The State of Grocery Shopping in Toronto

I moved back to Toronto the beginning of March and decided to brush off the old blog and share my thoughts on food.  After spending seven years out of Canada, I had the opportunity to educate my palate and expand my knowledge on dining, cooking, shopping and growing food. Since returning to Toronto, I am dismayed by the state of grocery shopping in the city.  My post is meant to be educational but it is also a critique aimed at local and national chains as well as the green grocers that dot the city and colour the street.  The system is broken and I sincerely hope that by voicing my observations, it will spark other people to voice their opinions too.  When shopping at grocery stores and green grocers, not only is there a lack of information provided to consumers (on signs/tags) when it comes to produce, fish and meat, but the lack of diversity and support for smaller, independent food brands is both sad and deplorable.

Aisle after aisle, it is easy to find tasteless yet perfect looking, produce. ‘No. 1 Fancy Grade’ produce is found across all grocery store segments (from ethnic food stores, Loblaws and Value Mart to Pusateri’s– {Pusateri’s, McEwan’s and Bruno’s have a ‘great’ business model: charge a higher price for produce that is not organic, from outside of Canada, and may or may not be a higher, ‘extra fancy’ grade- hilarious}) and is typically coming in from the USA, Mexico or a handful of South American countries. Depending on seasonality, local Ontario items are available (its peak in the summer), but most often, food is trucked and shipped from afar to a shop near you.  I once heard a saying that food, like toddlers, does not travel well over long distances.  To reach our city grocery stores, food that is not seasonally grown in Ontario has to travel long distances to our shelves also using much gas in the process. Shortening the radius of travel and accessing locally grown food or alternatively food from neighbouring provinces or states would be a superior option in this case.  In addition to wasted energy brought about by carting food over long distances, the produce in your weekly shopping bag was picked specifically to sustain long distances and is thereby chosen for its hardiness to withstand the challenges of travel. Hardiness, supersedes flavour or an interesting varietal for economic reasons.  Because food also tends to be shipped under-ripe thereby depriving the fruit or vegetable from reaching its full taste potential to ripen on the vine/bush our taste buds miss out on what the true flavour of a peach or cucumber should be.  I can’t tell you how many times I meet someone from Europe and they tell me the produce tastes bland and unexciting in Toronto in comparison to back home. You don’t know what you are missing unless you have a food memory of what better and best taste like.
In addition to the lack of flavour and long shipping distances that is negatively impacting the state of grocery shopping in Toronto, I was also astounded by the lack of organic produce options in mainstream grocery stores (Whole Foods not included). It’s truly maddening. Next time you visit a store, stand at the front of the produce section and observe the amount of shelf space dedicated to organic fruits and veggies versus those that are conventionally farmed.  If you haven’t read Dan Barber’s book “the Third Plate” you must. If you are not going to read it, at least take this point into consideration that he raises: “Organic produce, grown in healthier soil and without chemical pesticides, contains higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown food.  The higher levels of antioxidants come from the need of the plant to fight pests itself than be reliant on chemicals to ward off threats. Higher antioxidant levels in plants also contribute to tastier produce as antioxidants impact a fruit or vegetable’s organoleptic qualities, aka, its aroma, taste and mouth feel- Conventionally grown produce is grown in nitrogen rich soil (from synthetic fertilizers).  Plants take the nitrogen from the soil and use it to create sugar and starch instead of flavourful antioxidants.” The fact that a substantial amount of food in our stores comes from the USA, it better be organic because the US farming system is rife with chemicals, subsidies and large agri-businesses calling the shots. The goal is profitability in a way that meets FDA laws of course, but at what expense. Cast your eyes and mind on any number of food documentaries for a refresher on the scary state of the farming practices in the USA (Food, Inc, Fed Up, Hungry for Change, More than Honey, Farmageddon, In Organic We Trust, Dirt the Movie)
