Celebrating 30 Years: An Interview with Ruth Tal & Jennifer Houston

Ruth Tal & Jennifer Houston

This year marks 30 years since Ruth Tal started her travelling juice bar, Juice For Life, the first step in what was to eventually become Fresh. In honour of 30 years, we sat down with Ruth and co-owner and Executive Chef, Jennifer Houston, for a Q&A.

How did the idea for Juice for Life come about? 

Ruth: One day in the summer of ’90, I was drawn into a little health food store that was cold-pressing organic carrot juice in the front window. I watched as the carrots were carefully fed whole into the machine, coming out a beautiful bright orange liquid. I was blown away by how juicing a simple carrot transformed it into the most alive and nutritious thing I had ever tasted in my life. I was instantly hooked. Soon after, I bought a home juicer and began juicing these wildly delicious combinations of fruits, vegetables and leafy greens; self-prescribing based on the benefits I was reading about. Overnight, I switched to a plant-based vegan diet. It was a radical transformation, but I emerged with an abundance of energy and a deep calm and sense of purpose. I felt I was making my own small positive impact in the world with every bite, treading lightly on the earth, eating low on the food chain and choosing an eco-friendly and compassionate lifestyle. 

I became passionate about turning the world around me on to the infinite possibilities and pleasures of juicing and a plant-based diet. With nowhere special to go in the city as a hungry vegan, I wanted to create a haven where everyone was welcome and where feeling good after your meal was paramount. So I opted out of university that fall and used my student loan to start Juice for Life, the seed that eventually sprouted into Fresh. At first, I operated as a pop-up at health fairs, lectures and music festivals, where I had a loyal following of young people like me. Eventually, I began to develop the core recipes that would evolve into the style of eating later popularized at Fresh: bold flavours, colourful layered salads, life burgers, wraps, brown rice bowls, vegan pancakes, energy elixirs and superfood power shakes. The first permanent Juice for Life location opened in 1992 in the Queen Street Market across from Citytv, with 8 seats. Followed in 1995 with my first full-service restaurant location in the Annex, with 56 seats. It was here that Jennifer Houston and I first met and soon became co-workers, cookbook co-authors, great friends and devoted business partners.

What made you want to jump on board and work with Ruth?
Jennifer: When I came to Juice for Life, as it was known then, I had worked at a few different places, from fancy to very un-fancy. I was like Goldilocks – looking for that perfect fit. I knew that I wanted to be somewhere that was doing things that were different from the norm and that I could get excited about. I wasn’t sure what I was even looking for, but I knew that I would recognize it when I found it.

I got the job as sous chef at Juice For Life and all was going well until about two weeks after I started, when the head chef who had hired me took off in the middle of the night and tried to ransom the recipe book to Ruth and Barry (our other partner).  Keep in mind, I had barely even met either of them yet!  Fortuitously, Ruth had awoken in the middle of the night a couple of weeks before, feeling uneasy that there was only one copy of the recipe book, and had come into the restaurant and photocopied the entire thing, thwarting the whole ransom plan!

The day after that, Ruth and Barry asked me to take over the kitchen, all the while assuring me that they were nice people and that the place wasn’t normally this crazy. I wasn’t even fully trained on the menu yet, but I agreed to take over the kitchen because there was something I loved about it, even with all the drama that had just taken place.  

Ruth and I spent time talking over our ideas of where the menu could go, and we knew that we were kindred spirits, creatively. There was something in me that knew that this was the place I had been looking for. 

What were some hurdles you faced when starting out the business? 
Ruth: The initial hurdles mainly revolved around convincing those around me to buy into and believe in what I was proposing – how a 100% vegan diet could translate into a viable, environmentally responsible business with infinite growth potential and widespread appeal. It was a far-fetched concept at the time, and there was a lot of scepticism,  especially in the mostly male-dominated restaurant, media and business worlds. I often had to sell my vision to powerful individuals like my dad, bankers, landlords, cookbook publishers and PR agents with no previous success stories to back up my claims.  All I had was my glowing passion, vibrant good-health and positivity. 

Once the business got going, people mocked my diet, often becoming defensive about their own health and food choices in the face of how I was living my life. Despite this, I never declined an opportunity to demonstrate how easy it was to juice or eat a plant based diet, and how satisfying it could be. In the early years, I appeared on many television shows cooking, juicing, and hoping to inspire people to try this at home, only to be the butt of jokes about how this was all too “healthy”, as the hosts pinched their noses while sipping a green juice I had just made.

