It started with a panicked phone call.
“Alan, I don’t care how much they cost — we have to serve these greens.”
That was the call I received in mid-April from Christine, Partner and Executive Chef at iQ (and also mother of two two-year-olds). As we do each season, Christine and I taste, talk and debate for hours about what we’re going to feature. We’ve literally spent 45 minutes arguing about the merits of a cutting radishes in quarters vs. slicing them like coins, amongst dozens of other seemingly inconsequential things. What most people see as minutia, we see as critical. It’s the reason our seasonals are exciting — b/c every detail is considered.
But the debate this time around was a lot heavier, a lot more meaningful.
For the last three summers, we’ve featured lettuce from our friends at The New Farm (more on them below…). Their greens are incredible, arguably the highest quality in the country. Yes they’re organic. Yes they’re handpicked. But that’s not what makes these greens so special.
This year, The New Farm moved to a fully regenerative model. That effectively means that all of the produce grown on their farm is carbon positive — because of their growing and harvesting methods, The New Farm’s vegetables actually pull carbon from the atmosphere (a great thing) and lock it in the ground (another great thing).
For those of you that’ve been paying attention to world’s climate, you can guess how revolutionary a technique like this has the potential to be. For those of you new to the conversation: there’s too much carbon in the earth’s atmosphere. So much so that it’s made the earth’s temperate hotter and also a lot more unpredictable…and the world is collectively scrambling to figure out a practical way to suck carbon out of the atmosphere so our planet can remain inhabitable for the long term.
Prior to this year, I personally had no clue that vegetable farming could have a negative impact on carbon emissions. Yes, I know that cow flatulence is a thing…but growing lettuce? Apparently so. Every time soil is “tilled” (you know, when those large tractors drive over a bunch of soil and flip it so it’s ready to help things grow again), lots of carbon (that’s trapped in the ground) is released into the atmosphere. This isn’t good. And I had no idea.
Well regenerative farming does the opposite — it keeps carbon in the ground. And given that The New Farm was all-in on regenerative farming, why wouldn’t we support them?
As virtuous as these greens are, they cost a considerable amount more than conventional lettuce.
While iQ’s always looking to support incredible people doing great things, we also have to be mindful of our own business. Running restaurants is hard. Running profitable restaurants is even harder. And in the wake of rising costs at every pretty much every turn (rising rents, more expensive labour, costly but critical software that helps us run our company, etc.), it’s becoming more difficult for us to say yes to things that cost more.
Why does it seem that “doing the right thing” always comes at the expense of profit? It can be deflating.
To be honest, with so many balls in the air, I was ready to just say no. “We’d love to support a great cause but we’re just not in a position to spend even more on lettuce right now” seemed like a perfectly reasonable answer. But the team persisted.
Christine persisted: “I don’t yet know how but we need to make this work. It’s important to me.”
Our Purchasing Manager Randy persisted: “I wait all year for our summer menu. It’s the best part of my job, mainly because we get to work with The New Farm’s greens. I’d be really bummed if we didn’t work together this season.”
Gil, co-owner of The New Farm persisted: “You guys are our biggest customer and we’ve already bought $10,000 of arugula seeds just for you!”
As an entrepreneur, you learn early that you can’t say yes all the time. Disappointing others, even those closest to you, unfortunately comes with the territory.
But this time was different.
We had no idea how we were going to pull it off, but we all looked at each other and collectively said “Screw it — we’re going to make this work. We’re not sure how…but we’re going to make it work”
WHO IS THE NEW FARM?
Located in Creemore, Ontario, it’s no stretch to say that The New Farm produces some of the best quality greens in the world.
The farm was founded by Gil and Brent, an inspirational couple who literally packed their bags, left the world of big business and bought a farm in an effort to show the world that fruits and vegetables could be grown the right way.
Brent wrote a best-selling book about their journey.
Gil has given TED talks about the virtues of what they’re doing.
A power couple for real.
WHAT’S REGENERATIVE FARMING?
If you’re looking for a full rundown of what regenerative farming is, you can read about it here. For those of you more interested in the coles notes, regenerative farming is a technique that:
- Sucks carbon out of the atmosphere
- Sequesters carbon in the soil (carbon is really useful when it’s in the ground — it’s critical for healthy plant growth)
- Enriches the bio-diversity and health of soil
- Is actually fairly low-tech. And the magic the makes a lot of the above happen? Black tarps.
Instead of “tilling” the soil after a harvest, regenerative farming calls for covering your crops with a black tarp — what essentially looks like a black garbage bag.
Wait…so this is the future of farming? Garbage bags on fields?
The benefits of laying a massive tarp atop of whatever’s left over after you pick a fresh batch of lettuce? The remanence heats up, and then composts. Whatever carbon would have been released into the atmosphere is kept in the ground, enriching the soil, prolonging its life and making it ready for that next harvest.
If every farm on the planet adopted regenerative farming techniques — because of the amount of carbon that would be sucked out of the atmosphere — I’m told we remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to reduce climate instability almost overnight.
THE SOLUTION: SUGGESTED PRICING
So how did we make it work? How did we reconcile the higher cost of these greens while maintaining a sustainable business?
After a few salad-filled brainstorming sessions and several conversations with a behavioural economist (yes, we did indeed consult with a behavioural economist on this), we recognized that rather than simply forcing a price increase onto our guests like a traditional restaurant might, we wanted to include our guests in the decision-making process.
So all summer long, we’re marketing two prices for our bowls featuring New Farm’s greens: a regular list price and a “suggested price” which sells for 50 cents more, leaving it up to customers to choose which they’d like to pay. A “suggested price” is a no obligation way for us to raise awareness about what we’re doing, allowing us to include our customers in the process and giving them the option but by no means the obligation to contribute.
And how are we doing so far? Since the campaign’s launch, 85% of iQ’s guests have opted in for the suggested price.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
I’m a huge believer that good commerce leads to change.
At 10 locations, we do have some influence. We serve roughly 20,000 people a week at iQ. And for every bowl sold, a tiny bit of carbon is being pulled out of the atmosphere and placed into the ground, helping create more nutrient dense soil and curbing climate instability. It feels really great doing our part.
But we also recognize that a restaurant brand with 10 locations, on its own, can’t have a meaningful impact. Our goal is industry-wide adoption. By selling a product like regeneratively grown greens at scale, we want to demonstrate to both farmers and restaurants that there’s a market for this kind of product. With more interest comes greater volumes. And with greater volumes, virtuous product like regeneratively grown greens become more accessible to all — in both price and availability.
The decision to formally partner with The New Farm on this year’s initiative is quite honestly one of the more interesting and important we’ve ever rolled out. We’re just getting started, but in a bit of alchemy that combined cooperation, commerce, savvy marketing and sales psychology, we’re excited for this to serve as a case study that sometimes it is possible to do the right thing financially, environmentally and consciously. We hope we can inspire others to follow suit and help create a market for a new type of product that — if consumed on mass — has the potential to reduce the amount of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere and make our planet livable for a long, long time.
— Alan (Founder + CEO)