It was a dark and stormy night when the seeds for Radical Gardens were planted.
Now, owners Brianna Humphrey and Steve McIntosh are bathing in the sunshine and rainbows of a provincial award.
The business has grown organically over the past seven years. Starting as a farm, it now has a unique farm-to-table restaurant, catering service for large-scale events, and a food truck in the summer months. And don’t forget the mouth-watering baked goods.
“I started with a farm in 2012,” Humphrey said. “We wanted to do an online farmers’ market that delivered to your door. It was definitely ahead of its time, by a lot.
“We decided after running two years of the online market, it didn’t really work, and we started running surveys for customers as to why it isn’t working and what’s the disconnect here. We discovered they didn’t understand what we were growing and they wanted prepared food."
Then came the dark and stormy night.
“It was raining really badly and I pulled over in front of this place,” she said. “I used work at the Travelodge and I did a lot of business with Bentley’s Kitchen and I remembered it. I got out of the car and looked in the window and I could see the stove and tongs."
She called the real estate agent, who was nearby.
“He came over within five minutes. The building had been vacant for so long, it was not in great condition and not in an affluent neighbourhood, so it was really cheap. So, I just bought it right there," she said.
With some hard work and elbow grease, they opened the storefront.
“We spent two weeks cleaning it because, being vacant for two-and-a-half years, every mouse in the whole friggin’ city lived here,” Humphrey said. “We cleaned it up and opened within two weeks. We actually opened it as a grocery store and had zero intention of cooking any food.
“My friends convinced me to cook. They said ‘you make good food and you have a mortgage, so you should probably pay that.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ Then it just kind of stumbled out of control to the current situation.”
Northern Ontario is seeing renewed growth in agriculture, which fits in well with the farm-to-table philosophy of Radical Gardens.
“This is all like reclaimed wilderness farmland, it’s wonderful farmland,” she said. “Back then everyone realized that growing everything up here is awful, it’s like an extreme sport. So, most people jumped ship and went back down south.
“There is some wonderful opportunity up here. We have some wonderful, rich soil being in the clay belt.”
The growth of Radical Gardens and efforts to spread its food philosophy in the north recently earned an Ontario Tourism Award of Excellence in Culinary Leadership.
“We’re the only small business to win that award, ever,” Humphrey said. “It typically goes to tourism think tanks, to marketing companies or tourism committees that run Taste of Burlington or Taste of Guelph, which is called the Detours, who we were up against for the award. It was very interesting for a very tiny restaurant in Northern Ontario to win this award against two fairly large cities in Southern Ontario.
“It’s super awesome for us. We’ve kind of gone way out of our realm, but it’s to solve our own issues. Like creating more awareness of farm to table in Northern Ontario.
“To be recognized for this makes us all so happy, it’s good for our souls.”
The most recent addition to the business was the food truck, which is packed away for the winter..
“It doesn’t venture out because the lines would freeze. Also, no one is going to stand outside in -40 weather to order food. We operate that in the summer. It’s a 40-foot long food truck. It’s the biggest food truck in Northern Ontario and probably one of the biggest in the whole province," she said.
“Its schtick is that it can’t go out unless it’s going to a large festival. It does a lot of catering and stuff, a lot of out-of-town work. It’s been an interesting addition to our repertoire as it doesn’t have its own staff."
Radical Gardens has a strong social media and online presence, which has helped with its success.
“We have an online ordering app,” Humphrey said. “You can use it for delivery or pickup. It alleviates a lot of issues for lunch rush or dinner rush, especially if you’re trying to move your kids around between hockey games or whatever. Our social media presence has always been fairly large, because it’s been fun to run that.”
So, what’s next for Radical Gardens?
“I have no idea,” she said. “Surviving each day. That’s been our motto from the get-go. We had zero plans to be in the current spot that we’re in. We had no intentions of being a restaurant. We had no intentions of being a food truck. We never even dreamed about catering. Now we cater across Northern Ontario and do galas for 500 people.
“There’s only nine of us. We have accumulated a really awesome, amazing crew of people that are just as weird and enthusiastic as I am. We just try to make it to Friday. Like with anything, there are bad days. But we don’t want to do anything else.”