New Brunswick

'It's quite a hit': Fallout felt from Real Food Connections closure

Fallout from the closure of Real Food Connections closure is being felt across the province.

Local suppliers lose guaranteed market for their products along with money owed to them

Tim Livingstone says the closure of Real Food Connections essentially means he and his wife will receive no pay for the work they have done on their farm this year.

Fallout from the closure of Real Food Connections closure is being felt across the province.

Tim Livingstone owns Strawberry Hill Farm in Pembroke and his farm was one of Real Foods' biggest suppliers of vegetables.

Livingstone said about 20 per cent of his total sales came from the company. His farm is losing:

  • What Real Food Connections hasn't paid him for to date
  • The $20,000 in income the farm was expecting a year
  • The amount Real Food Connections would have likely bought above the $20,000

"So for us, it's quite a hit," said Livingstone. "It ultimately means that my wife and I won't get paid this year — for any of our work."

And Livingstone isn't alone.

Green Party Leader and Fredericton MLA David Coon has been a proponent of local food accessibility for a long time and says the loss of a guaranteed market will cause a scramble for farmers.

Green Party leader David Coon had proposed a bill that would benefit local food suppliers. (CBC)
"It certainly means for farmers who were growing to supply Real Food Connections that they had a guaranteed market for their produce. They knew ahead of time what they could plant because they essentially sold it ahead of time and that is going to be a problem for them next year," Coon said.

"It will be a scramble for sure."

The company announced it was closing with a release to its shareholders Wednesday evening. It then sent a note to its customers later that night.

"This decision is extremely hard for us and we are likely going to leave suppliers unpaid for their hard work and that weighs especially heavy," it reads.

"Continuing without confidence that we have a larger financial solution in the coming months would only impact our suppliers more negatively and we just cannot continue to purchase from our many local businesses if we are not confident that they will see payment in the future."

Not only farmers affected

Farmers haven't been the only people affected by the closure.

Sean Dunbar of Northampton Brewing Company was involved in a project with Real Food Connections in Saint John. (CBC)
Last month the Northampton Brewing Company announced a collaboration with Real Foods Connection at its new Roundhouse location. The company planned to set up at cafe at the brewery.

Sean Dunbar, owner and operator of Northampton, said much is now up in the air.

"I don't really know what sorts of things Real Food has in stock or in store or up their sleeve. Honestly I've left all this up to them and I'm as without a plan as anybody at this point."

Beth Fowler owns Big Sky Ventures, which produces sea buckthorn berries and products and Real Food Connections is one of only two retailers that carries her products. She also used the company's certified kitchen to make products such as jelly.

Real Food Connections closed unexpectedly in Saint John and Fredericton on Nov. 30. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)
"Now we have to find another kitchen to use that has that credential," she said.

She said the closure means she'll have to get her products into other retailers faster than anticipated.

Still Fowler said at this time, her first focus is supporting Lawrence and his family.

"They've been very supportive of us and not just us but other businesses."

Scott McAllister, owner of Scotty's Hotties, had a similar feeling. He credits Real Food Connections with giving him his start.

"Levi [Lawrence] has supported all of us for a number of years," he said. "I started selling him fresh fiddleheads way back when he used to operate out of his father's shed using some fridges and freezers years and years and years ago.

"He's always been good to me, allowed me to process my product when I first needed to have a proper classified kitchen."

Levi Lawrence statement

Levi Lawrence, founder of Real Food Connections, has not responded to interview requests about shutting down his company. (CBC)
In the statement to customers, Lawrence wrote:

"It is my heartfelt desire that we can find some way to preserve some of the learnings, experience, systems, team and equipment in such a way that they can continue in a positive, productive effort along these lines but it will not be possible under the current stewardship of Real Food Connections."

Coon said Thursday that the closure brought him back to his proposed Local Food Security Act. The government never adopted the bill, but instead brought in a local food strategy.

"It's really quite light," he said. "It misses the opportunity to really jump start the market in a significant way by requiring hospitals and nursing homes, which use a lot of food, to buy local food to supply their patients and clients."

Coon introduced the bill in 2015 and many local food producers and suppliers, including Lawrence, said it would help create a better market for local food in the province.

"It's really a question of how you can provide the oomph to get over the hurdle of building the market," Coon said.

Livingstone said he's since had people contacting him to purchase his produce.

"People want good food. So ideally, I want to figure out how to get it to those people. But that's the challenge."

Levi Lawrence has not responded to requests for comment.