The next problem that I observed is the lack of diversity of packaged goods on shelves and in particular lack of shelf space devoted to small, independent, Toronto, Ontario or Canadian food brands.  Walk down the middle section of a store packaged food aisle in a grocery store and you are bombarded by food from large consumer packaged goods brands.  With the exception of perhaps the hot sauce, vinegar, and oil sections, mass brands rule.  The food industry and the entrepreneurs who dream up new and exciting products is a vehicle to creating new jobs in a local and national economy.  Thanks to the Food Network, celebrity chefs, cooking competitions and food porn across social media, you would think the supply and demand for new products is at its peak.  Then why aren’t companies like Loblaw’s, Metro, Sobey’s or Longo’s doing more to make shelf space to support Canadian food entrepreneurs? There is a prohibitive price tag associated with shelf space that large consumer packaged goods companies have no trouble paying to retailers.  Large CPG companies count on volume of sales. Canadian grocery stores that tout their Canadian heritage and do little to support and provide exposure to small brands, needs to change.  For independent food producers, of course there is nothing wrong with starting small and selling through mom-and-pop shops and independent chains (as ramping up supply may be a challenge in some cases). This is the typical route, plus online sales.  But just think as a consumer, how exciting it would be to see product after product marked with a Canadian flag (representing products from Vancouver all the way to Halifax), or one special aisle dedicated to made in Canada products. Wouldn’t you be curious to support local or see what Canadian foodies are producing?  Support for local products seems to have a greater foothold and support in grocery stores abroad.  I have lived in Europe, Asia and in the USA.  Other countries seem to understand that product diversity in your offering to consumers is what makes a great store.  Not the fact that you can get the same pasta brands, same flour brands, same ketchup brands in every single store.  Why doesn’t Canada do this for its consumers? Consumers! Wake up!!  There are interesting products to be tried but unless you demand it from your grocery store, they won’t change the mix. I have already written four chains.
Finally, there is an issue with labeling of produce, baked goods and meat.  Walk the produce section or flip through your weekly grocery store flyer and you see a familiar sign or description that reads “No.1 Grade USA.”  That’s it.  What does this mean outside of the fact that the visual quality of the item will be the highest grade (no sad fruit/veggies)?  It tells you nothing of which state the food came from, which farm it came from; and by assumption that it was conventionally raised.  If you haven’t watched a farming/food documentary in the past five years, I would brush up quickly and then feel angry for the unclear, vague description of “No.1 Grade USA”. Aren’t our mouths and bodies worthy of more information?  The US farming system, with its large industrial, monoculture plots of land, rewarded by subsidies to produce the most food at the cheapest price, is broken. “No. 1 Grade USA” does not mean you are getting apples from a small farm nestled in the idyllic coastline of California or small farm in upstate New York that cares about the apples and parsnips they grow.  You are receiving generic, meaningless information about something you are going to put into your body. At least, if the produce was organic, then you know that the farming practices are carried out in a certain way (not that there are not larger organic farms…) that are not intentionally harmful to the land and the food itself.  Sadly, industrialized bread suffers a similar fate.  There are a handful of chemicals and enzymes that are added to the recipe to make loaves fluffier and last longer that are not listed on nutritional labels because they are not required to.  As recent as 2014, Health Canada gave an additive called ADA, the green light to stay in commercial bread production, when it is mildly carcinogenic and the EU banned it from its breads. Why take the chance right?  The data Health Canada used to make this decision was from the 1950s. Microbakeries faced a steep decline and while artisan bread is fashionable again, how many people have access to a bakery to buy their weekly bread?  The same goes for fish.  I walked into a grocery store last week to buy some fish for dinner. The fish was not labeled beyond the kind of fish and that it was fresh.  I asked the person behind the counter whether it was farmed or wild and where it came from?  I asked if any of the fish had a Marine Stewardship Council certification?  He said he didn’t know the answer to my questions. How is this possible that a grocery store can sell a product with so little information to exchange?  I walked out without any fish that day.
