The gospel of Ruth Tal is as follows: eat plants, feel good, and tell the world. As the founder of Toronto’s first plant-based eatery, Fresh Kitchen + Juice Bar, Ruth is the queen of green. Reflecting on her thirty-two years since the original juice bar opened, Ruth’s path to a plant-based lifestyle was sheer fate.
But it didn’t start that way. Forging her own path after leaving home at age 16, Ruth’s passion for plant-based everything is more than just a diet. Ruth is committed to the ethical treatment of animals and creating a sustainable future for our planet.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO RUTH
Meeting Ruth at her gorgeous Eglinton location, (formerly Bar Buca) her energy matches the vibrant design. It’s literally fresh, with the sound and smell of fresh juices greeting you as soon as you enter. Citrusy colours bounce off eclectic tiles and well-lit booths. It’s cheerful, and relaxed, just like Ruth in person.
Long celebrated in Toronto and known internationally for making plant-based eating accessible and tasty, Ruth wants everyone to embrace this lifestyle. That’s why she’s written five cookbooks, so far, and has given away all her signature recipes to inspire others to take up her charge.
“Everyone was telling me I was crazy, but I knew it was the right thing to do. That was the beginning of writing five cookbooks. People still want to come in and see how we do it, but now my books are international. People come to Toronto to try our food. Often I’m in the restaurant and I get to meet them. When you’re passionate about something you are just driven by it. It gets you up in the morning. It makes a 12 hour day feel like a breeze.”Ruth Tal, on her Journey as Cookbook Author and Founder, Fresh Kitchen + Juice Bar
Surviving, and actually thriving through the Covid crisis, Ruth is sage about what’s next for the plant-based empire she’s quietly building. Now up to eight locations and plans for more, Ruth is just getting rolling.
SOME GREEN LOVE THE RUTH TAL WAY
To say her story is unconventional would be an understatement. Her bumpy ride to becoming Toronto’s undisputed green goddess was always her true calling. Born to Morrocan parents, Ruth enjoyed a childhood replete with travel and was encouraged to work hard and dream big. Anything was achievable if you put in the effort.
But as Ruth grew, her need for independence grew too. Typical Toronto teenage rituals, like heading downtown and shopping with friends became sore spots for her parents. Ruth says the cultural differences became too much. The world her parents grew up in was remarkably different from the one Ruth was being raised in.
So Ruth left home, dropping out of high school at the age of 16. She worked at a clothing shop on Yonge Street before packing it in to travel the world. Saving up a few thousand bucks allowed Ruth the freedom to roam. From 18 to 25, Ruth lived and worked in Australia, the Middle East and Asia.
Returning home to Toronto, she pledged to her parents her desire to finish high school and attend post-secondary. She accomplished the first feat and gained admission to U of T. Her parents were elated, but it was short-lived.
PASSION AND A PLAN FOR EVERYTHING PLANTS
Now 25, Ruth was ramping up to make her parents proud and attend university. Until she stumbled upon a quaint health food shop at Avenue and Davenport. This ‘Sliding Doors‘ moment proved to be pivotal for Ruth. The hum of the Norwalk Press, the whizz of the carrots, it was sensory overload.
“This little old couple owned it and made fresh juices but they would take 20 minutes to make. They had all these books about different medicinal benefits on different fruits and veggies, so I would read while I waited. How to make juices, why dairy is bad, and how to save the planet. I had never seen a carrot juiced and that was an epiphany for me, putting something in your body that’s alive that is so full of nutritional enzymes. It’s coming from a happy place. Not killing animals. It just lined up and made sense.”Ruth Tal, on her discovery of a plant-based diet
So she took her OSAP loan and used it to buy everything she needed to get into the juice business. Cutting boards, knives and blenders became her books and U of T faded into the background. Her parents were despondent. For a time, they disowned her.
STICK TO YOUR ROOTS, START FRESH
But Ruth could not be swayed. Her calling had been found. She went from making juices for friends to popping up at conferences, selling her juices against a Bristol board menu. Soon Ruth became a fixture and was approached to partner up at local events. “I started doing music fests like lollapalooza or even outside the CNE. I never said no to an opportunity, the mission was to turn as many people on to it as possible,” adds Ruth.
After gaining some traction she opened her first shop across from Much Music, on Queen Street. Musicians and TV personalities comprised her first loyal customers. Steve Tyler from Aerosmith, Sting, and Lenny Kravitz all offered early support. As lineups started to grow down the block, Ruth knew it was time for a permanent location.
RUTH TAL AND HER CRUSADE TO PLANT-BASED
Now, thirty-odd years later, Ruth is ecstatic to see the movement gain momentum. When she first opened, there was no competition. Now, plant-based restaurants run the gamut from quick-service popups like Ruth’s humble beginnings to full a la carte fine dining experiences like Planta. That’s something that energizes the team at Fresh. “It’s an exciting industry. I’m still very curious and open- not shut down- there’s a lot of growth for me and the brand. We’re not afraid of the misses, if you don’t risk it, you don’t grow. Some of the things you think- I think this will resonate, and it doesn’t, and what you don’t think won’t work, does,” adds Ruth.
With partner Jennifer Houston (who is also her co-author), Ruth is revitalizing the beloved brunch menu, with the big unveil set for April 22nd. Working with new ingredients and working with new foods, the team didn’t want to risk too much during the pandemic, there was too much instability and too much change. Now they’re ready for it.
As for Ruth, who looks about 25 years younger than what her resume reads, she’s just happy that she found this path when she did.
“For me, in terms of my health, I’m in great health. I walk the talk. It’s authentic for me. It’s my business, but it’s my passion. I still want to inspire people.”
All images by Libby Roach. Interview may have been edited for clarity/content.