Hello! Long time, no blog. 😉
I’m taking a break from my New Year’s Resolution to write something I’ve been thinking about since the coronavirus first made its appearance in North America back in March.
While I know so many have suffered in so many different ways due to COVID-19 — from our overworked health care professionals, to those who have lost their jobs, to those who have lost their loved ones — I wanted to talk about one segment of society in particular: the entrepreneurs behind allergy-friendly products and restaurants.
It’s not news that many local businesses are suffering or have already closed for good — including one of my favourite allergy-friendly spots — and I’ve been wanting to do something, anything to help.
So I’m here to highlight local allergy-friendly brands/restaurants so that *we* can continue to give them our business and do our small part to help keep them in business. (Because many of them pivoted in ways they likely didn’t imagine back in January — to continue serving the food allergy community, coronavirus or not.)
Also: In light of the ongoing #blacklivesmatter protests in the US (and considering we still have a long way to go to achieve racial equality here in Canada), I wanted to share this collection of black-owned restaurants that are open for take-out in the GTA as one small way of showing my support for our black community. PLEASE NOTE that I did not create this list, and you will need to do your own research to find out if a spot of interest can accommodate your allergies.
Okay, I’m slipping this one in here for a couple of different reasons: (1) because I support this anti-racist movement 100%, and (2) because this lifestyle brand which may not seem to be allergy-related at first glance is actually owned by the same lovely man behind the now closed Forgetful Chef Snack Foods, an allergy-friendly brand that produced top 12 free snacks and did much to support our community. Read on to find out what he’s so generously doing for the #blacklivesmatter movement for the entire month of June.
How they were affected: As an online shop to begin with, one of their plans for 2020 was to build relationships with retailers and expand into various retail locations. Opportunities to do so slowed down as many retailers shut their doors or pivoted to online models.
How they pivoted: The first thing they did was to quickly start producing face masks and neck buffs (gaiters). “We worked quickly with our production team to create two different styles: The first is our organic Explorer Mask. It’s soft, breathable, and has a tri-blend fabric. The other is more generic, but is still breathable and comes in a pack of three.”
How they care: At the end of this month, they’ll be donating all of the profits they made in June to Black Lives Matter.
Final thoughts: “This is the very least we can do as an organization to help start positive conversations and movements towards equality and understanding.”
LOCAL / TORONTO / CANADIAN ALLERGY-FRIENDLY BRANDS
I was first introduced to the deliciousness of ALLFree’s delicious brownies when the owner reached out to me in the Top 10 Challenge‘s first year to express interest in becoming a gold sponsor. I was touched by her generosity and — when I finally got a taste of her brownies — pleasantly surprised at how delicious they were! Not only that, but she also kindly donated her brownies to #AllergyMom Meetups back when I was still in Toronto.
While they have yet to move to an online model, but since COVID-19 hit, they’ve been really focusing on production to meet the increased demands of their retail customers. You can find their yummy brownies at the following stores across the GTA: Whole Foods, Nature’s Emporium, Ambrosia, Health Planet, Goodness Me, Big Carrot, Loblaws, Sobey’s, Metro Ontario, and Walmart. If you’re trying to find a retailer near you that carries this allergy-friendly brand, all you need to do is contact them & ask.
Reach out to request a list of local retailers
Allergy Smart is yet another top 10 free brand whose: (a) products are delicious, and (b) owner is a caring member of the allergy community. Previously The Good Chew, you may recall seeing these delicious brownies in your swag bags at past #AllergyMom Meetups. They’ve since re-branded to Allergy Smart and have added a variety of cookies to their allergy-friendly selection. Not only that, but you should start seeing these yummy things in more and more grocery stores this year. Until then, you can order their delicious treats online.
The entrepreneur behind Eat to Life is yet another example of a goodhearted human who wants to help his community. Earlier this year, he reached out to me to see how he could support the Top 10 Challenge, and ended up donating several prizes to top participants. While I haven’t tried his KINWA BARS myself (they contain sunflower seeds — one of my son’s allergies), I’ve heard from those who won that they didn’t last long.
How they were affected: Most of their retail partners were either closed or had very limited traffic, and most customers were seeking to purchase ‘staples’ rather than specialty snacks. As such, they were facing a significant decline in sales.
How they pivoted: They launched a new website on June 8th — with better pricing, new discounts, and various high-value bundled product offerings to provide a better digital shopping experience and more value to their customers.
How they care: Soon after the pandemic hit, they donated more than $10,000 worth of KINWA BAR products to various hospitals and care facilities to provide frontline healthcare workers with access to convenient, nutrient-dense snacks throughout their shifts.