The underlying theme of my observations is information and empowerment.  If you know where your food comes from, if you know how your food is grown and farmed (organic vs. conventionally), and if you know who produced it (so you can email or call an ask questions), you can make better choices for your body and have more diversity in your pantry and refrigerator. The food we consume is directly linked to health, to vitality, to energy. The same goes for empowering smaller, independent food entrepreneurs to create, innovate and have access to a distribution network that is not limited to mom-and-pop shops or online stores. It is no longer necessary to argue that we live in a colder climate country where we are plagued by shorter growing seasons.  We do not have California’s climate.  Guess what? We do not need California’s climate.  In Montreal, there is an agricultural start up called Lufa farms.  The guy who started it built two massive greenhouses on top of two different rooftops in the city where they grown food all year long.  When it is below zero outside, it is still 25C inside the greenhouse.
Why is it in Prague, that every district (there are 24 in the city), has its own mini-farmers’ market from May to October to ensure that neighbourhoods have access to fresh, local food throughout the growing season?  Why is it in Copenhagen, one man, Claus Meyers, a baker/restauranteur, was the instigator and catalyst for overhauling the entire Danish food system, beginning with the farming.  Denmark suffered from poor food quality and an over reliance on importing food from the EU to feed its people.  The country is by no means self sufficient (talk about a shorter growing season), but the quality and quantity of local produce on its shelves and in its restaurants has increased dramatically.  Denmark hosts a food symposium on a yearly basis open to the public to discuss the state of food in the country. Why is it that in Austria grocery chain, mPreis, champions itself on working with local food producers and local architects to design their stores and is so beloved by customers for the shopping experience? Living in an agriculture state such as California was truly a unique food scenario with the plethora of year round farmers’ markets, abundance of community shared agriculture (CSA) boxes to choose from and the varietals of produce you would never come into contact with unless you befriended a farmer. We are talking at least 10 different varieties of grapes to taste and choose from.  Variety is a beautiful thing.  Even in Texas, when you enter a big box store like Target, they promote local food products when you walk into the store.  The front of the store (key for marketing) is not reserved for a big box brand, small timers get exposure. Walk the aisles of Whole Foods or Central Market (a local Texas grocery store) and the quantity of Made in America by smaller brands is overwhelming.  In fact, the sheer quantity of smaller brands on shelves is what got me thinking in the first place about the lack of diversity in Toronto.
I leave off with a story: I walk into Cumbrae’s, the butcher shop, today and take a look around. I read their five chalk boards with information about where the pork, chicken, lamb and cows are raised, how they are raised, and how they got to the counter before me. I look at their prepared food section and I see a cultured butter from a company in Québec as well as some duck fat and cured meats.  The selection was eclectic and it was entirely from Canada. Wonderful.  Now only if this could be replicated on a mass scale instead of a one-off high-end, specialty food shop. We would be having a different conversation. Information should not be relegated to specialty food stores.  Information about the food we purchase should be readily available throughout all segments of stores.

