WELLPRENEURS THAT INSPIRE: Jen From Live Organic Food Bar
Letting go, sprouting stuff, and being the best ever.
The day I discovered Live Organic Food Bar on Dupont was truly a life-changing moment and the whole experience itself was quite magical – and continues to be as I walk into that little haven Jennifer Italino has gifted us Toronto folks.
To the everyday Torontonian, the entire Live Organic Food brand seems to be booming and to have grown incredibly fast. With that said, I’m proud to announce that I myself was one of their first (& truest) fans, and I can see why Jennifer, the co-founder, explains that although their business always seems to be moving fast and frantically - they’ve somehow managed to maintain a sense of steadiness, choosing expansion strategies and paths quite diligently. This was just one of the frank, honest, and helpful shares that Jennifer disclosed when we sat down with her to talk about building the much loved Live Organic Food brand.
Jennifer Italiano is the co-owner on this brother and sister team since 2001, and she has a background in urban planning – of which she described herself as being “good, but not great” at. When deciding among academic ventures, she was back and forth deciding between culinary school and fashion.
“I could always make something out of nothing!” Not necessarily healthy though, she admits – jokingly referencing late night eats always having something to do with fried bread. Anyways, she landed on pursuing fashion, and she had the honour of working with big brands like Diesel and Donna Karan. She speaks fondly yet cautiously of that lifestyle, explaining that she was young and in the depths of the fashion world – where you’re “literally dressed to the nines everyday”.
Meanwhile, her brother opened up a juice bar alongside a studying holistic nutritionist, where Jennifer eventually became the “vegan chef”. She notes “Not vegan because I had any sort of ‘vegan background’ – I’m Italian. With that said, we were all getting into a more holistic whole foods diet and a cleansing lifestyle, so I just became the helper in this little venture”.
While it may have been hard work, Jen began to love it more and more, and quit her old job to eventually buy her brother + the original owner out. “I just wanted to make it work, I thought: as long as I can pay my rent, I can keep this going.”
REAL LIFE TAKEAWAY #1: Sometimes the start of something great isn’t as “epic” and financially obvious as you might expect (or wish). Instead, it can simply be finding a new passion and seeing that path for where it takes you.
Jen continued to explore this holistic food space, and was also taking part in yoga retreats, pop-ups at yoga studios, and became friendly with the team from Fresh restaurants. She describes herself at this time as being in her own little world in her basement kitchen - completely encapsulated with raw food, for which there were basically NO books on the subject…so she had little to go off. Thankfully, she just seemed to rock at it naturally. “Sometimes in life, things choose you, and I honestly think raw food was that for me – plus, thankfully, I happened to be way better at it than “regular” cooked food!”
While this raw food adventure was slowly but surely proving to be a success – it wasn’t always easy, she explains, “I had no life, I spent my life in the kitchen.”
Thankfully, her brother came back into the business and things continued to grow. She recalls when Now Magazine listed the top 50 best vegetarians restaurants in Toronto, and that her and her brother discussed how they want to make it on that list one day. The very next week, Now Magazine contacted her and apologized for not featuring them in the list – but explained that they were going to be doing an exclusive full page – just for live!
That’s what put them on the map.
REAL LIFE TAKEAWAY # 2: PR matters. Get a major publication or local influencer to show some love, and others will take note.
While Jennifer was certainly honoured at the feature, she still saw live (and arguably still does) as more of an “underground” success in the vegan world. They’ve done several private catering events for celebrities and Jen’s network and influence in the tight-knit uber-healthy space (particularly trending in places like California and New York) has continued to offer wonderful opportunities for the live brand.
With that said, big isn’t always better. “I think people assume that we’re a lot bigger than we actually are.” Jen still goes between both restaurants to check in and manage – staying hands-on with operations as much as she can. One of the biggest life-lessons she admits is learning to let go – “or else you’ll go insane” she laughs. Keeping a restaurant business going is risky – including the importance of staffing, as they can literally make or break your business, which is scary at times to think about, she admits.
Clearly, the way Jen talks about her restaurants – especially her DuPont “baby” shows she’s doing something right. And that’s an understatement; she’s been able to make some pretty wise decisions that have supported their growth but also minimize risk. One decision in particular was the opening of the Liberty Village location, which was done to streamline operations with a simplified menu – it makes churning out all of these raw gorgeous eats a little more efficient and smart from a business standpoint. Next, was the establishment of their exciting new production kitchen! This all leads us into…
REAL LIFE TAKEAWAY # 3: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Jen explains that she still feels blessed that the DuPont location is even still around and thankfully doing well. The hard truth of the matter is: that might not always be the case, and thus the need to diversify the business (to a reasonable, yet still very authentic extent) became necessary. And with that, the live product line was launched for the retail market.
I asked Jen about her experience expanding into the CPG industry, and she was incredibly humble about her accomplishments such as getting into stores with huge reach, like Whole Foods. She notes that it’s “really about standing behind your brand”. Jen is the still one who takes on a lot of the internal sales, and while she by no means even hints at the fact that that is the sole reason for their success in that department – you can easily put two and two together.
REAL LIFE TAKEAWAY # 4: All the best founders know how to sell – and aren’t afraid to be the front-running “sales lead” on their team.
Jen asked me, “You really want to know how I got in Whole Foods? I broke his [the buyer] chops! I’m a ball breaker ‘till I get you!” Hilariously, she explains how she figured out that he must be an early riser based on his work patterns, and she was able to track him down and sell him on it in person. To her pleasant surprise, he was already a huge fan of the restaurant!
While getting into Whole Foods, Noah’s, The Big Carrot, and several other well-known stores is certainly something to be proud of, Jen also notes that they love working with the smaller stores too. Furthermore, she expresses gratitude for the fact that they are now at the point where stores are actually approaching them - asking if they can carry their line, rather than the other way around.
A specific piece of practical advice Jen shares: do all your own distribution! “Nobody touches our stuff” she jokes. With high-value all organic, fresh local produce like what Live works with, it’s no wonder they have to be smart and impeccably efficient when it comes to managing their own distribution.
Changing gears now, I ask Jen about the choice to go “gluten-free” for her restaurants, and she explains that while she herself is not strictly gluten-free, most (if not all) of the raw food she was preparing just so happened to not have gluten anyways, so it just made sense. Of course, Jen is a fan of the benefits of gluten-free diets, and especially gives praise to sprouted foods. Moreover, she loves learning about new food in general, and she attributes one of her sources of inspiration to David Wolfe (p.s. I’m also a HUGE fan #DavidWolfeGroupie).
In fact to a “healthy foodie” like myself, it is painstakingly obvious that she must take keen note of what revolutionary idols in the health and wellness space like David Wolfe are preaching. It was Live that wasn’t afraid to put ingredients like raw cacao and Chaga and wheatgrass on their menu first – way before the other health food stores and juice bars in Toronto have now caught on to.
REAL LIFE TAKEAWAY #5: Never be afraid to be different – you’ll eventually be rewarded for it.
While I hint at the fact that now it seems almost “mainstream” to be “different” when it comes to natural whole foods and in particular the seemingly over-saturation of the “healthy”/vegan food space (not that that is actually possible) – Jen replies: “I’m all about competition, hey – it means there’s more great places that I can go out and actually eat at!”
A leader and an inspiration in the restaurant industry, health and wellness space, and – if you’ve seen their locations or even just their branding – I think you’ll agree to also list design – Jennifer Italiano is one to learn from and also watch out for. It’s entrepreneurs like this – open, frank, and who can always manage to laugh at themselves, that inspire us to start where you are and build something fabulous.
Cheers to you Jen – with local biodynamic wine, of course!