Q&A: Chef Jagger Gordon, creator of the city’s first pay-what-you-can grocery store

Q&A: Chef Jagger Gordon, creator of the city’s first pay-what-you-can grocery store

(Instagram via @chefjaggergordon)

The city’s first-ever pay-what-you-can grocery store opened last weekend near the Junction, offering everything from organic produce to pastries to pet food. We talked to Feed it Forward proprietor and chef Jagger Gordon about the store’s opening weekend, how so much perfectly good food goes to waste in Canada and why you can’t judge a shopper by his or her shoes.

Tell us a little bit about how the pay-what-you-can grocery concept works.
From the customer perspective, you come in, you get a basket and you fill up what you need. We have organic fruit and vegetables as well as sugar, flour, pastry, bread, quinoa and even pet food—because hungry people have hungry animals. Mostly the food is coming from grocery stores and food terminals—it’s stuff they would otherwise be looking to dispose of it, even though it’s still perfectly good. I go out and do a “food rescue” two or three times a day to our partners like the Food Terminal and Whole Foods. The supply is actually not a big problem.

Why is this happening?
We have $31 billion in food waste in this country. Part of it is that as Canadians we are looking to see the picture perfect food items, so you see grocery stores discarding anything that doesn’t meet that standard: a banana with just one brown spot, or a pepper with a wrinkle. Even non-perishable items have best-before freshness dates, and if something is sitting around in a warehouse and it’s only a couple of months until that date, it will often get destroyed without ever making it onto a shelf.

What made you choose the location?
I’m at Runnymede and Dundas. The rental increases in this neighbourhood have been astronomical, so that’s part of it—there are a lot of people who are choosing between food and a roof. There is also a men’s shelter being built around the corner, and there are a lot of students. The other thing is that there is a lot of social and community activism going on in the Junction, which makes it a really ideal spot to showcase how this model could be sustainable across Canada. Almost all of my volunteers live in the neigbourhood, which is really encouraging.

Your grand opening was on Saturday. How did it go?
I did not anticipate the lineup. I have to put tents around the block. We served 296 patrons and I went through my stock twice. People came in and we offered them not just groceries, but recipes and information on planting their own produce. It was just a really amazing vibe.

Would you say that the majority of the people who came in were people living in poverty?
Well that’s the thing: You don’t know who’s food insecure or even who is homeless. Maybe you’re wearing flip flops or you have a hole in your jeans—so do I. That’s kind of the idea behind this place. Everyone is treated the same.

There are business analysts who say that a “pay what you can” concept might not jibe with grocery shopping, where people tend to be seeking out the best deal possible.
Well the thing is that this is a social enterprise. Currently we have free food, free labour and I am funding it from the profits of my catering company. Yes, we are taking in a small amount from the PWYC model, but the goal isn’t to make a profit. My hope is to bring on some sponsors and do lot of fundraising. I have registered for charity status. At this point I just really want to show people that this model can work.

Did the majority of shoppers on the first weekend pay? Not pay? Pay less?
It was a mix. I saw a lot of people looking into their baskets and maybe trying to think about what they might pay in a normal grocery store. Some people paid the same, some less, some nothing. And some people paid more. Just today I had a guy who was picking up dog food and he paid for two extra bags for someone else. That’s what I was saying about this being a community project.

Hypothetical: You see a person wearing a pair of $500 Gucci sandals trying to pay nothing. Do you call them out?
Ha! I dealt with that when I was running [Soup Bar, a pay-what-you-can restaurant]. I guess what they’re not paying, I’m paying myself in laughter. I mean, wow. But like I said, who’s to judge? Who’s to say the shoes are real? Maybe there are holes in the soles.

A lot of people in your industry are pursuing rock star chef status. How did you become so involved in philanthropic food initiatives?
When I was raising my daughter, she had friends who had empty fridges, so that was something that stuck with me and then I became aware of the food waste issue when I noticed how much we were getting rid of with just my catering company. I don’t put myself ahead of anyone. I just think things need to change and the only way that’s going to happen is leading by example. We have more and more people who are hungry and the price of food is going up. It’s time to make a change.

…after teaching this morning I had the opportunity to visit the new Feed It Forward Grocery and Bakery Store in the Junction in Toronto! I was honored to meet the founder Chef Jagger Gordon who operates the store under a 'pay what you can' premise, and who is committed to keeping food from landfills while keeping communities healthy and well fed. For me it was an amazing opportunity to meet old friends and colleagues like Councillor Sarah Douchette who I was blessed to work alongside in our Supporting Swansea Youth efforts, who was also there helping to support and cheer on this incredible non for profit and community endeavour and to meet new friends from the community and to hear their stories on what brought them there and why this is so important to them! The long line up definitely showed a need for more of these intiatives to take root. For more information on Feed It Forward and/or to make a donation, please check out their website at: www.feeditforward.ca or better yet, head there yourself!! Big love!❤ #feeditforward #chefjaggergordon #paywhatyoucan #community #nonforprofit #health #wellbeing #food #organic #fresh #produce #environmentally #sustainable #toronto #junction

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In France, the government mandated that grocery stores must donate unwanted food to food banks. Why hasn’t Canada done same?
That’s a very good question. That’s why I’m saying sign my petition; let our government know we care about this. In Canada, 40 per cent of our farming produce is being destroyed before it gets to market. That is just not okay. I’m just getting the army together. Someone needs to step up and do something.

The Feed it Forward grocery store is located at 3324 Dundas St. W. It is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.