Ran Goel has come a long way from Wall Street.
The former investment lawyer greets me in his North York, Toronto office, the home base of Fresh City Farms, and leads me on a tour of the warehouse. It’s a cavernous space filled with crates of fresh basil and oranges, with fridges full of bottled smoothies. It’s also bustling with life. Loud music gives the space a friendly atmosphere as employees race around us, arms full of produce, on schedule for the next shipment.
A few years ago, Goel’s life was just about as removed from this environment as possible. After graduating from law school, Goel found himself living the white-collar life in New York City, though he’s quick to clarify that his is not the story of a disillusioned Wall Street veteran. “I never really expected to be on Wall Street forever,” he tells me. “I always wanted to do something more in the public interest realm, human rights work…I always thought I’d do human rights law or refugee work or something like that.” But Goel, like most university graduates these days, was saddled with debt. Wall Street became a means to an end, a path that he’d always viewed as temporary. He’d also always fostered a dream of living in New York, which, financially, has perhaps never presented a harder challenge than in the present. “It’s hard to live there unless you’re either working as a professional or you’re a trust fund baby,” he says. “I didn’t have a trust fund, so that was my way of doing it. I wasn’t one of those people that was like, ‘I went to Wall Street, and I thought it would be great, and then I realized it was an empty life.’”
Wolf of Wall Street he isn’t. But if the leap from investment lawyer to entrepreneur in the farm-to-table grocery sector still seems like a stretch, Goel may not argue; in fact, it’s not path he’d envisioned for himself. “If you’d asked me six, seven years ago, I never would have considered myself a person who thought about food in any deep way,” he says. But the food industry, he discovered, was a common denominator between many societal issues that he was passionate about. “Food was kind of a marriage of what was near and dear to me,” he explains, “because of stories from my grandparents and having a backyard garden most of my childhood. And a lot of issues that I cared about, like labor issues, climate change, environmental issues – food kind of touches on all that.”
And so Fresh City Farms was born. It’s a business that blends grocery delivery with e-commerce while focusing on local, organic products. But this isn’t simply a delivery service; in true farm-to-table practice, Fresh City also farms a plot of land at Downsview Park, a fifteen minute drive north of the warehouse. Customers choose their desired products online, with the options of pre-determined bags, custom bags, or ingredient bags packaged for fast and easy meal preparation, and these bags are then either delivered to their doors or dropped at pick-up points throughout the city.
While today Fresh City is not only stable but growing – Goel tells me that business is projected to double this year – it began with humble roots. Fresh City started with a leap of faith and finance from Goel; for the first three and a half years of the business, he was the only investor. His Wall Street savings went towards funding this entrepreneurial venture in a largely uncharted sector. While many young entrepreneurs have e-commerce experience, he explains, very few have grocery e-commerce experience. And there are many factors to consider: not only are the products in question perishable, but the farming branch of the business and a commitment to reusable packaging makes for a complex system to manage.
But manage he does, and while Goel doesn’t consider himself a natural entrepreneur, it’s a skill he’s learned out of necessity and one that is fueled by passion.
Goel perceived many inherent problems with capitalism in his days as an investment lawyer. “I’d work on disclosure documents or long contracts for a hedge fund, buying a company that invests in wineries, and you’d have to delve so far into [the supply chain] before you actually got to a real person growing the grapes. So I think that sort of ‘full-circle’ is something we’ve lost track of, given how specialized our economy has become and how outsourced a lot of it has become. Not just with food but anything these days, the supply chains are so long and so far away and we’re so alienated from it,” he says. “Especially in the context of living in Toronto, most of us don’t have a direct connection with the outcomes of our work, or we don’t see our work from start to finish in the way that I think people would have, say, fifty years ago. You know, you would work in a factory, you’d make shoes, you would see the shoes sold…I think most of us work in much more niche areas now.” But farming, in some ways, is the last frontier of seed-to-harvest (so to speak) production. This is perhaps, he suggests, fueled by the fact that farming is a thing few people do these days; as a percentage of the population, he estimates that only one in about one hundred people are farmers. “I think when people come up to the farm, you can almost see that awe, that they think, ‘Wow, this is actually made here. It’s grown here and delivered to my door.’”
Goel recently found himself in the national spotlight when he participated on Dragon’s Den, a Canadian reality show that allows entrepreneurs to pitch their business to venture capitalists in the hopes of finding an investor. While Fresh City Farms was unable to secure an offer, Goel is upbeat about the experience. “For us it wasn’t a make-or-break type of situation,” he explains. “I was disappointed in the sense that I think we’re a great business and we didn’t get an offer, but not in the sense that it was do-or-die. We’ve been very lucky. We’ve gotten great investors who really believe in the company and look at it as a long-term business. They look at the underlying fundamentals of our society and where things are going and what we’re valuing more and more, these macro trends. It was disappointing that they didn’t see that.”
Goel had been on the fence about his participation on the show; initially he had been concerned about the potential risk of his segment being edited in such a way that didn’t make the business look good. (Indeed, while his pitch and the ensuing discussion took over an hour to film, it was edited down to a roughly six minute segment – edited, he says, for “drama”.) But it was actually a friend and customer of Fresh City who pushed him to follow through with the show. “He said to me, ‘This is a great opportunity – forget Fresh City. This is a great way to bring your message to a new, broad audience: organic food, local food.’ And so Dragon’s Den became a means of sharing his message on a whole new platform, making the concept a little more familiar, a little more welcoming.
Like the Dragons, the general public presents its own challenge when delivering such a message. Despite the growing awareness of the importance of buying local and organic, he estimates that organic produce sales in the Ontario market still hover somewhere between 3-5%, while organic meat sales account for less than 1%. And so there is still a long way to go.
“We’re always trying to figure out how to get the message right…I think a lot of people hear the word ‘organic’ and they immediately think of it as elite, premium for no reason – all these associations. A lot of the time, for people to think of themselves as somebody who can buy local organics is a stretch. We’ve found it takes a lot of kicks at the can, so to speak, for someone to convert. Meaning that we meet them, they come up to the farm, they get a flyer, they see a Facebook ad…it takes a lot of time to make someone realize, ‘This is not a crazy, radical, progressive thing, this just makes sense for my health and for my family’. And that journey can take a long time for people. Years, easily.”
Considering the sheer size of the industry, and that you can spend “several lifetimes”, he says, catering to various groups, the reality remains that all the natural food stores and online organic grocers combined are at most the size of “a couple of Loblaws stores – maybe three – in terms of the average revenue that a Loblaws store brings”. But despite living in the shadow – for now – of these corporations, Fresh City Farms will continue its quest to bring urban farming into the spotlight.
“I think we’ll be doing something right when other people start duplicating what we do,” Goel laughs. “I wanted to create a business where I felt that the more we grow, and the more benefits we get, the more benefits society gets.”