If you have ever done any vegetable gardening, you may have seen a carrot seed. It is a tiny, nondescript brown thing about the size of the head of a pin, a little rough around the edges; not the sort of thing you would bother taking a second look at. But plant it in the ground, give it a little bit of sun and water, and it has the chance to grow into a lush, sweet-smelling, feathery green plant hiding a thick orange root full of vitamins and ready to nourish an animal or person.
Ideas are a lot like seeds – they may start small, but a good one, with the right support, can grow into something much bigger than anyone ever imagined. For Rebecca Sherbino and Colleen Graham of Paris, Ontario, one of those seeds has blossomed into The Raw Carrot Soup Enterprise, a not-for-profit social enterprise that combines business entrepreneurship with social change.
While volunteering with a drop-in program at the Paris Presbyterian Church that helps connect people on the margins in the community with various social services, Colleen and Rebecca noticed a theme – people who were accessing the drop-in program did not want handouts; they wanted jobs.
The Canadian Mental Health Agency notes that employment is a key determinant of health and well-being. Many of the drop-in regulars had limited education. Some attendees struggled with mental health, addictions, learning disabilities, illness, and personal or family disruption. The jobs they were qualified for tended to be fast-paced and service-oriented with little flexibility for time off, which was a poor match for their unique needs. As a result, they could get the jobs but they could not keep them.
After some brainstorming, Rebecca and Colleen hit upon a “soup-er” idea – and The Raw Carrot Soup Enterprise was born. Now approaching its third year, The Raw Carrot uses a combination of volunteers and paid employees to produce a menu of delicious, nourishing soups and breadsticks which are available frozen on site as well as at several markets and grocery stores.
If you think of a cooking in a church, you might picture a group of volunteers chatting away in the kitchen while making tunafish sandwiches and hamburger soup, but this is something entirely different. The Raw Carrot is a professional enterprise operating out of a fully-equipped commercial kitchen. All employees are trained in safe food handling practices and the soups have been independently quality tested. When you turn the corner into the kitchen, you might think you had stepped into a downtown Toronto restaurant – staff in white aprons and hairnets chop vegetables at gleaming stainless steel countertops while a huge pot bubbles on an industrial-sized stove. In the next room, another employee sorts through piles of professionally labeled zip-top bags while a volunteer rings through a customer’s soup purchase, asking “Would you care for some bread sticks with that?”
The model is deceptively simple: Paid employees must be recipients of Ontario Disability Support or living below the poverty line. With the help of volunteers, staff learn practical kitchen skills as well as crucial soft skills like communication, teamwork, conflict resolution, and professionalism. Volunteers also fill in to allow staff the flexibility they need when they face challenges in their lives – flexibility that is harder to come by in traditional profit-driven businesses. Colleen points out that staff turnover since The Raw Carrot opened has been zero. Staff take pride in their work, frequently asking for more hours and fighting good-naturedly over who will represent the business at functions off-site.
Start-up and ongoing funding for The Raw Carrot has come from various sources, including grants through the Presbyterian Church in Canada and The United Church of Canada Foundation’s Social Innovation Challenge. As a social enterprise, all profits from The Raw Carrot must be reinvested directly into the business and not used to fund other programs at the church. Founders Rebecca and Colleen have even stepped away from their previous careers to devote themselves full time to managing the business.
The benefits of the program for the employees don’t just end with job skills and a paycheque – despite their diverse ages and life stages, staff have become a tight-knit group of friends who go to each other and to supervisors and volunteers for practical and emotional support. In a recent focus group, staff named some of their top reasons to come to work at The Raw Carrot: A steady income; a group of friends; and most importantly, a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Every person who is part of The Raw Carrot in any way – founders, volunteers, employees, and customers, share a common goal: The desire to live a purposeful life. Colleen and Rebecca first came up with the idea of making soup because it could be a complete, nourishing meal in a bowl – and The Raw Carrot nourishes minds, bodies, and souls all at once. Now that’s an a-peeling thought!