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A singular experience

At an expanded new location, Toronto's The Sweet Potato doubles down on affordable organics

He might just have the best name in all of grocery and now The Sweet Potato’s founder and co-owner, Digs Dorfman, has a new Toronto store that reflects his pride in being one of the city’s pre-eminent organic grocers.

In September, The Sweet Potato moved to new digs in the city’s Junction neighbourhood, just around the corner from its original location, which the business had outgrown. In a nice bit of retail synergy, the new location occupies what was once a manufacturing facility for the U.S. porridge brand Roman Meal, which was one of the original health food brands when it debuted in the 1920s.

At 18,000 square feet, the new store is nearly twice the size of The Sweet Potato’s original location, enabling Dorfman to significantly expand key departments such as meat and cheese, not to mention his beloved produce section.

“There’s nowhere in the city you can go and find a better selection, quality or price, of organic produce,” proclaims Dorfman over an in-store soundtrack featuring the likes of James Brown and The Supremes.

Since opening The Sweet Potato in 2008, one of Dorfman’s key areas of focus has been making quality produce affordable to his customers. On this day, that takes the form of a 3-lb. bag of organic apples for $5, and a $3 organic pineapple.

“I’m not going to tell you how I do it, but there’s nowhere else in the city right now where you can buy an organic pineapple for three bucks,” he says. “We’re the only store in the city that’s got that deal. It just doesn’t exist .”

Dorfman comes by his affection for produce honestly. His grandfather was the owner of the now-defunct Sunnybrook Farms and was well known to vendors at the Ontario Food Terminal— the main produce distribution hub for the Toronto area—where his grandson is now a regular customer.

Produce might be the new store’s centrepiece, but Dorfman has also invested heavily in the meat department, which is stocked with products from small regional producers—including organic chicken from Ancaster, Ont.’s Fenwood Farm and sausage from Toronto’s Parkdale Sausage Co., which makes small- batch sausages sourced from ethically and sustainably raised hogs.

While mainstream grocery stores are trying to edge into organics, Dorfman speculates that more than half of The Sweet Potato’s products cannot be purchased at the large grocery banners.

“You get that are all edging into organics, but because they have an organic aisle or small sections, they can’t ever compete with us for variety,” says Dorfman, making his way down the frozen aisle and pointing to brands like Fressy Bessie Foods—a Toronto company that specializes in ice lollies made entirely from puréed fruits and vegetables—and Moorefield, Ont.- based Mapleton’s Organic Ice Cream.

There’s also an extensive cheese section that is almost entirely comprised of cheeses from Ontario and Quebec. Dorfman says only about 15 of the approximately 150 cheeses come from outside of the two provinces, and all are organic.

Dorfman also takes a lot of pride in a chocolate assortment that is sure to appeal to even the most discerning chocoholic. “We love chocolate and we wanted to have a really bad-ass selection,” he says. “We wanted it to be unusually good. We wanted people to say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’”

The Sweet Potato is also investing in prepared foods such as rotisserie chicken, curries, pastas, pizzas, potpies and soups— all made in a 1,000-sq.-ft. kitchen staffed by eight people. “The problem is that we haven’t been able to increase the production in our kitchen fast enough to meet demand,” says Dorfman. “We think we can increase the offering substantially.”

Dorfman credits his business partner C.J. Chiddy with developing other aspects of the business that make shopping at—and working with—The Sweet Potato a singular experience.

“C.J. has brought a lot of creativity to the way we handle things,” says Dorfman, citing the development of an onboarding process for staff that has helped boost employee retention, and an emphasis on the customer experience that includes miniature shopping carts for kids (“parents have been going nuts about how much fun the kids have with them,” says Dorfman).

Chiddy is also the brains behind a new “quiet hour” for shoppers on the autism spectrum. During this time, in-store music will be muted, the lights dimmed and staff will not stock shelves. “We’re going to leave the store as quiet and serene as possible for an hour,” says Dorfman. “ tend to need other people to shop for them, so the idea of giving them a place that could be inclusive is pretty terrific.”

Dorfman also plans to introduce a mentorship program for aspiring brands, providing would-be suppliers with guidance on everything from packaging to pricing. He describes it as the formalization of the existing relationships he has had with his suppliers over the years.

“Whether or not is going to be good for retail is really hard for these people to figure out,” says Dorfman. “So often, we come across products we think are great in three of the four ways they need to be, but that fourth way is really going to obstruct making it available in the marketplace.”

He recounts the story of a West Coast snack food manufacturer he gave business advice to a while back. The company subsequently partnered with a major distributor and was eventually able to secure space in major grocery stores.

At the Canadian Health Food Association’s annual trade show a few years ago, Dorfman encountered the manufacturer who gave him a hug and thanked him for all his help.

“You can’t pay for a relationship like that,” says Dorfman. “If we needed to be the cheapest in the city once a year, I could call that guy up. Actually, maybe I should call him,” he adds with a laugh.

Just another satisfied customer who digs Dorfman.

This article appeared in the
January 2018 issue of Canadian Grocer.

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