A Conversation with The Founder and Owner of Fresh Restaurants: Ruth Tal
Before we get into it, we want to share a bit of background on Ruth:
“At the age of twenty-five, after traveling the world extensively for seven years, Ruth Tal returned to Toronto intending to attend university. Instead, after being inspired by the growing trend of juice bars and healthy eating south of the border, Ruth created Juice for Life. She dreamed of opening a vegan food and juice bar where people would feel accepted and satisfied no matter what their lifestyle or eating preferences. Ruth’s mission was to challenge the stereotype that vegan food was bland or boring and instead established the notion that it’s hip to be healthy.
Putting this dream to paper, Ruth dropped out of university and used her student loan to open her first location, a seasonal fresh-pressed juice bar, at the famed Bamboo Club patio in 1992. As her small business grew, she moved to a permanent location, across from CITYTV, where she developed the signature juices and dishes that formed the core of the Juice for Life concept. In 1995 Ruth opened her first 50-seat vegan restaurant and juice bar on Bloor Street, and in 1998 opened the 60-seat Queen Street Café location, realizing her dream to reach more people and provide them with delicious, modern, healthy plant-based cuisine. By 1999, the company had outgrown its name, and Juice for Life was re-invented as Fresh.”
If we’re going to be perfectly honest, we had a lot of trouble putting into words how remarkable of a human Ruth is. From day one she knew who she was, what she valued and what she wanted to accomplish. She made that known to everyone she crossed paths with. Almost 30 years later, she has fought and prevailed in one of the toughest industries to crack, never once compromising on her values and beliefs.
To put it into three words, we would describe Ruth as exuberant, resilient, and most of all, courageous. If you have some time, we’d highly recommend watching the full interview video. You’ll be able to see all of these traits come to life and more. If not, we’ve put together some key takeaways below. In this interview, Ruth talks about things like:
What it took to build a successful restaurant chain and brand, starting with nothing but a glass of carrot juice,
The many challenges she had to face and overcome to reach, what she refers to as her “nirvana”,
And all of the little details in between.
Check it out!
Important lessons we learned about running a successful restaurant from Ruth:
You need to be passionate about what you’re doing and it needs to come from an authentic place.
[Ruth] When I was 25, I had a glass of carrot juice for the first time and it blew my mind. Watching the carrot, this whole vegetable goes into this machine and then come out this milky orange beautiful liquid and then I drank it. It was really an epiphany moment for me.
It was a classic transformative moment from my personal health and also for the trajectory of my life. I had that glass of carrot juice and then I started reading about the nutritional benefits of all vegetables in all fruits. I started reading all sorts of health and nutritional books and I was like, “oh that’s me and that’s me and that’s me!” I started self-medicating with fruits and vegetables.
This one glass of carrot juice changed the way I saw the world. It made me think about how each and every decision that I make on a daily basis can actually make a small difference in the world, not just for my own personal health.
So, then I became like a vegan evangelical. I started to share my journey and knowledge, at that time just with friends and family. Then, I dropped out of university and bought my first juicer and decided that I wanted to share it with more and more people.
As a restaurateur, you need to look at the market and understand if you can provide guests with something other restaurants can’t. You also need to understand if there’s demand for what you’re offering.
[Ruth] I looked around and there was nowhere in Toronto that spoke to someone who wanted to avoid animal products and live a plant-based lifestyle. When I got started, I was 25 and I wanted to go out and eat and be with my friends, without feeding on iceberg lettuce and cranberry juice. At the time, if I wanted a decent vegan meal, I had to go to the Hare Krishna Temple on Avenue road. It was completely unfair. Born out of that need came about my decision to try to explore ways that I could offer that to more people.
Over the years, I saw that as more people enjoyed our food, they stopped talking about how boring or bland they thought vegan food tasted. By eating our food, they realized that they could be full and satisfied, and enjoy the environment they were in. That caused more plant-based restaurants to pop up around the city and give people who live a plant-based lifestyle more options enjoy these types of meals outside of their homes.
Be transparent with your guests. Ruth’s way of doing this was by writing five cookbooks. The transparency has paid off in spades for her and could do the same for you.