Final thoughts: “Trying to build new brand awareness on a shoestring budget and keep a business afloat is difficult at the best of times. Throw in a global pandemic and things get a lot tougher. We’ve had to fight our urge to sell at any cost and focus on the long term success of the brand by reinvesting in our brand story, our web platform, and looking for ways to partner with other innovative startups to support our community and grow our brand presence.”
Yet another allergy-friendly company that goes out of its way for the allergy community, FreeYumm may not be local to Toronto… but they’re Canadian!
How they were affected: Two weeks before COVID-19 hit North America, FreeYumm launched their first savoury snack line… NEW FreeYumm Crackers. The national roll-out of these items has been slowed as retailers face large-scale changes that take priority over adding new products to their shelves.
How they pivoted: They worked very closely with local chains who were doing their best to support local brands during the pandemic. For example, FreeYumm’s new crackers are available now in BC at Whole Foods, Choices, and London Drugs. All of these retailers went above and beyond to help FreeYumm launch their new products during the COVID-19 outbreak to bring customers something new and interesting during the downturn. For those outside of BC, they’ll be launching online at Well.ca and SPUD.ca later this month! Follow them on Instagram for new store announcements.
How they care: FreeYumm teamed up with local BC natural food manufacturers such as Daiya Foods and Silver Hills Bakery to distribute extra food to frontline workers that have continued to work through the pandemic by keeping shelves stocked across North America. (Read more about it in BC Business.) They are also working very closely with Backpack Buddies, helping nourish children in need through COVID and the summer months.
Final thoughts: “This is a time that people with food allergies feel extra vulnerable and we get that. We have maintained our extremely high level of food safety and personal health of our employees during this time to ensure that as a food production facility we are able to remain open and able to supply our core customer base: the allergen community.”
Ah, Hype Food Co. Is there anyone in the Toronto allergy community who doesn’t know about this heavenly place for allergy folks? Well, just in case you weren’t aware of how they’ve continued to serve our community during COVID-19, I’m here to tell you.
How they were affected: While I didn’t get the chance to chat with the lovely owners before this post was published, I can only assume that they are experiencing the same challenges as any restaurant that has had to close its doors to (physical) customers since March.
How they pivoted: Not only are they offering curbside pickup and free deliveries (dependent on location and cost of order), they’re also offering food “essentials” — great for those who may be having difficulty finding their safe brands at the grocery store! Plus, it looks like they’re being super creative and coming up with fun ways to keep the kids entertained (and fed) while socially distancing. One of their latest? Host a virtual party with these awesome celebration kits:
This lovely little College St. shop carries healthier snack and treat options for littles (some of which happen to be top allergen-free), and they boast an awesome selection of toys, books (including A is for Activist, An ABC of Equality, I Am Rosa Parks, and more!), and other stuff for babies and kids.
How they were affected: Like everyone else, they had to close the store to the public in March. Luckily, they already had a website for online shopping, but when the store closed they lost about 30% of their income as some of the products were still not listed on the website.
How they pivoted: They are now open 7 days a week, and are offering curbside pickup or free delivery for orders over $40 across the GTA. They also expanded their delivery zone from the immediate neighborhood to anywhere in the GTA, and had to hire a delivery driver. They quickly realized that indoor activities — like puzzles, board games, craft supplies and school work books — were in high demand, so they scrambled to order whatever they could. They also updated their website so that people we could more easily find the items they were looking for.
How they care: Both Jills have made personal donations to #blacklivesmatter charities, as well as to food banks in an effort to help those people most deeply affected by the pandemic.
Final Thoughts: “We are proud of our diverse book selection. It has always been important for us to carry books that show visible minorities, black leaders, civil rights activists, the LGBTQ community, and that have strong feminist values. These books have become more popular in the last few weeks, and we are happy to already have them in stock!”
How they were affected: While I didn’t get to chat with the owners of this top allergen-free bakery located in Guelph, I saw on social media that they closed their doors (while continuing to provide their products to the community via wholesale retailers) until just last week.
How they pivoted: It looks like they updated their website to offer online shopping with curbside pickup as a safe and contactless way to purchase their items.
How they care: In mid-May, their freezers went down — a huge loss for their family business. To avoid waste and to help customers who may have been in need of affordable food due to job loss, etc. during COVID-19, they decided to give away grab bags… free of charge.
OhhFoods is another locally owned, allergy-friendly product line whose mission — #inclusivesnacking — is one that is close to my heart. I mean, the whole idea behind the Top 10 Challenge is to have participant live a ‘day on the plate’ of someone with food allergies so that they can understand our challenges and hopefully make more of an effort to be inclusive.
How they were affected: They received many messages individuals who were unable to go to the grocery store but wanted to try their snacks.
How they pivoted: They’ve made it easier to try their bites by launching Discovery Boxes, which allow consumers to try all their flavours in one fun box!
