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The Big Carrot - Toronto, Canada

big carrot
The Big Carrot store entrance

Big Carrot is a Worker Owned Co-op, that includes a store selling health food, a vegetarian café, an organic juice bar, a Wholistic Dispensary and related services in Toronto, Canada.

Back in November 1983, The Big Carrot opened its' doors for business across the street from their current location. Owned and operated as a worker owned co-operative of 9 people, The Big Carrot was the first health food store to offer a one stop shopping experience with a vegetarian deli, organic produce department and a selection of frozen natural meat products. Busting at the seams at the original location, the group was fortunate to meet David Walsh, a developer and together they worked on taking over a used car lot and developed the concept and construction of >Carrot Common in 1987. After the move to the new location, The Big Carrot  grew to 13 worker owner members and 25 support staff. The Big Carrot also opened Toronto's first full service natural meat department. A little ahead of the time, the storefront needed to close as there was little demand for fresh meat as this concept was a bit foreign to health food shoppers at that time. The space was later shared with their expanded Body Care & Supplements Departments.

Through the years, The Big Carrot continued to occupy other retail spaces in Carrot Common. Supplements across the courtyard became The Wholistic Dispensary and the Organic Juice Bar was added to front of the mall.

As business grew, so did their worker owner membership. Presently there are over 65 worker owners. The Big Carrot is run the same democratic way it was 27 years ago. Full time staff are eligible to join the co-op after one full year of employment. After an initial investment is made ($5,000, the same amount since 1983) as well as a $1.00 for a voting share, the member may then participate in committee work and attend membership meetings to discuss store policies, capital expenditures, voting in new members and general business operations. 70% of annual profits are shared by the members based on the amount of labour hours worked. The rest goes back into the business with a percentage donated to other worker-co-ops, sustainable agriculture and the community. If a member decides to leave the co-op, they receive their initial investment back as well as any outstanding labour dividends. No member, at any time, may receive a portion of the net worth of the company.

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The nine founding members in 1983

The History of The Big Carrot
The Big Carrot came about when five workers in a natural food store found themselves unemployed. They had bought shares in the company where they worked but discovered later that they had no say in running the store.  The original owner had left the operation of the store in the hands of these five, but when he returned after a year away he informed them that he still controlled 50 %. Knowing they wanted to keep working together they were looking for a working model for their new enterprise. A chance viewing of The Mondragon Experiment, a BBC documentary about a successful large-scale worker co-operative system in Spain suggested a possible solution to the power problem. One share, one vote. Seven of the founding Members had experience in natural food retail: Mary Lou Morgan, Grant MacKinnon, Patricia Smith, Daiva Kryzanauskas, Les Bowser, Jane Langmuir, Jerry Lewicki.  One member was involved in a housing co-op (David Dennis) and one member  was a novice ( Akemi Kobayashi). Members negotiated personal loans with Bread & Roses Credit Union to bring their contributions to $5000 each (50 class B shares) totaling $45,000. By pooling their capital they garnered the banks support, which gave them the creditability to seek new investors. They received a $50,000 loan guaranteed by Ottawa under small business legislation and raised another $ 28,000 from investors and friends in the form of Class A shares. (Not voting shares)

The members looked for locations in various areas of the city. Back in 1983, the Danforth area was in transition with many young families moving in, so several members surveyed the neighbourhood asking people if they would support a health food store and realized that Riverdale was the right location. The location was at 348 Danforth Ave. 2,000 square feet, now occupied by Second Cup and Mariko's. A lot of work needed to be done before it opened, as the space was in bad shape. The store was designed, built and painted by its owners.

carrot commonsNatural food stores at that time were predominantly small ma & pa shops that lacked in fresh products and relied mainly on vitamins for sales. The need for a one-stop natural food store was in demand and the Big Carrot was able to provide that one stop shopping experience, introducing natural foods to a neighbourhood not accustomed to so much natural food selection. Organic food was virtually unknown at that time limited to some European products.

