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Growth Local bakeries produce alternatives to mass-produced Halloween treats

Eden Hertzog, owner of New Moon Kitchen and Paula Blackman package up Halloween cookies for trick-or-treaters in their Toronto production facility on October 26, 2016.

JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The question began popping up a few weeks back on Facebook groups that cater to Toronto parents: Did anyone know of a healthy, local alternative to mass-produced Halloween candy?

Searching for one on the shelves of city stores was akin to a hunt for unicorns – one that many a family was happy to join in. Their burgeoning demand for a local alternative to Halloween treats has ignited an unexpected frenzy at two Toronto bakeries working overtime to feed the holiday gap.

New Moon Kitchen and Sweets from the Earth, two vegan, small-batch commercial bakeries run by CEOs who also happen to be mothers, are selling 50-piece bags stuffed with individually packaged, preservative-free chocolate-chip cookies for Halloween.

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Both companies normally sell their baked goods – which are free of dairy, peanuts, nuts and trans fats, and are certified kosher – at organic food retailers across the Greater Toronto Area. While profit margins aren't high on the Halloween bags, both bakeries say the opportunity to create awareness – of both their brands and the fact that alternatives to traditional candy are out there – is worth the sweat equity.

"Kids with allergies or intolerances to nuts, dairy or egg enjoy dressing up and trick-or-treating with their friends as much as any other kid, but at the end of the night, half their bag ends up in the trash," said Ilana Kadonoff, founder of Sweets from the Earth. Her bakery has been quietly offering bite-sized Halloween cookies since 2010 for those willing to pick up the treats at their north Toronto headquarters. "It's a nice surprise to find a vegan, nut-free cookie in their bag at the end of the night," she said.

To keep costs for the special-order Halloween cookies down – and prices for the $20 bags as competitive as possible with candy sold by giants Nestle and Cadbury – the bakeries have had to get creative with their sales and distribution.

New Moon Kitchen is in its first year of selling Halloween-specific "Spookies," treat-sized versions of their popular chocolate chip cookie made with spelt flour.

Company founder and head "Baker Babe" Eden Hertzog ran a small pilot in her neighbourhood last year and while feedback was encouraging enough to spur this year's full rollout, Hertzog decided to bypass conventional retailers that would require her to mark up the cookies.

"The whole idea with this is to compete on price with the stuff you get in the grocery store … but offer something wholesome and completely good," she said.

"It's always been on our business bucket list to do Halloween cookies. So many parents want to be making ethical choices that are easy to come by."

Instead of selling in stores, Hertzog created an online order form and published the link on her company's website and social media channels. She also sent it to fellow parents in her west-end neighbourhood; all month, the form has been circulating across Facebook, which drove such a firestorm of orders that Hertzog ran out of the 15,000 special packages she had originally ordered.

"We had to bring in 10,000 more bags. At the beginning we were wondering how we were going to sell all of these and then it just spread like wildfire," she said. "It became this amazing grassroots viral sensation."

Numerous families from various corners of the city contacted Hertzog directly to ask if their porches could serve as drop-off locations for area orders, making it easier for people who might not buy the cookies if they had to trek beyond their neighbourhoods.

Carrie Klassen, an east-end mother and small-business owner, was one of them. She heard about New Moon's initiative via social media and helped organize a local drop-off.

"I wanted to give out something ethical, school-safe and interesting – something made with care," she said. "I know a number of neighbours who were eager to order from a small bakery instead of a big corporation. It might cost a little more, but we're glad to support a local family business."

Both bakeries will accept orders submitted online through the weekend and staff will work overtime to fill them. Sweets from the Earth customers will be able to pick up their cookies, which only have a three-day shelf life, on Monday from the company's bakery in north Toronto. New Moon is also offering pickups at their west-end bakery for last-minute orders. Six more Toronto porches or retail locations will host pick-ups (as well as a seventh in Kitchener-Waterloo).

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Paola Giavedoni, owner of The Candy Bar on College Street, said she believes the market for Halloween candy alternatives is set to grow year over year.

"We've had a lot of discussion with parents that want to stay away from chocolate that is unethical … they want to feel better about what they're giving out," she said, adding: "The conversations are starting. That's the catalyst for people making a change."

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