[Ruth] Creating the cookbooks was in the spirit of being completely transparent. At the time I really wasn't thinking about how successful I might want to be. It was more about spreading the word and helping light that fire for everybody else the way it had been for me and a big part of that was by sharing the recipes.
I was pretty tired of always having to ask what's in this, what are the ingredients in this, what are they hidden ingredients in this. Rather than have “secret sauces” and things like that on the menu, I wanted people to know when they looked my menu every ingredient in a dish is listed on the menu or in the cookbooks. Over time, I wanted to not only through my locations but also through sharing the recipes, inspire people to cook like this at home. I wanted them to take the information or experience that they had at my locations, bring it home and create these dishes for themselves.
The cookbooks, inadvertently out of that good intention, became this wonderful marketing tool for me because I never had to pay for publicity, PR or advertising. It gave me something to go on air and to promote. By virtue of the cookbooks, I ended up talking about the restaurant, getting people curious and coming through my doors without it seeming cheesy.
Act in a way that never compromises your principles or mission, even when it would be easier in the short term.
[Ruth] It's all very personal for me. I look around and I see that we have become this inspiration to other restaurants and people in the plant-based industry in ways that I can't even fathom. Every once in a while someone grabs me by the elbow and says,
“Thank you so much Ruth. I became vegan; my health took a turn for the better.”
“Ruth, I opened a business in my small town. I opened a juice bar or a little vegetarian restaurant because I saw you do it.”
On an industry-wide level, responses like this have been really gratifying.
I think in the grand scheme of things, the Fresh brand is known for its integrity and its authenticity. There are so many decisions along the road that we've made where we could have sacrificed who we were as a brand for more material success at the time, but we took the harder road. We know who we are and everybody else does too and there's no faking it. So, I'm very proud of that.
Success doesn’t only come in the form of money.
[Ruth] Just speaking to where I started. I dropped out of school and my parents were really freaked out about what I was going to do with my life. But, I followed through on what I believed in. On a very personal level it was reaching a point where my parents were proud of me. Not only could I say, but I could actually show that my beliefs and belief systems were at that age were proven true. I learned that at the end of the day if you just forge your own way then you're bound to reach a point where you have personal success. I achieved that and I’m so, so thankful for it.
The important qualities needed for anyone looking to open up their own restaurant.
[Ruth] I mean the obvious classic answer would be passion and drive. But, passion and drive can come from a business side, it doesn't always have to come from a creative side.
My advice to others would be, whatever you decide to do, it’s got to start with you authentically. If you live it, breathe it and walk it then you know it the best; couple that with intuition and surrounding yourself with the right people, you’re bound to reach a point of success.
If you want to succeed, you’ve got to hustle. It’s a long journey ahead so you’ve got to just take it one step at a time.
The hustle: Work hard and be persistent.
[Ruth] The whole idea of pop-ups, that's what I was doing. I had a little juice cart and I started popping up all over the place, lugging a juicer, a wok, and a blender. I was cooking and juicing for health festivals and music festivals. Whenever anybody came into town that was in the health world, I would set up at the front door. I’d get there an hour before and as people arrived, they would come to me first.
Anyway as I was at those at those festivals, talks and so on, the word-of-mouth started to spread. Then people would be like, “where will you be next or how can we find you.” They would have a carrot beet apple ginger immune boost and they would want another one and wouldn't know where to go. It propelled me forward to find a permanent location.
My first semi-permanent location was at the Bamboo Club, Toronto's first reggae club on Queen Street West. I convinced the owners to let me set up on their patio and I would juice from 11:30 in the morning until last call. During the day people would be drinking my juice, but then at night they were taking my drinks and my smoothies and mixing them with shots of alcohol at the bar.
So, I would go to last call, I would tear down and then I would take a taxi to the food terminal at you know 4 or 4:30 in the morning. Get all my produce and drop it off at the Bamboo Club, prep, prep, prep and then juice all day to last call.
The hustle: Turning a small thing into something bigger.