Busting at the seams at its original location  in 1987, the group was fortunate to meet David Walsh a developer. Both worked on developing the concept and construction of  Carrot Common, a property available across the street, formerly a car dealership owned by the Playter family. The Big Carrot needed to come up with money to secure anchor tenancy in the new development, so they decided to seek new investors. A small sign on the cash register asked customers to invest $5000 at 10% for an indeterminate length of time. Over the next eight months $264,000 in non voting shares was raised from customers. Suppliers forwarded $150,000 of inventory and the Federal Business Development Bank lent $250,000 and The Big Carrot was able to finance their expansion into Carrot Common.

The Carrot then had 13 members and 25 staff and offered a full service natural meat department. A little ahead of themselves, there was little demand for fresh meat to make it successful as this concept was a bit foreign to health food shoppers at that time and the space was later shared with their Body Care & Supplements Departments. The Big Carrot then expanded to the location next door, formerly Sanelli’s, an Italian Food Deli.  Supplements and Body Care split into 2 separate departments. As business grew, The Big Carrot continued to occupy other retail spaces in Carrot Common. Supplements across the courtyard became its own Wholistic Dispensary and the Organic Juice Bar is located at the front of the mall. A sit-in vegetarian café is included.

big carrot 2006
The current owner-workers

In 2006, The Big Carrot experienced its biggest expansion and renovation. The Big Carrot has grown into Toronto's largest worker owned natural food market in Canada and continues to set standards for quality and selection of natural foods while observing a cooperative non-corporate agenda. Members of the co-op must first work full time for a one year probationary period and are then voted into membership. Members may leave the co-op at any time; they would then have their initial investment returned to them and any dividends that they have accumulated. As business grows so does the membership. Presently there are over 65 worker owners and The Big Carrot is run the same democratic way it was 27 years ago

Carrot Cache Community Resources

As Margaret Mead observed a small group of people can change the world.
A small sign on the cash register asked customers to invest $5000 at 10% for an indeterminate length of time.

Over the next eight months $264,000 in non voting shares was raised from customers. Suppliers forwarded $150,000 of inventory and the Federal Business Development Bank lent $250,000.

carrot commonsCarrot Common, designed by architect Paul Reuber, became a neighbourhood meeting place. A loggia marks the courtyard and benches and plants draw foot traffic from the Danforth. 33 parking spaces ensure customers have easy access. Second floor office space is rented primarily to alternative health practitioners.

The financing for the development came from David Walsh, the banking sector, The Co-operative Resource Pool of Ontario, and from The Big Carrot.

David insisted on the formation of a foundation to receive a percentage of the future profits from the real estate. It was agreed that the recipients of Carrot Cache Community Resource Inc. were to be worker co-operatives and groups who were interested in organic agriculture and community food security.

Now twenty three years later this vision has become a reality. Carrot Cache is investing in small innovative projects across Canada and around the world.

In early 1983 nine unemployed people decided to open a natural food store. They researched locations, products and discussed philosophy. All hoped to earn a living working at the store and decided to incorporate as a workers’ co-operative. This unusual business structure ensures that worker/owners have an equal voice in decision making.

Salaries vary with responsibility but profits are shared equally. Each worker makes an investment in the business. Along with monies from family and friends a $50,000 bank loan was secured. It was a huge leap of faith.

old car vendor
The old auto dealer on the site now Carrot Commons


The Big Carrot opened in October 1983 on the Greek retail strip in Toronto. The store designed, built and painted by its owners was an immediate success. Within two years the business outgrew the space. A woman visiting the store stated that her family (the Playters) owned the land that housed the car dealership across the street. She gave them 10 days to find someone to buy the property. By serendipity a customer knew someone who might help.

David Walsh, a developer, challenged The Big Carrot to come up with $100,000 within 6 weeks to secure anchor tenancy in the new development and to ensure their commitment.

 

quadro nero The Big Carrot web site

 


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