This Toronto couple quit their finance jobs in New York City and returned home to start a farmed meat subscription service. Here is what happened

This Toronto couple quit their finance jobs in New York City and returned home to start a farmed meat subscription service. Here is what happened

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In October 2019, Charlie Iscoe and Laya Bail, originally from Toronto, quit their finance and marketing jobs in New York City. They bought plane tickets for a trip around the world, hoping to be inspired along the way. They made stops in South America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Europe, but did not come up with their new business idea until Covid forced them to return to Canada. While living on a farm in Creemore, where Laya’s parents live, they started researching the meat industry and how to logistically start a business supplying and delivering sustainable meat. In July 2020, they opened Sunday Farms to family and friends and have grown on referrals and word of mouth ever since.

Charlie: As a business student at Ivey, finding a finance job in New York meant it all. So when I landed my first job at JP Morgan in New York in 2009, I thought I was successful. What I got instead were 100-hour work weeks and a social life that felt like a distant, sleep-deprived memory. Two years later, the world of dog-eater-dog investing followed, where the times weren’t much better. Like many of my Type A peers, I was experiencing what I learned next was the “deferred life plan”: work hard now, enjoy life later.

Laya: I have always been drawn to New York. My dad grew up in Brooklyn, so I felt connected to the city. After graduating from McGill, I had my chance. I was accepted into a fashion marketing program at Parsons and moved into a dodgy apartment in Alphabet City. From there, I made my way into the world of luxury fashion. At first my life looked a lot The devil wears Prada, and I wasn’t Meryl Streep. But after a while, I went from being a cafe racer to being responsible for launching marketing campaigns for exciting global brands.

Laya and Charlie, visiting one of their partners, Riverside Farms in Millbank

Each Sunday Farms order comes in a reusable cooler bag like this one

Charlie: New York Torontonians have a way to find each other. I met Laya through a mutual friend and after a year of pursuit convinced her to go to dinner with me. We immediately made a connection around great food. Five years later, I proposed on a homemade osso buco. We talked about leaving it all behind and traveling the world before the responsibilities of parenthood set in – but those were just fantasies. Towards the end of 2019, I came home and told Laya that I had just finished my last day of work – I quit. At first she was in shock, but by morning we had pulled out a giant laminated map and started drawing lines across oceans and continents, figuring out where our journey might take us.

Laya: We favored countries known for their cuisine and natural beauty. This is how a four day trek through the Peruvian Andes became the first item on our list. There was no better way to disconnect than to be off the network. What I remember most from this trip was the deep respect our local guides had for Mother Earth, which they called Pachamama. When it came time to eat, they explained what made each ingredient so special. Argentina was the next stop, where the beef is like a religion. In New Zealand we grilled grass-fed lamb chops in the back of our campervan, and in Japan we started the day with wild fish caught a few hours before. At each stop, it’s impossible to miss the incredible work and respect for quality agriculture at the service of good cuisine.

Charlie:In March 2020, Covid made its way to Europe, where we were at the time. With borders closing rapidly everywhere, we returned to New York, which was quickly becoming the epicenter of the pandemic. We quickly loaded everything into a U-Haul and left New York rudely. Holding back my tears, I told Laya I love her and then drove 11 hours straight to her parents’ farm near Creemore. Our trip around the world was over and we had no idea what was going to happen next.

Nathan Kuepfer of Riverside Farm, with his three sons. The two older boys are already doing their fair share of the work around the farm

Like collecting eggs, for example

Laya:I loved our life in New York City and leaving has broken my heart. Worse yet, we had set off on a journey in search of answers. Now that our trip was over, we didn’t feel any closer to finding them. We decided to get out of Covid on the farm and think about what to do next. After a few weeks of working in the garden and eating dirt, we were stunned to find that the same passionate farming that we spent months hunting around the world was literally in our backyard.

Charlie:With no jobs and nothing but time, we began to read about our food system. The more we learn, the more we discover the ugly impacts of factory farming, which remain well hidden by the misleading words used to sell meat. We also learned that Canada is one of the few developed countries to still allow the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture, despite their known negative effects on our health. On a more positive note, we have started to understand the important role of regenerative agriculture in reversing climate change.

Laya:Fortunately, Charlie’s older brother Alex was already a few steps ahead of us. Alex was a father and, like so many parents, wanted to make sure he was giving his children the most nutritious food possible. Unable to easily find nutritious meat, he decided to go straight to the source, visiting many local farms until he found a handful that were raising their animals properly. He even had their 100% grass-fed beef lab tested against beef he bought from his local butcher – which confirmed his beliefs.

#hog goals

Armando the alpaca keeps the sheep in line

Charlie:Thanks to Alex, we found a solution to our problem of sourcing sustainably raised meat. As we reconnected with our friends in Toronto, we realized how many of them were facing the same problem and wanted to find our solution. This is where it all started to click. My brother already had a great relationship with local farmers, we had interested customers, and Laya had a background in marketing. Most importantly, we knew our client because we were our client. Sitting around the kitchen table of Laya’s parents,Sunday Farms was born.

Laya:Starting a business was new to us. It didn’t help that my parents’ farm was in an internet dead zone. I would not recommend starting an online business using dial-up speeds. On the other hand, one of the perks of our way of life was our new roommates. My mom is an amazing artist and quickly developed a positive attitude in response to my lack of digital design skills. After experimenting with different media, we landed on paper cutouts for our website icons and brought some leaves from the garden to use for color swatches. My dad – who wasn’t even on Instagram – was made the resident chef, and most of the meals stayed cold before we finished documenting them. It’s a real family business!

Charlie:As Laya was learning how to build a website, I hurried to bring in more farming partners. My first call was brutal, the farmer told me there was no money in grass-fed beef and our business was doomed. Good start! We kept going, and after a few weeks we had organized our first round of farm tours. As we passed many horse-drawn carriages in our carriage, we felt less and less out of place. But despite coming from different worlds, we all spoke the same language and saw each other as partners in a collective mission. Farmers always liked to have fun with us city dwellers. One of them asked me to help him collect some eggs – pretty easy, I thought. Upon entering the henhouse, I immediately received a sharp kiss and, panicked, pulled my hand out, slicing it on a metal grid. Laya, the farmer and his seven year old son burst out laughing – I guess we found out who the real chicken was that day.

Charlie and Laya (and Molly) with a couple of lambs
It’s not just fun and games … but it looks pretty fun

Laya:Charlie wasn’t the only one learning from local cattle. I’ve learned that chickens have very sharp claws and they don’t like to be held, as evidenced by a size hole in one of my shirts. Despite some minor injuries – it was especially our pride that suffered – we found our partners and our first shipment arrived a few weeks later. At that time, I had how to get to a working website. It was chaotic to say the least, but in just three months we were live. The site wasn’t perfect but the product was great and we just needed people to try it out. One of the first things we did was set up a referral program, and soon we had second and third degree referrals who remain loyal customers.

Charlie:People always say that you wear a lot of hats to start a business. It’s true, but I would say it’s more like you’re wearing a lot of gloves. With no one to delegate to, you are not only responsible for the vision of the company: you are also an order picker, product sorter, delivery person and everything in between. The irony is that I still work 80 hours a week, but those hours are much more meaningful than any finance job I’ve had. Our work and our passion are now closely linked – good cuisine connected us from our first date – and we are constantly energized by our loyal and growing clientele. With every positive review or email from a satisfied customer, we are reminded that there are other people like us. People who are fed up with our broken food system and looking to live healthier lives by connecting to the food they put on their tables.

About Emilie Brandow

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