gap.

Wolfson says Ontario’s farmers are already responsive to urban desires, such as growing spelt flour for gluten-free products. “These [trends] are the by-products of what comes out of a facility like Food Starter.” Both the city and the province have invested a million dollars each into Food Starter. “The city has been convinced that we need to invest more money in this type of facility, and I’ve been able to convince the province that an investment like this in a city is one way to help out rural affairs.”

Once Food Starter is fully operational this fall, McCauley can focus on the next steps. “We want to create jobs, because food manufacturing jobs are awesome. Ultimately, if my crew gets this right, it would be so great if this concept could be duplicated in Sudbury and Windsor and Ottawa, and create a pipeline of sustainable food products across the province.” Hyperlocal cold-brew coffee by bike is just the first step.  
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