How Fresh Restaurants Founder Ruth Tal Launched a Juicing Culture
Ruth Tal reflects on her journey to success, one healthy step at a time
Source: Best Health magazine, September 2015
Ruth Tal, founder and owner of Fresh Restaurants and Juice Bars, is living the good life ‘ and it shows. When she greets me at her Toronto home, she is sun-kissed and radiant, having just completed back-to-back yoga and Pilates classes. Dressed in a menswear-style vest and cargo shorts, Tal is effortlessly accessorized with a beaded necklace, wrists loaded with bracelets and a few wanderlust-inspired tattoos.
Her airy loft space provides a perfect view to the packed patio of Fresh on Crawford, one of four locations in her growing healthy-eating empire. Splitting time between Toronto and California (where her fiancé lives) and on the cusp of launching LOV by Fresh in Montreal, not to mention a fifth cookbook, might stress other people out, but not Tal.
Sip of Success
‘My life is great now! I have created a business that, as a woman, allows me to be myself. It’s the greatest privilege,’ says the 50-year-old entrepreneur as she looks back on what started it all.
Tal returned home at the age of 25, after several years of travelling abroad, to attend the University of Toronto. She had the desire to be healthier, but didn’t know how to do it. That quickly changed after her first glass of carrot juice. ‘It really blew my mind, the idea that you could take a vegetable and get this milky, creamy sweet juice that kind of tasted like biting into a carrot but was totally different at the same time,’ she says. ‘I remember drinking it and feeling instantly energized, refreshed and healthier. It was one of those ‘aha’ moments, and I wanted more.’
She wanted much more, took a risk and pursued it, ultimately using her student loan to foot the bill for juicing equipment. What began as a travelling juice bar that would pop up at folk festivals, concerts and health lectures eventually became her first bricks-and-mortar destination known as Juice for Life, which would later evolve into Fresh.
As much as Tal is responsible for establishing Fresh’s success, she is quick to acknowledge the teamwork from her partners and staff and says she couldn’t have done it on her own. ‘Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is crucial,’ she says. ‘In the beginning, I was very protective of running the business a certain way, and I was wary of a partner who was going to change things without understanding what Fresh was all about.’
Realizing that the right team players could take her business to the next level encouraged Tal to bring on her first partner, a regular at a juice bar and café in the market who happened be an accountant. ‘I just thought, ‘If I give him a bunch of money to be in the company, then he can take care of the books,” she remembers. They’ve been together ever since. ‘Eighteen years later, it’s the longest relationship either of us have had,’ she says with a laugh.
Adding a second partner was equally game-changing. ‘Jennifer Houston came to work for me in the kitchen in May 1998 and became integral to the food program,’ says Tal. Houston and Tal have written all of Fresh’s bestselling cookbooks together. The latest one, Super Fresh, boasts more than 200 new recipes.
Of Mentors and Mentality
”Don’t give up’ is the best advice I’ve ever gotten, and that I’ve paid forward,’ says Tal. ‘In the early years, you’re working really hard and not quite paying yourself yet. Oftentimes you haven’t found the right staff to help you, and that’s very tough.’
Tal found encouragement and guidance by connecting with other women breaking ground in the vegan restaurant industry ‘ one in Seattle, WA, and one in Victoria, BC. ‘I called them at different times and even visited them. It wasn’t that I was going to give up, but I wasn’t sure I was on the right track. I would share my numbers with them and they’d say ‘You’re on your way; it’s going to get better.’ I got a lot of support from them.’
To Russia With Love
By the time she hit 46, Tal was ready for a change. She recalls the day she decided to retire from the day-to-day operations of running the restaurant as the best and worst of her career. ‘It was bittersweet. It was amazing to realize a dream that a lot of people have ‘ to retire at 46 ‘ but I was sad to be leaving.’
Retirement meant spending time in Mexico City ‘ one of her favourite places on the globe ‘ and maintaining her passion for healthy eating by sharing recipes with a local chef. While there, she was approached by a Russian business couple, who were ardent Fresh fans hoping to open a location in Moscow. ‘We Skyped and I sent a list of ‘demands,’ the ingredients that are central to our menu. I told them if you can’t get these things, then it isn’t going to happen.’ Proving to be resourceful, the couple followed up a month later with everything ready to go. They’d found a way to make it all happen, going so far as to get someone to grow sprouts for them, says Tal.
Thus, the first Russian store was born. Next up? An outpost in Mexico City.
With 25 years of health food business in her back pocket, Tal continues to be an innovative force. Her latest venture involves three little words that seem to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue lately: cold-pressed juice. After being wowed by the product in California, she pitched it to her partners. ‘I kept sending them pics of me drinking it in L.A., like a hint-hint.’
Her campaign worked and cosmic forces aligned between her produce supplier and a couple of MBA grads who were also looking to get into the cold-pressed juice game. The collection of eight juices, along with four nut milks and power shots, debuted last December at Fresh locations, as well as select grocers and retailers.
Today, the Canadian market is flooded with this beverage niche, and Tal welcomes the competition. ‘It’s all good,’ she says, ‘if people are passionate about it and creating a good product. I’m a fan of anything that makes healthy living more convenient. Better that there’s more cold-pressed juice than tequila bars.’