London’s Old East Village has become an indie platform for hot trends in food, dining, artisanal crafts, music and entertainment. Culinary entrepreneur and Old East Village (OEV) champion Dave Cook is deemed to be among the key catalysts for this revitalization and renaissance.
Providing leadership in local food innovation and social enterprise, Cook’s company, The Artisan Group, owns and runs several cutting-edge OEV operations including the London Food Incubator, Fire Roasted Coffee Co., Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market at Western Fair (FAMWF), as well as being co-founder and stakeholder in the bean-to-bar chocolate company Habitual Chocolate and owner/operator of the seasonal Masonville Farmers’ Market.
In 2007, OEV was assessed as a food desert in a study co-authored by Dr. Jason Gilliland (HEAL & Department of Geography at Western and Old East Village Business Improvement Association (OEVBIA) executive board member); it was later discovered in a follow-up analysis that the development of the FAMWF significantly raised the selection and availability of affordable foods in an area that had previously no access to healthy food choices.
Farmers’ markets perform a significant role in local economic development by facilitating a location for small business incubation and generating an economic multiplier effect by increasing the returns arising from the redistribution of new spending and consumer consumption within the community.
Maintaining his entrepreneurial vision, Cook established connections between food retailing, healthy food access and community economic development that he strategically leveraged. On the heels of his emerging success as one of Ontario’s finest independent specialty coffee roasters and farmers’ market operators a paradigm shift gradually occurred and Cook evolved into a stalwart neighbourhood crusader, revitalizer and economic developer. What distinguishes Cook’s social enterprises is that their mission combines responsible for-profit business activities with social, environmental and community objectives.
Launching The Fire Roasted Coffee Co. in 2006, Cook roasted coffee beans in his garage before introducing Fire Roasted Coffee at a Saturday market stall at the FAMWF. Cook wanted independence from the corporate treadmill trajectory and eventually purchased the market operation from the original owner. This was the foundation of an entrepreneurial vision that manifested in Cook becoming a cutting-edge business leader and innovator of sequential concepts and business processes.
In a prime downtown heritage building known as the Wallace Building at King and Talbot streets, Cook opened his flagship Fire Roasted café in 2013 after a substantial renovation. This was followed by the opening of a satellite café in Wortley Village, which he has since franchised.
Cook continues to renovate the building at 874 Dundas Street (directly across from the FAMWF). The repurposed premises are slated to become home to a restaurant, craft beer pub and Fire Roasted Coffee, offering a café with a patio on the west side of the building. Accompanied by his faithful bulldog Buck, Cook resides in a renovated second floor apartment above the storefront so he can maintain a close proximity to his projects.
Creating environments for social enterprise, Cook leverages his networks, expertise and interest in social justice to establish collaborations and socially-minded business practices. Fire Roasted Coffee has established direct trade with producing countries to benefit the growers in more meaningful ways.
Over the past decade Cook has achieved success at the FAMWF. Much of that accomplishment has been based on internal collaborations with long-time vendors and enterprising business owners like Jeff Pastorius, co-owner of On the Move Organics, The Root Cellar and London Brewing Company, Luis Rivas of True Taco, Rick Peori of All About Cheese, Philippe Lehner of Habitual Chocolate and Yam Gurung of Momo’s at the Market.
In more recent years the OEVBIA and its advisors have been working on an economic development plan to generate synergy and growth by kick-starting initiatives that capitalize on the success of the FAMWF as an informal food-business incubator and local agri-food hub.
Recently, Cook established the London Food Incubator in the 14,000-square-foot Sommerville Building (formerly Somerville Paper Box Limited) at 630 Dundas Street. Building on the strategy of developing an agri-food sector for the OEV retail strip, Cook refurbished and utilized the existing infrastructure for shared space. Culinary entrepreneurs are able to set-up and develop in much the same way vendors mitigated start-up risks and grew their food businesses at the FAMWF.
In the initial stage Cook has provided space for small business incubation and food start-ups, the Old East Village Grocer (OEVG), and The Fire Roasted Coffee Co. café and production facilities. This project was initiated in part by the need for new roasting and packaging facilities for Fire Roasted Coffee, which had outgrown its premises at the market.
The OEV Grocer is an independent grocery store that offers healthy and affordable food products, and doubles as a retail training space, providing customized training opportunities to persons with disabilities. The project received one of the first loans from Verge Capital, a London-based loan fund for social enterprises. It is a project of ATN Access Inc., a not-for-profit registered charity that provides opportunities for individuals with disabilities to gain access to employment, reach their educational goals, and improve the quality of their lives.
Businesses like Heather Pirsky’s Naturally Vegan, Kim Banma’s gluten-free bakery Urban Oven, and David Glen’s Glen Farms Herbs and Preserves jumped at the opportunity to set up shop in the London Food Incubator. Joining these start-ups is Meals on Wheels, a non-profit providing food education and a delivery hub where volunteers pick up hot meals and distribute them to hundreds of households across London.
If specific sets of traits are necessary to becoming a serial social entrepreneur and prospering as a visionary, risk tolerance, ambition and drive seem to be at the top of the list. You also need tenacity, intuition, and the ability to communicate your vision effectively. Cook is a creative problem solver, adventurer and a true polymath who has an innate ability to not only see the larger picture but new and viable business opportunities.
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.