Twenty-five years ago people laughed at Ruth Tal. Now she is called a “pioneer” and “visionary“ for making vegan, vegetarian foods and juicing so delicious they’re a hit even with mainstream diners at her four fresh Toronto restaurants and global locations.
Tal’s journey sounds like a variation of an Eat, Pray, Love script (minus Julia & Javier.) At a crossroads in her life, she dropped out of school at age 16; worked hard for two years to save money then set out to travel the world. She ended up at Kibbutz Nir David on the beautiful Assi River in the Beit She’an Valley in Northern Israel.
“I think my work ethic and appreciation for really healthy fresh fruits and vegetables definitely changed my life after five years working on the kibbutz. Whoever heard then of the Israeli tradition of salads for breakfast? ” laughs Tal. “Working in agriculture, I learned how to push myself past where I would normally give up. I even got my tractor’s license! “
Returning to Toronto in 1990 intending to start U of T with a $10,000 grant, she happened to sample fresh pressed organic carrot juice at Living Seed. She was hooked (and, contrary to urban myth, her skin never turned orange.) Obsessed with studying the nutritional and medicinal attributes of raw fruits and vegetables, Tal bought a Champion Juicer and started experimenting with her own organic cocktails. “I decided that I would make healthy food into a business and took the grant money for university (which I paid back in 3 years) and used it as seed money to open Juice For Life. Believe me, I had my detractors – people thought I was crazy- my parents hoped I’d get over this idea.”
A passionate yoga practitioner and vegan, Tal realized there were no restaurants in Toronto in which she could eat. She soon opened a semi – permanent location on the patio of the iconic Bamboo Club on Queen Street West in 1992, located just across the street from Moses Znaimer’s Citytv and MuchMusic headquarters.
“It was really a serendipitous location because all the visiting celebrities came across the street to us as well as the Citytv employees and they loved my energizing juices and healthy food, although I never had a proper kitchen there and really needed to expand,” explains Tal. I remember Faith Popcorn (CEO of BrainReserve who coined the word “cocooning” in the 90s,) eating there and hugging me saying ‘you are a visionary and right on trend!”
Tal went on to open her first 50-seat location with two partners on Bloor St. West in 1995 and re-branded as fresh in 1999. “My dream was to have a place where marginalized vegetarians would feel welcome and catered to, and non-vegetarians could be introduced to vegetarian food that did not fit the old stereotypes of what people at the time thought vegetarian food was – bland, boring and unsatisfying.”
A second location in 2002 in boho Queen St. West was designed by architects, Giannone Petricone Associates Inc., won several awards for their modern, organic concept. In 2007, the original Bloor St. location moved up to Bloor and Spadina. Designed by the hip architectural firm, Third Uncle, it captures the vibe of both the university culture while being close to the ROM and upscale Yorkville area. Fresh on Eglinton at Yonge opened in 2013, designed by Giannone Petricone Associates Inc., was a $1.7 million build in one of the busiest corridors in mid-town Toronto.
The food and juices are made daily in-house at each location from whole, natural ingredients. The menu includes comfort food classics like burgers, fries and onion rings, to healthy staples like kale and quinoa salads and noodle and rice bowls with steamed greens and grilled tempeh. The juice bar offers everything from fresh carrot and spinach juice, green smoothies to mint chocolate espresso shakes.
Never one to let wheat grass grow under her feet, Tal has since collaborated with business partner, Jennifer Houston, on four national best-selling cookbooks with the premise that creative and healthy (even decadent) recipes are not mutually exclusive. The fifth is SuperFresh, Super Vibrant, Super Vegan Recipes with Ruth Tal & Jennifer Houston, published by Penguin. Both authors will be interviewed at the 31st Annual JCC Vancouver Jewish Book Festival, by Vancouver’s Susan Mendelson of the Lazy Gourmet on Thursday, November 26, 2015.
Fresh in Red Square? Da!
A few years ago Tal was approached by an entrepreneurial Muscovite couple who owned over 200 LUSH stores across Europe. “They ate at our restaurants and were determined to bring our concept to Moscow,” relates Tal. “They flew me in and I showed them how to set-up and source everything. Some things like soba noodles or tamari we have to bring in by train but most fresh fruits and vegetables are available. Moscow isn’t just a destination for tourists but a growing middle class of 18 to 45-year olds who go to gyms, are concerned about the environment and want to eat healthy on a regular basis. Russians like to launch things in a big way so in 2012 they arranged for Olympic athletes to be at the opening and I was even featured in Russian Vogue!” “It was really amazing,” says Tal “and last year they opened up two more locations including one pop-up juice bar in Gorky Park.”
In 2014 fresh was voted Best New Restaurant in Moscow and the first of its kind to offer 100 per cent biodegradable takeaway containers and a non-smoking environment.
Collaborating with long-time friend, Mexican Chef, Rich Morales who was brought in as Chef in the Moscow location, Tal is getting ready to open a 100-seat fresh in the La Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. “It’s in a gorgeous residential area filled with galleries and great restaurants and will be located inside a beautiful mansion. There’s a big Israeli community there – in fact I get to speak more Hebrew there than in Toronto,” she says.
Currently, Tal and partners are preparing to open a spin-off concept called LOV by Fresh, with the first location in Montreal this year. Vancouver locations are also being scouted.
And the company has just launched their first collection of 100% raw and organic cold pressed juices. One bottle is the equivalent of 10 servings of raw produce. The vibrant glass -bottled collection includes eight cold-pressed juices, four handmade nut milks, and four power shots created not only for their intense healthful benefits but also for their delicious palate.
“I’ll be 50 in May and I’ve waited 25 years for this day to come where eating healthy is in the forefront of so many peoples’ minds,” admits Tal excitedly. I’m so invigorated I can’t wait for my next project.”
Website: Fresh Restaurants Website