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Paul Sawtell, co-founder of 100km Foods. (Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail/Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail)
Paul Sawtell, co-founder of 100km Foods. (Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail/Rosa Park for The Globe and Mail)

Food

Big city chefs hungry for rural rhubarb Add to ...

The name is more figurative than literal, but the concept for 100km Foods is straightforward: Bring Ontario food growers and Toronto chefs together.

Paul Sawtell launched the Toronto-based company with partner and co-owner Grace Mandarano in 2008. Both were working in corporate sales and wanted more meaningful work. Now they love what they do.

The company strives for a Local Foods Plus designation, where the growers are not only local but also employ sustainable farming practices, says Mr. Sawtell. "We look for farms that embody that philosophy," he says.

While 100km Food works with a few farms outside of the 100-kilometre radius - one is 160 kilometres away - it tries to stay as close as possible to the ideal. "If we can get tomatoes in Niagara there's no sense in going to Leamington for the same product," says Mr. Sawtell.

Their foods come from both conventional and certified organic farms. Clients are chefs, restaurants and hotels with a local focus, including the Royal York, the Oliver & Bonacini restaurants and Reds Bistro. 100km Foods sends them an e-mail listing of the available foods, who grew them and where they're from.

The biggest demand is for foods at their peak, such as spring asparagus and rhubarb.

"Through us, the chefs can access 30 or 40 farms instead of having to have direct relationships with each," says Mr. Sawtell. "We deliver the freshest, most in-season products that they can get. By the time they get it in their kitchens, it was literally harvested the day before."

Now in its fourth year, the company essentially doubled its overall sales over the first three years, Mr. Sawtell says. The 2009 economic downturn was tough, but they still grew.

"The biggest challenge when we started was just that we were doing everything ourselves," says Mr. Sawtell, who is now looking to hire a third driver and a salesperson as well. "The concept was there and we were very motivated to know we had a market right out of the gate."

The couple had to figure out the logistics and build a distribution model from scratch.

"We were literally creating the wheel," says Mr. Sawtell. "But we demonstrated that you can make money doing a sustainable business. We're hoping to do $1-million in sales this year."

But the co-founders have made environmental compromises. Mr. Sawtell struggles with the fact that their trucks burn diesel fuel, for instance. But they're looking at the possibility of using bio-diesel from waste kitchen oil.

Still, he finds some solace in 100km's logistics. "Instead of having 30 farmers on the road to Toronto, we gather all those products in our two trucks on a farm run and bring them down to the city."

Another green effect is that as local farmers become more prosperous, there will be more incentive for people to farm, he says.

"For the first time, there's a movement toward younger people leaving the city and starting farming, which was virtually unheard of 10 or 15 years ago," says Mr. Sawtell. "It's allowing this industry to thrive. The alternative is to bulldoze farmlands and create subdivisions, which doesn't give anybody an advantage in the long term."

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