Where top Toronto restaurants get their produce
The increased focus on local and sustainable foods is certainly not a new trend, but Paul Sawtell and Grace Mandarano of 100km Foods Inc. have been spearheading the movement since 2007, when they quit their jobs, backpacked throughout Asia, then returned to launch a local food distribution company.
The thrust of the business is sale and distribution of local produce and foods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, pantry staples, and recently, full dairy offerings. While the name might be a bit of a misnomer (not all farms are quite within a 100km radius), they do try to emphasize growers with sustainable farming practices.
Their list of clients reads like a who's who of high-end Toronto restaurants, from obvious farm-to-table and harvest spots like Richmond Station, to the McEwan (Bymark, Fabbrica) and Oliver and Bonacini groups of restaurants, to the Drake Hotel. You'll also find their produce at Table 17, Momofuku, Splendido and Royal York Hotel. Anthony Walsh of O&B was among their first clients, and the rest was done through word of mouth. "We don't actively market ourselves, but even as chefs move around, they retain us as their providers," Sawtell says.
They weren't necessarily intending to cater to the upper eschelons of Toronto cuisine, but when they first began cold-calling chefs whose cooking showed a concern for local food, they quickly discovered the clear correlation between a refusal to compromise on freshness, and fine dining. Intuitive, really. 100km provides a communicative channel between big-city chefs and small-town farmers, thereby benefitting both. Chefs are able to pick and choose from a wider variety of growers (ensuring greater access to seasonal goods), while farmers enjoy more business.
Their most popular items are fruits from Torrie Warner's farm in Beamsville, including the unusual Northern kiwi, and summertime salad greens from a farm in Creemore. 100km offers staples like carrots, onions and potatoes, but also rarer items like pawpaw and dairy from Sheldon Creek Dairy--Ontario's first dairy permitted to process milk from their own cows. "Their milk never leaves the farm," Sawtell tells me.
As you'd imagine, winter poses challenges, but it's more than the changing season that affects supply. Winter crops are directly related to the summer season, and due to the cold front in April, apples and pears are at a premium. "We normally have apples year-round, but we'll be sold out by Christmas," Saltwell laments, then add good-naturedly, "you take the good with the bad." Winter tests their ingenuity, requiring them to seek out other suppliers. They're currently looking into canned Ontario tomatoes, but have no interest in delving into the "highly specialized" industries of meats or fish.
As for the future of the local produce market? "It's getting more mainstream traction," Sawtell tells me. While farmers' markets have always been an option, Sawtell adds that he recently saw Ontario garlic in a Loblaws (rather than the typically available Chinese variety). It's a sign of better things to come.
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