The Bubble Tea Conundrum


When I moved across the Atlantic Ocean, do you know what I craved the most?  It wasn’t bagels and lox and it wasn’t kreplach.  It was bubble tea.  From my first sip, I developed a love affair with the Taiwanese beverage.  Toronto just so happens to be an incredible city to satisfy a bubble tea fix.

Bubble Tea Lamb411


Drive north of Sheppard Avenue, on Yonge Street and you’ll find one bubble tea house after another.  If “905” is more your style, drive east along Hwy 7 between Bayview Avenue and McCowan Road (try Go For Tea for an authentic experience) and you’ll be covered.   Downtowners, don’t have to look past the Spadina and Dundas/OCAD area. But what happens if you leave the confines of Toronto and venture off into the world?


I was having a bubble tea conundrum when I discovered bubble tea was not a universal drink, particularly in EU countries.  To double check, I spoke with a few business school classmates who were posted around the world.  It’s confirmed: Bubble tea is not universal.


So what did I do to satiate my craving?  I researched and travelled.  Wherever I was due to travel to a new European city, I purposely sought out a bubble tea cafe.  Hot or cold, green or black tea, with or without milk, and filled with all the dark brown, chewy tapioca balls I could suck through the oversized straw.  I was determined to sample them all.  However, I draw the line at those popping boba; the ones that burst upon mastication and splash sweet syrupy juice onto your tongue.  I guess you could call me a bubble tea purist.


What I discovered was fascinating:  Bubble tea was in fact, alive, kicking and even thriving in certain cities.  Leave it to the UK, Germany and Austria to lead the pack.  London’s Bubbleology, a bubble tea café themed after a science experiment, has five locations in the city, while Baburu Bubble Tea in Vienna has six shops and Berlin’s Boobuk also has six outposts in the creative city that never sleeps.


Stick with Western Europe and you will find bubble tea emerging in Barcelona, where Wow!Boba is not too far from La Rambla, and in Paris’ 5th arrondissement where you can sip le bubble tea at Bubble Fever.  Even Copenhagen has the Mad Hatter Bubble Tea Emporium in Norrebro.  I didn’t stop there.  In eastern Europe, you have Bubbletea 7 in Warsaw, tongue twister, Bubu Bubble Tea in Budapest and my personal favourite, Tea & Go in Prague, which opened in Karlin (Prague 8), by three Chinese Studies students from Charles University who share a passion for Chinese and bubble tea.


While the availability of bubble tea in European cities may not reach the same scope as in Toronto, there are plenty of good options at home and abroad and I look forward to continuing my taste test through the continent.  By the way, if you are new to bubble tea, may I recommend trying a litchi green tea bubble tea, cold with tapioca.  It is the perfect summer drink.



A Toronto Marathon (not the running kind)

I just returned home after spending 12 days in Toronto visiting family and friends.  What a whirlwind of a trip.  While there was no running involved, I felt like I just completed a marathon.  I was downtown, uptown, east, west, north, south and in suburbia multiple times in 12 days.  I saw babies, dogs, friends, (no foes), doctors, and family.  Despite a sore back from all the driving, I had a blast and can’t express how much fun I had being back in the city.

A few shots:

The Ultimate Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls

Lamb411 Visits Toronto

Baby Visit #1


A little retail therapy at Jacaranda Tree & Co on Mount Pleasant- A favourite home decor and accessories store




Brunch at Celestin Restaurant on Mount Pleasant


Baking up a storm for a Countlan Magazine Issue 04 photo shoot.  I tried one of Hedy Goldsmiths’ recipes from her new book, Baking Out loud– Highly recommend this one if you like fun, American-style, comfort food desserts.


Brunch again- this time at Emma’s Country Kitchen on St. Clair Avenue West.  I had the Red Velvet pancakes and my mom had the French toast.  We decided we liked the French toast better.


Multiple refills at David’s Tea.  I must have gone there at least five times in 12 days. Yikes! Where is my loyalty card?


I learned about a new cookbook (from the Mile End Deli) from my Aunt which is now on my ballooning Amazon wishlist.


I completed not one, but three photo shoots for Countlan Magazine!  Here is a picture snapped at the first one.  Good work team + helpers.


Hey Meatball- Meatballs are becoming very popular around the world. I see these meatball only restaurants popping up everywhere.  I tried Hey Meatball in Toronto on College Street.  Very nice vegan balls with risotto.


IMG_1158 IMG_1159 IMG_1160

Monocle is my favourite magazine in the entire world.  They opened a shop late last year in Toronto, so it was rather fitting I pay a visit while I was in the neighbourhood.