Taking it in stride, it made me even more determined to prove the concept. I am happy to say that after years of Fresh being an alternative option to the mainstream, we are now witness to a tidal wave of people finally catching on to the benefits of a plant based diet, and I am so glad we stayed true to our roots.

How has the industry changed since you started in the business?
Jennifer: When I was at cooking school in 1996, there were no vegetarian courses.  The word vegan was never mentioned.  It just wasn’t a thing that anyone in the cooking world seemed to think about. When I started at Juice For Life, the internet existed but wasn’t widely used yet.  There was no email, no Google, no Youtube.  There were hardly any other vegetarian, let alone vegan restaurants in Toronto.  This meant that there wasn’t really any competition, but also almost nowhere to really go for inspiration or to learn from. There were a handful of vegetarian cookbooks out there, but new ones only came out once in a blue moon. There were no tasty vegan meat alternatives, and definitely no good vegan cheeses.  No vegan butter substitutes, no vegan mayo.  You had to make every single thing from scratch.  There was no home food delivery other than from restaurants that delivered themselves.  It was a different world.  But I guess the thing that never changes is that if you make a good product, people will find a way to get it. 

What’s the most important risk you took and why?
Ruth: There have been so many along the way! Let’s see – choosing the right locations, committing to new business partnerships, launching innovative menu items, overextending our resources or saving for a rainy day like a worldwide pandemic. No decision is without risk when you are an entrepreneur. However, as we take the risks and succeed, we build up layers upon layers of strength, confidence and resilience. Some risks have ended up in failure too, and after owning up to them I remind myself that failures will never break me if I just keep trying and carry on. 

However, the most important risk I ever took was definitely the very first one – the choice I made to not go to university and instead to take my student loan to start a gourmet juice bar and vegan café.  This was one of the loneliest, riskiest decisions I ever had to make because I had no safety net, and at the time, the only one who really believed in it was me. I knowingly put myself into a tough position where failure really wasn’t an option. However, betting everything I had on this one path forced me to be strong, single-minded and self-reliant. It didn’t take me long to pay the student loan back in full. I’m so proud of this 30 year legacy because over the years I have had many opportunities to pay it forward by creating jobs for hundreds of young people and students.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received when it comes to your career?
Ruth: Be authentic. I have learned that through it all there is always room to grow and stand out when you are passionate about what you do – and when you follow your heart. The worst advice I’ve ever received is “you’re trying to do too much”. I listened to this for a while, and doubted myself in the early years. Know yourself through your own eyes before you take the advice delivered through someone else’s eyes. That way when you push the envelope and it becomes too much, you recognize it, own it and resolve it. You win or lose on your own terms.

Jennifer: When I was around 8 or 9, I learned a lesson that I’ve never forgotten, even though it definitely wasn’t presented as career advice at the time! My Dad was a high school Vice Principal and he became known as a troubleshooter.  He was sent into one particular school that had a really bad reputation.  One of the major problems was that students were skipping classes with impunity, and no one had been able to stop this from happening. Now, we’re talking hundreds of kids every day, so you can see how previous administrators would have thought that this problem was too big to tackle kid by kid.  My dad decided that every single student who skipped a class had to come to his office the next day to explain why.  He sent out appointment slips to their homerooms requiring them to come and tell him why they had missed a class. My sister, Mum, Dad and I used to sit around the coffee table at home every night writing out these appointment cards in 2-minute increments : John Smith 9:14 am, Jane Brown 9:16 am.  Hundreds of them.  Within two weeks there was no more skipping class at the school.  From witnessing this, I always had an idea of how to take a big problem, break it down into small manageable steps and systematically follow through until you get the results you’re looking for.  

My Dad was also the first one who told me the old saying “The harder you work, the luckier you get”.  There really is no substitute for hard work and for doing your best no matter what situation you are in.

What are you most proud of?
Ruth & Jennifer: We’re proud that after 30 years of doing this, Fresh has been able to stay relevant and move with the changing times.  It’s amazing that our business is still growing and that our reach is getting larger and larger with every new location we open.  We love that our food and juice is still connecting with people, that they become attached to it and that it becomes a part of their lives and their experiences.  It’s pretty mind-blowing to think about.