We interviewed Lisa Sweetman and Cassandra Rizzotto, founders of Earth + City. We found out the key to successful partnerships, what they love about being employers, and how to spot a great farmers’ market.
How did local food become so important to you?
Cassandra: The importance of local food evolved for me when I started vending for Kind Organics at Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market back in spring 2010. I began to realize how local food growing, purchasing and consuming contributes to the overall health and sustainability of our land, our resources and our regional economy at large. On an individual level, local food became this high standard of quality: where flavour, texture and nutrient density was unparalleled to the conventional and imported produce I was previously purchasing.
Lisa: Local food became important to me when I sought nutrition as healing during some significant health issues. As I researched and learned more about the importance of the food we put in our bodies (food as medicine), it became extremely clear that the closer to the source we can eat, the healthier we can be (in mind, body, spirit, and environment). Eating close to home is also a connection to the land and history we come from. Digging into an Ontario-grown meal is a form of holistic nourishment that can only be found in food that has never traveled on a plane, train, or boat.
Based only on what produce is in season, what’s your favourite month of the year?
Cassandra: November! It’s a wonderful month where root vegetable crops are available and abundant, and the flavours of the holidays begin to show face. Warming spices paired with squash, sweet potatoes and carrots is my go-to winter staple.
Lisa: I’m going to have to pick July. I’m a sucker for the sweet fruits of our province: cherries, watermelon, peaches, strawberries! There might be nothing better than chopping open a fresh Ontario watermelon and then digging in with a spoon.
Does it ever become difficult to adapt your menu to Ontario’s growing season?
Cassandra: There are a lot of things at play with this question. I’d say it’s actually more difficult to create a menu that is both reliable, consistent and innovative regardless of seasonality. I’ve found it incredibly inspiring to incorporate the abundance of Ontario’s seasonal produce to our menu. It’s been more of a challenge to figure out which items are feasible to scale and to incorporate into an efficient and effective production management system.
Did you two hit it off right away? How did you decide to work together?
Cassandra: Love this question! Meeting Lisa was a truly remarkable event in my life. We developed a kinship almost instantly, and because of our life circumstances at the time, we had an extraordinary opportunity to start and build a business very soon after meeting. This was six and a half years ago, and we continue to stay committed not only to Earth + City, but to investing ourselves into a partnership that stays strong, open, healthy and respectful. I’m so proud of what we’ve built together over the years, and equally as proud of the enduring partnership we’ve created in each other.
Lisa: Great answer, Cass! It’s true: our meeting was quite serendipitous, as the best things in life usually are! We found ourselves entering each other’s lives at a time when we were both asking profound questions individually about who we wanted to be and what we wanted for our lives. I think that this openness and “reckless abandon” allowed us to take the leap into the unknown with tremendous confidence and curiosity.
What were your jobs/careers before Earth + City?
Cassandra: I have always worked in the food industry in various capacities since the young age of 14. Previous to Earth + City, I was completing my Masters in Adult Education and Community Development at OISE/University of Toronto. It was there that I developed an interest in how food can be a vehicle for community-building, a tool for folks to engage over urban, economic and social issues.
Lisa: Prior to Earth + City starting, I was working full-time as a Toronto District School Board teacher, with a focus in Kindergarten and Special Education teaching. Upon completing my Masters in Child Study and Education of OISE/University of Toronto, I naturally entered the world of teaching through classroom practice. While I most certainly miss working with children (they make so much more sense to me than adults do!), I love my new career as a small business owner.
Do you like being employers?
Lisa: Yes! Being an employer is awesome. I love that we have created a place that employs people in the local food system. There are most certainly challenges with being a boss, but the pros always outweigh the cons. We are so fortunate to have had such incredible team members through the years. Coming to work is easy when unique, creative, and hardworking individuals make up the fabric of your organization.
What are each of your biggest strengths?
Cassandra: Okay, so Lisa is a hero in my eyes. She’s got a basket full of strengths that have built upon our business and partnership fabric in both a pragmatic, intellectual, interpersonal and compassionate way. She leads like a boss (she is one!) with both conviction and kindness. She has an incredible ability to meaningfully connect with our employees, suppliers, colleagues and customers in a way that has built Earth + City’s brand as a truly personable and inclusive company.