As part of my marriage proposal, my husband sent me on a scavenger hunt around the city- Lit Espresso bar was one of my stops where I had to learn how to make a Cortado before I could get my next clue.  Here is a stop in at Lit for a pick me up.


Baby visit #2


Delicious loaves of challah staring at me over Passover.



Finally, a look at the new Aroma Espresso Bar that opened at Bayview Village.   Nice interiors don’t you think?



And that my friends, is what you call a marathon- Believe it or not, this is only 1/4 of my trip.  Of course I do not want to bore you.

Up next. I am off to Munich and the Austrian Alps this weekend for a bit of R&R.  Now you know why.

Until next week.








West Elm Market

If you are a West Elm fan, here is some exciting news for you: This past week, West Elm launched a new concept store called West Elm Market in Dumbo (I used to live there!), New York.

The Market concept is focused on comfortable, affordable, well designed items for kitchen, garden and personal care.

More West Elm Market stores (in shop-in-shop) format will follow in Toronto, Nashville, Philadelphia, Dallas, Los Angeles and Seattle.  This looks pretty exciting for all you West Elm fans.  I hope to visit the Toronto store when I am back in March.




Photo Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 



The Wedding: Photos + Details

And here we go…. some wedding photos and details (below)…

Venue: Revival Bar
Groom’s Suit + Shirt: Suit Supply, Shoes: Paul Smith, Socks: Happy Socks
Boutonnieres: The Little Red Button
Bride’s Dress + Bolero Jacket: Elisabetta Franchi – Headpiece: HT Headwear Jewelry: Stella and Dot necklace, JCrew bracelets, Rings: Fine Jewelry By Collette
Bridesmaids: Their own dresses
Lanterns: Luna Bazaar
Catering: Rustico Fine Foods
Photographer: Marcin Moka Photography
Make-up: Katie Dack + Julia Dorosh (Kirsh Cosmetics)
DJ: Bellosound
Cake + Cupcakes: Flour Studio
Flowers + Bride’s Bouquet: Pink Twig
Gelato: Hotel Gelato




Wedding Day: Getting Ready

What does it mean to get ready the day of a wedding? Here is a sample of what my day looked like last Sunday.

8:00 AM Wake UPPPPP!!! We’re getting married today.  It’s time to get a move on.

9:00 AM My fiance and I started off by having a quick breakfast of pancakes and muesli at the George Street Diner on Richmond Street in Toronto.  We figured we might as well have at least one good, full meal, considering the rest of the day was only going to be scraps of food here and there.

12 PM Following breakfast, we ran four errands before returning to the hotel including picking up extra fishing wire to hang lanterns (just in case), little Kleenex packages for anyone who needed, Sharpies and a guest signing book for the bar plus a couple other little just-in-case items.

We packed up all the things we needed to take with us for the day, then hopped in the car to drive across the city to Parlour Salon on Ossington where my bridal party and I had our hair styled.  The team at Parlour was wonderful and fast.  I sought them out originally because they were open on Sunday and just down the street from the venue.  In Toronto, it can be rather difficult to find a good salon that is open!). I may have started in curlers but I ended with straight hair.

2:30PM After all the hair washing, drying and curling was complete, we jumped in a taxi and headed over to the venue on College Street (Revival Bar), where we got straight to work building the chuppah (out of PVC pipes and ribbon), watching all the paper lanterns get hung on the ceiling, getting our make up done, and enjoying the hustle and bustle of people arriving, waiting, clearing, moving, and organizing wedding event “stuff.”

5:00 PM After the rest of our family members arrived, we got dressed and handed out photo props for the upcoming photo session before the ceremony.

6:45 PM After we took our last photo, we were ready to start the first part of the wedding ceremony.

Photographer: Marcin Moka

Stay tuned for more wedding photos plus a complete list of day of vendors.

Hope you are having a good Wednesday! We just had an unbelievable sun shower in Prague and now the rooftops are glistening out my window.  What was your pre-wedding wedding day like?

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