[Ruth] One of my regulars at the Bamboo Club was this developer and he was developing the Queen Street Market across from CityTV. He invited me to set up a permanent location. I didn't even hire a lawyer. I was like, “okay that would be great, I need to do this.” So, I signed a five-year lease for a 400 square foot space. I had a tiny little kitchen in the back where, if you wanted a cup of tea, I'd have to unplug the blender and plug in the kettle, but I made it work.
I was across from City TV just as MuchMusic in Toronto and MTV in New York were launching. I was just praying for a big break because all of these people from south of the border that we're coming to do intimate interviews just so happened to be hip to juicing, vegan food and wheatgrass at the time.
Lucky for me, I was the only one in the city doing it and I was right across the street. So, I started getting these calls and I'd pick up the phone and it’d be like… Steven Tyler and he’d say “Hey, I need 10 ounces of wheatgrass this afternoon. We’re performing tonight”. And Lenny Kravitz told me my juice tasted really good. It was a crazy time.
Sometimes I would across the street with the stuff that they asked for right on air and I’d walk right on camera. From MuchMusic's perspective it was kitschy and funny; they were half making fun of me like it was a joke. But, the people who wanted it and needed it took it seriously. I took it seriously and I was willing to sort of be made fun of just to get my stuff to them.
That was where it sort of blew up because people saw me. They saw me interacting with these people that they admired. They saw them drinking good stuff. They saw them embracing a healthy lifestyle and I started just to get lined up! It was amazing.
Eventually, it went from me working 80 hours a week with a couple of really good friends to actually having a staff. It was at that time that I realized I was capable of more.
The hustle: Know what you want and go after it, guns-a-blazing.
[Ruth] At this point, I had started to look for a restaurant location. I didn't know how to do it, but I just figured I would find the spot and then walk in to whoever was running that location and offer them some money and hope that they would have leased their space.
I went into this Hungarian schnitzel house that I thought, their time was up and it was my turn. So, I went in and I said, “Hi, I’m Ruth. I have a vegan restaurant and juice bar and I'd really like your space.... How's it going?”
They were like, “Well as a matter of fact, we are looking to sell our business.”
I should have probably had a lawyer for this one because it wasn't a really good deal for me, but I couldn't afford a lawyer. So, I negotiated the purchase of his business and he assigned the lease to me. At that point that was when I needed to go to the bank and get a loan. I agreed to pay him all this money that I didn't have… And that lead to the best business decision I think I ever made.
The best business decision that Ruth made: Bringing on the right partner at the right time.
[Ruth] The business was successful, but I was a little bit in over my head and I couldn't get a loan. So I made the decision to ask one of my customers, who happened to be an accountant that had been informally advising me, if he could guarantee a loan for me so that I could get my permanent restaurant location.
Over the years, he had become so invaluable to me as a informal advisor that I also offered him a chunk of my business. I didn't want anything in return other than his undivided attention. So, Barry Alper came on board and helped me write my business plan and secured my first proper SBIL.
We became partners and I asked him to be completely silent. He wasn't allowed to tell anybody, but he agreed to it. It was such new territory, running a plant-based business and I reserved the right to make mistakes and learn along the way but to always follow my gut. That was really important to me because I was worried that by bringing on a partner, they might push ideas that, because of my personal commitments, could never agree to.
He was my ‘snuffleupagus’ for a couple of years and then as we developed trust and I developed a real respect for his understanding of my business and of the industry that I was in, I allowed him to come out of the closet. That was the best decision I ever made I think because I probably wouldn't be here today if I hadn't recognized that I needed help.
Understand who you’re targeting, where they live and most importantly, where they eat.
[Ruth] Speaking to the Crawford location, I lived a block away at the time and was very familiar with the area. Crawford sits on Queen West, which is arguably the hippest part of the city. I recognized that that my customers, potential customers and the people that I wanted to attract all lived in the neighborhood. It’s a very community-based neighborhood with this big park and great schools, but also just on the other side of these residential streets where a lot of warehouses, creative agencies, offices and commercial spaces.