Lisa: Let me tell you about Cassandra’s biggest strengths! She is incredibly hardworking, dedicated, and driven. Our entire menu is the brainchild of Cassandra’s creativity, food knowledge, and commitment to local food. What I value most about Cassandra is her tenacity and perseverance; running a small business is rife with challenges, but it is in these times that Cass truly shines. The high standards she sets for herself, her team, and her professional life are inspiring, achievable, and deeply motivating.
What is the key to a successful partnership in your opinions?
Lisa: These 3 C’s: [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”via @bordenteam”]Communication, Compromise, and Commitment! [/inlinetweet]Our partnership is successful because we have developed strong strategies for communication (which is essential), we are willing to compromise when our ideas and visions don’t align 100%, and our commitment to each other and the company is unwavering.
What are the signs of a great Farmers’ Market?
Cassandra: Through our experience of over six years as Farmers’ Market vendors, I believe the signs of a successful market begin with skillful leadership and inclusive vision, built with active and collaborative vendor participation, both artisans and farmers, and end with enthusiastic engagement with the market’s consumers. All three phases work in tandem with each other, continuously inform a robust community where leaders, growers, makers and eaters contribute the market’s overall health and resiliency.
Lisa: In my opinion, the sign of a great Farmers’ Market is threefold: 1) diversity of vendor offerings, 2) robust community involvement, and 3) strong partnerships among vendors, management, and customers. When a Farmers’ Market has a variety of offerings while also giving customers choice (e.g., multiple vegetable vendors to choose from), has strong community attendance and commitment, and has vendors who work together (e.g., prepared food producers sourcing from farmers/artisans), it is a recipe for a really great market!
Do you ever get orders through Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter?
Lisa: We do! Typically when we post an eye-catching photo of our products, customers reach out for purchase. We get direct message orders weekly. Social Media is an awesome tool for showcasing our latest offerings and connecting with customers.
Your crackers are made with pulp from Village Juicery – do you see them as suppliers, or collaborators?
Cassandra: Great question. Since the inception of our Juice Pulp Crackers, we’ve created a trusting and close relationship with the folks at Village Juicery and have built upon this product as a true collaboration of efforts. We’ve certainly pushed the mission behind the crackers forward, namely food waste reduction and reallocation, but Village Juicery has been proud partner in this venture since the beginning.
What is your best selling product?
Lisa: Our best selling product year-round is most certainly our Cowgirl Cookie. It has a bit of a cult following! This cookie acts as a perfect snack, breakfast, or fuel-on-the-go item, making it a really popular choice with a wide variety of customers. In the summer season, we are well known for our Seasonal Lemonades (flavours like Rhubarb Ginger and Cucumber Mint are crowd pleasers) and our Classic Green Smoothies (ask anyone at Wychwood or Leslieville and they’ll tell you, it’s a hit).
What do people complain most about when it comes to your food?
Cassandra: Hmmm, I’d say the number one complaint is actually a back-handed compliment. People would comment how filling and substantial our food is, enough that they can’t finish an item in one sitting. Our cookies are a great example of this, super dense with great fiber and good fats, enough to be a light meal or a filling snack. I think because we’re plant-based, people assume the food will be light and not very flavourful. When they are proven wrong with our flavour-packed and filling products, I think it puts them off guard.
What do you do to unwind outside of work?
Cassandra: I’ll start off this answer by saying it’s extremely hard to be a successful and dedicated entrepreneur and easily unwind during off hours. What is exactly considered off hours anyways?! All half-joking aside, I’d say for me, I find it imperative to exercise, mainly biking, walking and running, plus listening to podcasts or the CBC at home during the evenings. Anything that gets me moving and out of my busy mind and focused on something engaging not related to work (honestly it’s really hard to me)!
Lisa: Anyone who knows me at all, knows that I love to run. My best work days are the ones that start with an early morning run out around the streets of Toronto (and by early, sometimes that means 5am!). Being physically active has been my key to surviving and thriving in the world of small business owning and operating. It’s an incredible stress reliever and it’s also a great time to mull over new ideas or initiatives. Some of my best ideas come while out on a run!