When Bobby Lax stood on stage in a crowded theatre facing a panel of three judges deciding the winner of a lucrative prize for emerging businesses, he knew there was only one way to best make his presentation.
He needed the judges to taste it.
Bobby is the food coordinator for the Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild (TUCG), which is dedicated to sourcing organic and seasonal products for communities on the Pacific coast of British Columbia. Under Bobby’s guidance, the TUCG has shown what a difference local flavours can make. In May, he was one of three finalists nominated for the Social Enterprise Catalyst (seCatalyst) award, an honour from the Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce given annually to a business that brings benefits and opportunities to the city.
“We were lucky this year on Vancouver Island because it was a very early strawberry season. The day before I was presenting, I called one of the producers I work with and she had just picked a bunch of fresh strawberries. I was able to get my hands on some and pass them around to the judges,” says Bobby, who got the berries from Katie Farm in Duncan, B.C.
“They were able to taste what a strawberry picked right from the farm is like and know how much better and sweeter it is compared to what you get in the grocery store.”
The three fortunate judges were clearly satisfied and impressed. They awarded Bobby the competition’s grand prize, which included a $15,000 cheque to help fund the TUCG. It is a distinction that also underscores how the TUCG — which was created to improve the quality of food available in Tofino and Ucluelet — has benefitted a range of communities. Nanaimo, which hosted the social enterprise catalyst award in May, is a three-hour drive ride east of Tofino.
The TUCG was started in 2010 when a group of chefs from Tofino hired Bobby to find a solution for the lack of regular shipments of food from Vancouver Island’s farms to the Pacific coast. Even though they are only a few hours by car away, the island’s farmers didn’t have the resources or infrastructure to compete with multinational corporations, who have the means to frequently deliver large volumes of food to locations large and small.
“When we started the culinary guild, we knew we were going to need someone to coordinate it and we knew it had to be someone young, energetic and really, really hungry to do something new and unique,” says Lisa Ahier, the chef and owner of SoBo, a well-regarded restaurant in Tofino and Bobby’s former place of employment. “This would never have happened. It would have never succeeded at all if it weren’t for Bobby. It took somebody with Bobby’s integrity and passion, because it’s a ton of hard work.”
[The culinary guild] would have never succeeded at all if it weren’t for Bobby. It took somebody with Bobby’s integrity and passion, because it’s a ton of hard work”
—Lisa Ahier, chef and owner, SoBo
Boosting small business
What Bobby initiated at the TUCG, with the support of the Coastal Community Credit Union (79,000 members, $1.8 billion in assets), is a food delivery program that includes online ordering, weekly pickup and same-day delivery of the best quality fruits, vegetables and meats available on Vancouver Island.
On Fridays, Bobby receives notifications from farmers who detail what quantity of products they have for the coming week. On Saturdays, he compiles the list from the more than two dozen farm suppliers he works with and then sends a notification to the approximately 130 TUCG members, including individuals, families and businesses. By Monday, the members have placed their orders. On Wednesdays, Bobby’s drivers head out to a pick-up point central to the three Vancouver Island farming communities. The farmers gather to drop off the items that have been ordered. The truck drivers load up and haul the goods back to Tofino, where members arrive to pick them up. It’s an efficient process that has improved the standard of food in Tofino as well as the reputation of its restaurants.
In 2014, Bobby’s efforts helped the farmers, including several in the Nanaimo area, collect $300,000 through orders from the TUCG. That’s an increase from $80,000 in 2010, the program’s first year. With the cash prize from the Social Enterprise Catalyst award, the TUCG will build a 1,000-square-foot warehouse to help with food storage.
“We’ve given farmers somewhere else besides their local farmers’ market to sell their goods and I think that’s where we are making a difference”
—Bobby Lax, coordinator, Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild
“We’ve given farmers somewhere else besides their local farmers’ market to sell their goods and I think that’s where we are making a difference,” says Bobby, who moved to Tofino in 2006 after finishing a degree in business and philosophy from the University of Guelph in Ontario.
He credits Lisa with introducing him to the region’s farming communities and informing him of their challenges. Bobby endeared himself to her when he was just 20 years old and on the hunt for a job. She remembers him walking through SoBo’s door and declaring hers was the only restaurant for which he could work. She gave him a one-day tryout as a dishwasher but wasn’t impressed. Yet he refused to go when he heard no.
“He said to me, ‘You don’t understand, I need to work for you. I really, really need to work here. You’re the only person in this town who is working with farmers so closely,’” Lisa recalls. His conviction persuaded her. Bobby wound up spending more than four years in the SoBo kitchen.
“I think he and I both knew that a professional chef was not really his calling, but he had so much heart, so much passion for food and where it came from. I remember whenever I would get a shipment in from a farmer, he would run up to me and say he wanted to touch it, he wanted to see it,” she says. “It was such a special thing for him and it is all from the heart.”
Sharing with kids
Along with helping restaurants serve better dishes and assisting farmers in developing new markets, Bobby also spends time educating children on the importance of local food.
“It’s about giving people flavour memories,” he says. “When you taste a strawberry picked from the farm that day you are going to blown away by the flavour. You’re also going to be OK with paying a little bit more for it if you have to.” ◊