Toronto

Never mind Campbell's, smaller food companies take a big bite out of Toronto market

From working with celebrities in Los Angeles to making small batches of soup in the Junction, Melanie Bozzo's life couldn't be more different and she couldn't be happier. The career change happened about five years ago when she started thinking about food production and sustainability.

Multinational food producers may be leaving, but local companies are leading the food industry

Melanie Bozzo's Plant YYZ sells ready-made vegetarian comfort food that only uses ingredients from Ontario farmers. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC)

From working with celebrities in Los Angeles to making small batches of soup in the Junction, Melanie Bozzo's life couldn't be more different and she couldn't be happier.

The career change happened about five years ago when she started thinking about food production and sustainability.

"There was this idea of consumption that was just so unconscious," said Bozzo, whose old job was in marketing and product placement. "I wanted to know, 'How can we make it easy for people to make good choices?'".

Bozzo teamed up with her father, who has a background in food production, to launch Plant YYZ — a food line and retail store that takes hearty staples like soup and lasagna, and turns them into ready-made vegetarian or plant-based meals using only Ontario ingredients.  

"Our goal is to create traditional tasting foods that people grew up with … but make sure that they're sustainable, conscious and convenient food," said Bozzo.

Smaller manufacturers can easily jump on trends

It's businesses like Plant YYZ that the city of Toronto says are making the food production sector boom in this city.

Even though multinational corporation Campbell's Soup announced Wednesday announced it would be closing its Etobicoke factory after decades in Toronto, and Mr. Christie's did the same in 2012, it's Toronto's smaller businesses that are thriving.   

"The small to medium food manufacturers tend to be much more flexible," said Michael Wolfson, food and beverage specialist for the city of Toronto's Economic Division. "They're much more adaptable and much more on top of trends."

Bozzo says it took a few years to come up with hearty vegetarian and plant based sauces and meals for Plant YYZ. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC )

Support for local producers growing

There are more than 1,000 food and beverage manufacturers in Toronto and the industry is growing at about five per cent a year. Much of the expansion has to do with food trends like local, organic, vegetarian and fresh products that are sprouting up in shops and restaurants across the city.

"We have the largest access to fresh water. We have agricultural land surrounding us and a fantastic diversified labour force that brings new food products to the city.  All the elements are there for a growing and successful food cluster," said Wolfson.  

People are moving away from the canned and preserved quick meals of the 50s, said Wolfson, and instead are "opting for frozen or refrigerated options" that are made locally. 

'People really care more about what's in their food than ever'

This shift in preference was reflected in Campbell's sales. The company noted sales of canned soup fell 30 per cent in the last 10 years.

"People really care more about what's in their food than ever," said David Schneiderman, co-founder of Two Bears Coffee. "I think consumer trends show that people want less sugar, more transparency on the label and less words they've never heard of on the ingredients list."

David Schneiderman says he and his partner try to bring in only direct-trade coffee beans from farmers in Colombia. (David Schneiderman)

Schneiderman started making cold brew coffee three years ago. He and his partner would hijack a local bar after hours, brewing and bottling coffee.

"We'd sell out of my car for the first month. Literally it was me driving around selling to grocery stores," he said.

Fast forward three years and Two Bears Coffee is in Whole Food stores across Canada.

"When we do events in Toronto and people find out that we brew this here, right away they're fans of ours," said Schneiderman.

About the Author

Natalie Nanowski

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Natalie is a storyteller who spent the last few years in Montreal covering everything from politics to corruption and student protests. Now that she’s back in her hometown of Toronto, she is eagerly rediscovering what makes this city tick, and has a personal interest in real estate and investigative journalism. When she’s not reporting you can find her at a yoga studio or exploring Queen St. Contact Natalie: natalie.nanowski@cbc.ca