IWM: Toby Davidson

toby davidson

We interviewed Toby Davidson, serial entrepreneur and impact investor in the food industry. We found out some great tips for food businesses wanting to get into retail, why the business term “meaningful differentiation” is close to her heart, and which musician sings the soundtrack to her life. 

You’ve recently moved on from running Cookin’ Greens…How does it feel?

I’m pretty proud to say, Cookin’ Greens helped to put kale and other dark-leafy greens into the consciousness, and onto the plates of mainstream Canadian consumers. The brand was the first to market an accessible, value-added format of dark-leafy greens. We effectively explained the health benefits and how nutrient retention remained through the flash freezing process, but most importantly, how great they can taste from freezer to skillet, sautéed with a bit of garlic, olive oil and sea salt. Cookin’ Greens removed all those prep steps and gave our customers over a year of shelf life. Our customers truly valued these benefits – now that’s a trend break-through if I may say so myself.

My exit strategy was always to pass the baton to an organization with more infrastructure, stronger buying power, and in turn take the brand to the next level. I look forward to seeing the brand evolve beyond where I took it.

You’ve worked in the food industry most of your life. How did you get into it?

My interest in the food industry began when I was…born, really. My father, Brian Y. Davidson (“BYD”) worked in the food industry from the age of twelve until his untimely passing at the age of 58. He progressed from a busboy at Shopsy’s Deli in Toronto to their VP Sales in his early 20’s, then onto a group at the time called FOODEX, responsible for the start- up and operations of multi-unit chain restaurants such as Ponderosa Steak House, Frank Veter’s Pizza, Ruby Foo’s and Wallbangers, pioneering the family-oriented chain restaurants concept that set the stage for what we see today with Keg’s, Canyon Creek, Jack Astor’s and Moxie’s type formats, to name a few. After FOODEX, in the late 70’s he was recruited by Galen Weston Sr. of Loblaw Companies to be part of the emerging team he was assembling to help turn around the grocery store chain they had just purchased (POWER STORES).

This newly formed team set off to inject super-innovation into the very drab traditional Canadian retail grocery store model.

My father’s inaugural role within the Loblaw Group of Companies was VP Sourcing and Procurement (LIM at the time) along with the legendary team including Dave Nichol, Don Watt and Richard J. Currie. The rest is history; the creation of the PRESIDENT’S CHOICE® and NO NAME® brands ultimately allowed the merchant to take back control of their store shelves by mastering the private label model that works perfectly alongside the dominating national brands.

My father was the one who coined the term “meaningful differentiation”, or, doing what your competitor is unwilling or unable to do. I often see this definition being used and it always creates a small ‘pang’ in my heart and a grin on my face. That’s why I ended up in the food industry.

Aside from your experience, what makes you awesome at what you do?

Tenacity, resilience, passion, a sense of humour & ADHD. (ha, I understand those qualities!)

Do you like the hunt for products? What do you do with a great product once found?

For me, it’s all about the hunt. I’m hunting everyday – everywhere – it’s organic for me and when I see a winner I get this ‘feeling’. Sometimes I work with the brand. “Concept to Shelf” is my work!

What advice do you have for small food businesses getting into retail stores?

Lots, but to start with, be prepared and understand (and have in place) the financial investment/cash flow required to not only get the products onto the retailer’s shelf but off the shelf once placed. And, have a solid exit strategy.

Being financially locked down from the get-go is critical if the strategy is to gain distribution within multiple channels. Independent stores also require a solid grassroots marketing and promotional plan including in-store demos, couponing, flyer activity etc. The independent health and wellness channel is where the pedal hits the metal – the consumers in this channel are the most knowledgeable and will be your brand loyalists and evangelists.

Do you think grocery stores care about organic?

Yes, but of course, some more than others. Stores that aren’t fully committed to organic in some strategic capacity will lose market share to those that do. They should have policies, guidelines and strict standards in place in order to merchandise organic products that today’s savvy consumer can be confident about.

How is developing your own brand different than developing a brand for a company?

Good question. For me, there is really no difference. Brand development and management is largely a formula. Each brand has its own personality and place in the market, but in my experience, all the branding steps must be followed.

Is a website important for a brand to have and maintain?

Absolutely. It’s the brand’s ‘anchor’; it’s the brand’s first-impression and last impression. It has to evolve, like the brand. It’s what you share with the world so it better be relevant, up to date and engaging.

Why is social media no longer optional, and what platforms do you use most?

To be perfectly honest, when I started Cookin’ Greens back in 2009, social media was not nearly as evolved as it is today, or even 5 years ago, and I didn’t really ‘get it’. The website was the online tool in terms of communicating with the public and sharing information but, this was really only one way…

Then, miraculously, at an industry event, I met you, Lisa. My social media life changed immediately and in hindsight, I could not be more grateful for how you and the Borden Team ‘dragged’ me along to step up to the social media plate. If you do not believe in social media, or are in any way resisting integration into your business/brand, you may as well pack it up now and call it a day. (And…it’s NOT about how many “Likes” you have). (this makes me so happy!)

We’re always impressed by your energy + enthusiasm to move projects forward. Now that you’ve moved on from Cookin’ Greens, are you finally going to relax? 

Bottom-line, I rarely relax. I’m driven by getting up every sunny morning and making the most of each day. I love to mix up my day, mostly not to get bored, but also to strive to ensure there is balance within each day – work, exercise and social time. I do like/need some structure. I’m pretty good at self-guiding my day, prioritizing (re-prioritizing), I always have a to-do list going, and I thrive on being detailed oriented.

What’s next?

I’m in the process of re-branding my parent company to co-exist with Concept To Shelf, which has been my core consulting business since 2003. I’ve recently aligned myself with three dynamic, on-trend businesses that focus on mentoring and business development: Food Starter, Leap Strategic, and District Venture. I’m honoured to be part of their teams. I’m interested in sharing knowledge and gaining knowledge. Being a bit ‘over-my-head’ to optimize sustainable engagement is usually the best place for me to be when in transition. With the changes in e-commerce/e-retailing, I see a lot of opportunities to pair my more traditional, ‘low tech’ business acumen that I’ve honed over the past 25 years, with the high-tech world that’s just getting more and more high tech – look at Amazon Go as an example.

We know you love Bruce Springsteen – how does he affect your work and inspire you?

Bruce has been a key part of my life since I was about 15 years old. It’s hard to explain why but since the first time I was exposed to his music and lyrics on his inaugural album ‘Greetings from Asbury Park’ (which this year marks the 40th anniversary!) I was hooked for life. Like many super-fans, his music and essence is the sound track of my life. I’ve been inspired by his constant hard work, passion, and commitment to his craft since the age of 9 (he’s now 67), his gifted spirit, how he shares it with the world, and how within every note, song, album and live show he gives 110%. He’s my mentor and my go-to person who I basically need an injection of daily. The 2016 River Tour, the publishing of his New York Times best seller autobiography and his generous “meet and greet” sessions with his fans have made this past year particularly a special one –and it couldn’t have happened at a better time for me – timing IS everything.

If you could book an hour with anyone for advice, who would it be? (besides me 🙂 )

Bruce Springsteen of course –a few runners up would be Barak Obama and maybe Bill Gates.


Learn more about Toby at tobydavidson.com, connect with her on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter