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The Sweet Potato

the sweet potatoeThe Sweet Potato seems to have hit on a winning formula.  The Toronto store is built around a lot of words that begin with “f,” including, friendly, fun, farm fresh, family, full-service and focus on local.  Unite these things with organic, great pricing, an astute leadership group  and a committed, passionate staff, it is no surprise The Sweet Potato has grown from a part-time weekend venture into a 10,000 sq. ft. store, a high-powered neighbourhood hub for all things good and healthy.


The Sweet Potato seems to have hit on a winning formula.  The Toronto store is built around a lot of words that begin with “f,” including, friendly, fun, farm fresh, family, full-service and focus on local.  Unite these things with organic, great pricing, an astute leadership group  and a committed, passionate staff, it is no surprise The Sweet Potato has grown from a part-time weekend venture into a 10,000 sq. ft. store, a high-powered neighbourhood hub for all things good and healthy. 

“The Sweet Potato is truly a local success story,” explains   Midori Miyamoto, the store’s marketing manager. “It started as a weekend farmer's market, and has grown into a full-service organic and natural foods grocery store, employing almost 100 people.  It is an important community anchor.”

sweet potato apothecaryThe Sweet Potato is without question a food store. (Although it does have an adjacent 1,200 sq. ft. apothecary.) The spark that created the store comes from Digs Dorfman, who grew up in the food business,  stocking the shelves of his grandfather’s grocery store at the age of 16.    After a brief foray into the music business, Digs found his way back to his roots in 2005 when he started running the seasonal High Park Organic Market.   During the first few seasons, Digs began to feel more a part of the community, getting to know the neighbourhood residents who were his customers.  Also, he began forming strong relationships with local farmers, who were just as passionate about healthy food as he was.

As each season ended, Digs recalls how his customers couldn’t help but voice their disappointment that his market would be closing until spring.  “People would always ask me, ‘Where are we going to go to buy healthy food once the market shuts down at the end of the season? How about a local place where we can shop year-round?’ So, I bought some old fridges and some old wooden shelves and opened The Sweet Potato a few months later, just north of the park in  the booming Junction neighbourhood.”

Just weeks after opening, Digs connected with CJ Chiddy, who came on board in a temp role.  Eleven years later, CJ is the opposite of a temp: he is now the store’s chief operating officer, a co-owner and a vital driving force behind The Sweet Potato’s success.   

In the fall of 2017, The Sweet Potato moved into a classic 100-year-old building on Vine Avenue,  featuring lots of exposed brick and the original beams and wood ceiling.  The massive space allowed for things the old store didn’t have room for, including a bakery, a butcher, a cheese island, and – adds Digs – “space for two carts to pass each other in the aisles.”   

sweet potato meatsMidori says there are multiple reasons people shop The Sweet Potato. “We have some of the freshest local, organic produce in the city and at great prices. And the same is true for our meat and seafood, our fresh bread, and our grocery, dairy, and frozen offerings – the best quality local, organic and natural foods at sweet prices.

She says customers love the store’s focus on local. “Summer and fall, most of our produce comes from Ontario farms (most of which are organic) and this is true year-round for a lot of our meat.  We give shelf space to small local producers and makers who are just getting started and can't get on mass-market grocery shelves.” 

It's also a fun experience, she adds.  “Our team here is friendly and funny and knowledgable and go above and beyond with customer service. We build solid relationships with our customers and they appreciate that we know their names, their kids' names, their dog's names... and know their fave products.”

sweet potato deliCount CNHR account manager Katherine Stevens as a fan of The Sweet Potato.  She lives close by and shops the store regularly. “As a shopper, I like the store because the produce is really good and very well priced.  There is a great variety of vegetables, a big frozen section, dry goods, health and beauty, take home meals and a great bulk section.

“The other reason I like to shop there is they have small shopping carts for kids.  My kids love to push the carts around and they get so excited to go to the store. And they give the kids treats, like a banana or an apple.”

Engaging customers 

Midori says a special focus on engaging its customers – of all ages – is one of the things that has helped build the store’s loyal following.  She explains that there are many elements that go into making it a fun and easy shopping experience.  “First, there’s our staff.  We really do have the best team.  And we have amazing relationships with brands and farmers.  We've had our farmer friends come sample their amazing fruits and veggies with customers and talk about where, how and why they're farming as they do. 

sweet potato prepared foods“During the month of November, we run our ‘Cheese Rules’ campaign, during which we run really interactive demos. Customers learn directly from local artisanal cheese producers about how their cheese is made, learn how to pair cheese with wine from the local wine pros, and craft beer with cheese from the local brewmaster, and chocolate with cheese.”

The store’s brand suppliers are always up for running fun contests, offering summer prizes like a kayak and a giant llama pool float.

Inclusion is also a unique focus for customers of the store.  “We work really hard to build an accessible and inclusive store. We've got magnifiers for folks who need help reading the fine print on food labels, we've got places to rest if you need to take a load off, we've got a quiet nursing area with pillows and toys for older siblings. We've got an all-gender washroom with baby change station. We host Fay and Fluffy, who are drag performers and children's educators for the most fun storytime right in our store. And we're always looking for ways to make people feel the most welcome and appreciated here.” 

Midori says customers also appreciate the store’s use of humour. “We're certainly not boring! We try to keep things fun and light around the store from sales signs to campaign art.”


The Sweet Potato has a variety of ways it promotes itself to its community, including a weekly flyer and an eBlast customers can sign up for, says Midori.  “We have an amazing and engaged digital audience and have great fun running contests and building this same community online, too.”

However, the prime focus is direct involvement with its community. You'll find the store in the thick of events like the Junction Summer Solstice – a huge street party attended by tens of thousands – and The Junction Winter Market. The store hosts community parties throughout the year, like its annual Baked Potato Block Party.  Summer time brings Ice Cream Sundays, where customers and passers-by receive icy treats.  During Pumpkin Fest at Halloween, families come by to pick a free pumpkin to carve on the spot. “We host school groups through the store to teach about the importance of choosing local food,” explains Midori.  “We also support our community's educational, sustainability, and community-building initiatives, donating food, funds, and gift cards and baskets.” 

The store launched a newly re-designed flyer program in late summer called Spotlight on Local Producers. “We love highlighting and supporting our community and we're building this into our flyer to help get these products and – more importantly, amazing local stories – out!” 

The one activity that works above all others, she says, is what she calls authentic community-building.  “Much of our mandate is about building relationships with farmers, with brands and with customers. And it's these solid relationships that have helped fuel our incredible growth.”  

Facing competition 

Mass-market grocery stores are probably the biggest competition for The Sweet Potato.  Midori says the challenege is met head on with a focus on local, organic, natural foods, and by giving space to smaller brands.

“More and more, people are looking for engagement and community in their grocery shopping experience and we're doing that pretty well. We'll make sure we keep this experience front and centre as we grow. It's a harder thing for mass-market to do in a meaningful way.

The Sweet Potato takes food safety seriously.  “We have a frequently updated list of banned ingredients that we adhere to strictly. We recently banned farmed shrimp from certain areas due to the increased risk of multi-antibiotic drug-resistant bacteria.  We stay up on research and best-practices around food issues which our educated customers really appreciate.”

Wants versus needs

There is a healthy “push-pull” routine the store has with its customers when it comes to product availability.   “We keep the lines of communication open with our engaged and educated customers. We do keep up on best-practices around food issues, and keep our eye on food trends, and we do carry a huge range of items for specialized diets (gluten-free, vegan, top allergen-free). But we also love hearing from customers about their specific needs and then meeting that need. For instance, recently two separate customers reached out about A2 milk in a two week period. About two weeks after that, we'd found a local distributor and it was on our shelves.” 


Reducing excess packaging has been an on-going priority.  “We've partnered with local farms this summer to ensure we can go packaging-free for a number of items that you'd usually find packaged (cherry tomatoes, English cucumbers are two examples). We urge our suppliers to do better when it comes to packaging and ask our customers to get in touch with them, too. Sometimes it takes hearing from both sides to get a change to happen.”

Since the city of Toronto has banned black plastic from the municipal recycling program, the store has found (at its own cost) a private recycler to take back black plastic. “We've opened this up to the community and have folks travel from all over the city to bring us their clean food-grade black plastic to recycle. It doesn't matter where they got it, we just want to divert this stuff from the landfill. It's been a wildly successful program. We're doing the same with recycling baby food pouches. It's not a perfect solution, but we want to deal ethically and responsibly with the waste we are helping to create. And we are pleased to be diverting a fair amount of waste away from the landfill.”


The Sweet Potato also has an amazing food waste diversion program: every weekday, folks from local community agencies pick up excess food for their community programs. “With this program, we support Sistering's daily hot meal program, Romero House, an organization that supports refugee food hamper program, and The Sharing Place's food bank.

“To cut down on single-use plastics, we offer a 5¢ donation to a local sustainability organization for every bag that customers bring in. It's been such a popular initiative as we've diverted tens of thousands of bags in the first few months.” 

The biggest challenge the Sweet Potato is facing these days, says Midori, is keeping up with its own growth. “We're coming up to two years in this new space and we're already looking at new systems and a little bit of a reno to address space.


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