Seema Pabari was disappointed with the choices for those seeking sustainable, healthy and fresh meals in Toronto. At the same time, moreover, Parbari recognized that work opportunities for women in the city’s Crescent Town area were sparse. At present, many in this neighbourhood are recent arrivals from South Asia, relying on one family member (often the father) as the breadwinner. With children to care for and sometimes a limited command of English, approximately 65% of women in Crescent Town do not work outside the home. With this single income, over 40% of local families live below the poverty line.
A for-profit social purpose business delivering fresh vegan lunches
Pabari wanted to help turn this situation around. In 2009, after 20 years of working as a marketer in the private sector, Pabari left the corporate world and established Tiffinday. This for-profit social purpose business offers fresh, nutritional vegan lunches to Toronto’s corporate community. Tiffinday was founded on three core values: environmental sustainability, social responsibility and profitability. Each of those elements is measured as an indicator of the company’s performance.
Pabari rents kitchen space during off-hours from a downtown restaurant and there she prepares and packages all Tiffinday meals. Using 100% plant-based ingredients,the company’s goal is to offer healthy meals while ensuring people eat an environmentally responsible diet. When possible, organic ingredients are sourced locally. The aim is to reduce the carbon and chemical footprints generated in the production and transportation of ingredients.
The tiffins—the containers in which the meals are delivered—are made from a food-grade stainless steel, free of mercury and lead. The tiffins are reusable and each one is picked up after a meal is consumed.
Tiffinday measures its environmental success by the number of meals sold. It regards this number as an indicator of how many non-vegetarian meals were not sold elsewhere.The number of meals delivered in tiffins is also a measure of the disposable containers kept out of landfills and the recycling pipeline.
Pabari believes that no-one should struggle with poverty due to a mental or physical disability, or because they are caregivers and unable to work traditional hours. Every organization could find suitable work for people with varied challenges, she claims, if they only made an attempt at accommodation and flexibility.
From its inception, Tiffinday rose to that challenge. Pabari hired her two employees from Crescent Town―women who otherwise faced barriers to employment and struggled with a low family income. Since her business is focused primarily on the lunch crowd, meeting these women’s part-time requirements was easy. More significantly, the hiring policy not only improves the lives of these women and their families, but it impacts the community in which they live.
A competitive business, difficult to fund
While running a vegan catering business is a competitive venture, Pabari had sufficient savings to enable her to work for two years unpaid. Her original plan was to deliver to schools; however, problems of bureaucracy forced her to change her focus to the private sector.
Over the years, Pabari’s primary challenge has been to secure investors. Many were looking for Tiffinday to grow large before offering any funds, deeming her too big a risk. “We were told we couldn’t be as big as McDonalds so they would not invest, but we don’t want to be that!” exclaims Pabari, adding that many social purpose businesses remain small.
At one point, Pabari stopped seeking funding, but has since renewed the search, with a greater focus on non-traditional investors. She’s particularly frustrated that the social element of her business does not count for more, financially speaking. “It’s worth something to government and to society,” she says. “We deserve a lower interest rate because of what we do.”
The first year at Tiffinday focused strictly on lunch-time deliveries, but Pabari eventually added farmers’ markets to her repertoire. Cooking additional food to sell at these mainly summer markets is now an integral practice at Tiffinday.
In March 2013, Pabari expanded by opening a retail space in the heart of downtown Toronto, as set out in her five-year-plan, and hired two more women facing employment barriers.
With the increasing demand for delicious and nutritious vegan lunches, Pabari is planning to open satellite locations beyond the Greater Toronto Area. She is in discussions with prospective investors to help realize these goals.