Breaking bread with The Food Runners

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This group of restaurant staff from Toronto are changing the culture

Toronto is definitively known for its food and drink. When people come to the city, they always ask what they should do and see, but really the thing to do and see is the diverse restaurant offerings this city has cultivated. The major neighborhoods in the Toronto area offer their own flavor and perspective, but everyone secretly knows the best side is the west side. The west side of Toronto, west of Spadina Avenue, offers the best food, drink, bars and streets to run (The rail path, High Park, Martin Goodman Trail, Humber River Trail). Did I mention the best food is on the west side?

The food and bar scene in Toronto is a blood bath. It’s a cut throat world where you need to make your mark in the first two months of opening if you want to stick around. Anyone working in this industry gets quickly familiar with grueling hours and demanding pace; pressure and expectation are a constant.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the stereotypes you’ve seen about hospitality workers generally hold true in Toronto; late shifts are often punctuated by a cholesterol packed, sometimes boozy breakfast.

The Food Runners were formed to buck that trend, to flip the script on an unhealthy cycle and replace those hung over mornings with something more sustainable.

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The Food Runners bring together restaurant industry members on Wednesday mornings for a run. It’s that simple. Good people finding an alternative to unhealthy behaviors. It may sound cliché, but I’ve come to learn that besides the wonderful inclusion and welcoming nature of this crew, that they have a real family vibe to them. My first time with the crew, one of the leaders, Chuck, approached me immediately and introduced himself; akin to being welcomed into someone’s home.

Chuck explains what led him to putting this crew together: “I've been working in the restaurant industry my entire life and I've always noticed that the lifestyle of the people in it, mainly chefs, wasn't always one of balance. The long hours, constant stress and bad eating didn't help create an overall healthy life for them. After many years of witnessing and experience this for myself, I started a food publication that really delved into the culture behind restaurants.

Rather than dedicating an issue of this magazine to addressing this underlying issue, I decided to create "The Food Runners". A weekly run club comprised of chefs and restaurant industry professionals, with the goal of helping them create a more balanced life through running and healthy eating". 

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Secretly though, the best part about this crew is what is dubbed “Project Refuel”. Chuck explains “…the key component to this entire movement. Chefs often find it difficult to eat healthier, wholesome meals given the long hours and how daunting it can seem to eat and cook healthy. We use Project Refuel to not only ‘fuel’ them post run, but also to inspire them to cook unique healthier meals".

The crew meets in one of Toronto’s hottest neighborhoods, Queen West. Affectionately known as one the coolest streets in Toronto; Queen Street West runs from Spadina Avenue all the way to Roncesvalles Avenue. A road that features a diverse collection of up and coming creative types, the best bars, and a street where savvy tourists come to see the real Toronto. The street also passes through the Parkdale and Roncy neighborhoods, and Trinity Bellwoods Park - which has recently developed its own cultural following.

I tagged along on a few Wednesday mornings to take a look behind the curtain at this unique crew, and to take a deep dive into Project Refuel.

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The crew for the past few years has been meeting at the Nike Loft but has continued with its original roots by featuring some of the best spots in Toronto. Chuck explains, “When we first started the group in 2014, we would meet at different juice bars in Toronto. Awesome places like Bolt Fresh Bar, Greenhouse Juice and Belmonte Raw. In 2015, Nike opened up the Nike Loft and that became our home for our runs and Project Refuel. As of late, we have started to run from a lot of our very own Food Runners restaurants and also some newer healthy cafes and juice bars.” This is all with the common goal of inspiring their members to embrace a more balanced lifestyle.

The first week we met at the infamous Trinity Bellwoods Park, along Queen West. What was once a lazy hangout for the cast of characters that roamed the streets of Queen West, has now become the spot to soak up the sun on a summer day, when the park has a Woodstock or ‘70’s type vibe. You can often find runners and groups meeting here in the morning for strength and conditioning work. The crew leaders, Inge and KC, put the group through some tough hill sprints and strength work with the CN Tower in the backdrop.

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For our warm up and cool down, we rumble along at sexy pace through Queen West. The group is full of recommendations, “On Queen West, we love The Drake Hotel, Terroni and Lamesa. Places we love in Toronto in general include Dailo, Bar Raval, Bar Buca, Eastbound Brewery, Grey Gardens, Aloette just to name a few.”

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The next week the group met at Grey Gardens to run through the iconic Kensington Market and Chinatown. Kensington market—an extension of Chinatown—is a hub for cultural diversity, bars and a few underground races. Chinatown is exactly what you’d expect; loud, messy, full of action, and home to some the best smells and tastes in the city. Kensington on the other hand is weird, but in the best possible way. It has one of the best bars in the city 'Cold Tea'. Cold Tea started as this secret dive bar that was only known to a few. You’d enter the bar by going into this sketchy plaza and the only thing that signals Cold Tea is the red light hanging in this dingy hallway.

The bar has undergone a recent renovation but still holds onto what has made this place special. The bar itself features a beautiful art installation by local runner and artist Mango Peeler.

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On a quiet morning in Toronto, these two areas are some of the best places to kick back and lay down an easy run. The sheer amount of visual distractions available rivals some of the best cities in the world. Plus, it’s pretty fun to race the Spadina street-car down the street. More often than not, you can beat the street-car heading south from College street down to Queen street.

At the end of every run, Project Refuel begins. Imagine it this way; your family getting together to talk about life, training, and food all while being introduced to a healthy balanced “refuel”. The crew will usually meet out of a restaurant and the chef at that restaurant will prepare the food, but sometimes one of the crew members will host at their own restaurant and cook the food themselves for Project Refuel 

After a tough workout, you can expect to try out a delicious smoothie, like the one we had from Bolt Fresh Bar. Chuck surprised the crew with smoothies as a tribute to their first meeting points. Project Refuel, as Chuck explained, is meant to inspire members to embrace a healthy lifestyle.

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Project refuel is everything. Working in the industry is challenging on a number of levels- but I know I have found tremendous release and kinship in sharing food with the team every day, no matter what happens on the floor + behind the line during service. It’s the same with Food Runners; it can be physically challenging but knowing we do it all together + nourish ourselves after- it’s the best way to start the day, to grow, to re-focus”.

Cayla Meredith

Like a lot of great passion projects, the beauty is in the organic growth and the exploration of new opportunities. While no one knows exactly what the future holds for The Food Runners, Chuck knows the formula is helping those in the industry be healthier and happier.

“There have been countless messages from chefs around the world asking how they can start their own version in their city- so we are definitely exploring ways to spread this globally!“

As Virginia Woolf once said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well". 

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