Crawford was a game changer for us because I also recognized that the community was much savvier on a design tip. Having it architecturally designed, look good and be a space that these cool people would want to be in was key. So, we hired designers who also were game-changing for us because we ended up winning all these design awards. The design awards were about taking a juice bar and a vegan restaurant and reflect the concept in the design. So, we had this whole thing about an orange peel. We wrapped the space in this wood that was like an orange peel and all these different layers of a citrus fruit. We won a ton of awards for it.
We knew who our guests were, where they were and how to attract them.
Continue to challenge yourself. Not only will it propel you forward, but your business too.
[Ruth] Today I think that the last remaining challenge for us was the service and the environment, even though we had done pretty well to this point. But there was a whole other level that we hadn't aspired to and now I think we've knocked it out of the park.
The last few years I've spent time in Los Angeles and have been really inspired by the level that's been reached by other plant-based restaurants. So, it just made me take a sharper look at what we were doing in Toronto.
So, we launched craft cocktails at all the locations about three years ago. What we were missing was a real craft cocktail bar aspect to the concept and space. So, Front Street was the first time that we actually had a proper bar with deep and comfortable, velvet back stools and a bar riser. The fusion of our cold-pressed juices with craft alcohol and the whole notion of healthy cocktails sort of drove the inspiration behind the Front Street location. Once we did that, launched it and saw how successful it was, it made me look at the other four locations and see where can we bring what we were doing at Front Street, this evolution of the brand to our other locations.
Fresh on Spadina is a renovation. We took a really dark, 15 year old space and gave it a complete makeover. It's just been so beautiful and it’s been the turning point of the Fresh brand.
Have a good understanding of your restaurant’s limits so that you’re able to make the right decision when it comes to expansion projects.
[Ruth] When it comes to restaurant expansion and when to do it… The obvious indicators are when the demand outstrips your ability to service it. You can see it at the front door when you can't get everyone in, wait times are long, you continue to reach full capacity in the dining room and the kitchen. Delivery has been a game changer. It's just changed everything for us because now our dining rooms are full, but there's a whole hidden pressure in the kitchen. It's not just the chit's coming in from the dining room, but it's also all of the online orders too.
When things sort of come to a standstill in the room because you’ve reached capacity, that’s when you need to think, “either we grow this location, grow the kitchen or we start to spread the demand, divert our guests and create new centers in other neighborhoods.”
When it comes to selecting a new location, we’ve been lucky because our guests are very vocal about the neighborhoods that they want us to come to. When guests start asking you to come to their neighborhood, that's usually a good indicator; that combined with the fact that you've maxed out at the location you're in.
It’s also the case with losing sales. People stop me all the time and say, “I couldn't get in.” “I couldn't get a table.” “The wait times are so long.” It's a good problem to have, but at a certain point you have to break through that and keep growing.
You’re not going to be the best at everything and that’s okay. Fill in the gaps with a strong team.
My dad was an entrepreneur, so I had the inclination to be business minded, but I didn't have the training. He taught me that as an entrepreneur, you have to work hard and just go for it. For me, that worked for the first eight years, but I recognized that the only way that I could continue to grow would be to surround myself with people who could do certain things better than I could and that continues to today. There are parts of my business that I would like to be involved in and have control over, but I recognize that for the betterment of my business sometimes that’s not the best option.
I’m thankful to have such an incredible team. To be surrounded by a team who love what they do and to be able to be part of watching them grow; I have no words for it.
Through all of your success and failures, there’s always a learning moment.
Ruth when asked whether she would do this all over again or not.
[Ruth] I have no regrets. Absolutely I would do it all over again. There is no answer, but to say everything happens for a reason. Me being here is the sum total of all the mistakes that I've made and all the successes that I've had. Even the hardships in the early years. During the hard times it really felt like I was a canary in a coal mine for a lot of years, but that’s what made me stronger, tougher and more resilient. I wouldn't change a thing.
I'm just so glad to be here today. I feel like I'm in Nirvana now in terms of having succeeded, survived and thrived. To be the founder of a brand that's been around for all these years. It's just amazing. I just want to keep going. I really feel like I have more to offer and more to grow. We all do. All of us with the company do. So, it's going to be fun.