Final thoughts: See what the woman behind the bites has to say about the #blacklivesmatter movement in an upcoming feature, where I’ll be interviewing this young, black, Canadian entrepreneur (if she agrees).
This top allergen-free spot is free of gluten, nuts, dairy, soy, and sesame, and even sunflower seeds(!!). Plus, they’re doing some really great stuff for both #frontlineworkers and #blacklivesmatter, so while I just heard of them last week, I already like them. 😉
How they were affected: The toughest challenge was getting people to notice and try a brand they hadn’t heard of. In the past, they relied on sampling to convince Canadians to give them a try, rather than the big names they’re familiar with. Since that’s no longer an option, they’ve had to get creative with some of their tactics.
How they pivoted: They set up an online store to sell boxes of their bestselling products with contactless delivery, and also launched an allergen-friendly baking mix for those baking more at home.
How they care: In March, they partnered with Nutiva, Wholly Veggie, and Station Cold Coffee Brew Co. to deliver care packages to parents working double duty across Ontario. Most recently, they committed to donating 100% of the profits from online sales in June to supporting the Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC).
Final thoughts: “As a food producer, we’ve been among the lucky few who haven’t had to shut down at some point this year.” This allowed them to focus much of their energy on supporting the Canadian allergy community during these challenging times.
I just had to include this top allergen-free Ottawa bakery. They’ve done some really great things to adapt to this new-normal we’re living in… and it seems giving back is in their blood!
How they were affected: They closed all of their locations temporarily (for about 2 weeks), then started up again for wholesale clients that were still open, and also offered contactless curbside pickup for one day of the week.
How they pivoted: After about 2 weeks, they added more contactless curbside pickup options, and offered home delivery in Ottawa, then Gatineau, and eventually nationwide delivery on a select few items. They initially started with a small menu that they would post on social media each week and added more items as they felt comfortable doing so. After a couple weeks of doing that, they built an online store to streamline the process.
How they care: One of their all-time bestselling items is their Cream Egg Brownies. Since they were closed over Easter, they didn’t make nearly as many of them as they normally would and customers were missing them. So they brought them back for a couple weeks and donated half of the sales to frontline workers. They also donated half of all sales made on their online store on June 6 to the Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC).
Final thoughts: “Giving back to the community has always been at the core of Strawberry Blonde Bakery, and something we made a point to do from before we even opened (it was in our original business plan way back when!). The financial stress of COVID-19 has been a bit devastating, but we wouldn’t be the same company if we didn’t give back. The community supports us and we are committed to supporting them.”
Anyone who’s a part of the AllergyBites Community on Facebook knows how much I love Sweets from the Earth’s Kool for School line. While the regular SFTE products contain at least one of our son’s allergens, these do not. Plus, they aren’t too high in sugar and they’re delicious. The mini apple cinnamon bagels are my absolute favourite! (And if you have a sesame allergy, these may be the only safe bagels in the city!!) #lovebagels
How they were affected: COVID-19 hit them fairly hard with 70% of their retail clients closing overnight. Also, supply chain and ingredient sourcing continue to be an issue, but they remain fully stocked.
How they pivoted: They launched an online shop with frozen delivery in the GTA and shelf-stable items across Canada. They are offering free delivery to Ontario and Quebec residents with order of $50+ and to rest of Canada with orders over $75. Contactless curbside pickup is also available at their bakery, located at 101 Canarctic Drive.
How they care: While they haven’t really been advertising their efforts, they’ve made private donations to both frontline workers and #blacklivesmatter causes, and have shown their support of black-owned businesses in their “close community” via social media. (Check out their Instagram post for a list of local + vegan + black-owned businesses.)
Final thoughts: Allergy-friendly ingredients have been in short supply so they opted to make their ingredients available to the public as well. You can find a nice selection of ingredients and baking supplies for sale on the website.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know how much I love this gluten-free, nut-free bakery located in Toronto’s west end. Not only is the owner (Josee) an absolutely lovely person to deal with, she’ll do everything in her power to accommodate other allergies… so just ask!
How they were affected: While I didn’t get the chance to chat with Josee before this post was published, I did a little digging and it looks like they had to reduce their number of staff and hours of operation. While they didn’t have to close like some other establishments, I’m sure that their business took a hit when COVID-19 first hit.
How they pivoted: Not only did they update their website for easier online ordering, but they’re taking many precautions inside the bakery to ensure the health and safety of both staff and customers. These awesome masks are one very good example!
This post was written by AllergyBites founder, Kathleen O’Hagan. Kathleen is a writer, a foodie, and the mom of a child with multiple food allergies. Want to help make a difference? Contact Kathleen about volunteering for the Top 10 Challenge fundraiser.
Friendly. Supportive. Encouraging.
Want to join a community of like-minded food allergy folk? Join the AllergyBites Community on Facebook.