(Cont'd from previous post)
After my first delivery, it's a whole new part of the day as I swoop around the north side of the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), disposing of my cargo piece by piece. Almost every stop is another health food store, but they are all different. Some are small hole-in-the-wall places, some are brand-new corporate superstores, but don't be deceived--a small dingy-looking place may be a major outlet, while a lot of the big stores are just limping through the recession.
On this northern portion, an old, established but slightly worn-looking place takes six or seven boxes of our product every week, and sells it all. Meanwhile, a new superstore a short distance away is struggling with one box. This second store is part of a chain that recently undertook a major expansion around Canada, but unfortunately for them they did it just as the recession got underway. I believe their game plan was to position themselves ahead of Whole Foods, by using a lot of the same image-and-branding techniques, while WF's expansion has been temporarily stalled. You know the type: roomy, well lit stores in expensive locations, high-end products, lots of fancy signage everywhere. I'm not a fan of Whole Foods; when we sold to them it was a waste of time, money and product, since they insisted on sending back returns, and the volume was not impressive. I went to one downtown WF location for a year or two, then we fired them--it just wasn't working out. It wasn't us, WF, it was you.
Returns. Now there's a touchy subject. It's common in the bakery biz to entice retailers to carry your product by offering "guaranteed sales"--they can return for full credit any product unsold by the best-before date, which is only a week in the case of our preservative-free bread and pastries. We don't offer guaranteed sales, because having established our brand, it's unnecessary for us. Most places I go, there are our customers hanging around the store waiting to get it while it's fresh--and that's what got them into the store. Besides, guaranteed-sales leads to waste of good bread, because stores will over-order just to fill their shelves if there's no risk involved. Instead, we offer a quality guarantee, meaning that we will credit any bread that spoils before the due date, (MBDD=Mouldy Before Due Date in LittleStreamSpeak) or shows other quality issues: torn packaging, broken loaves, customer returns, etc.
I can often tell that a store is in trouble, because they will start trying to hustle inappropriate returns in order to save five bucks on their order. If they have two loaves with mould spots, they will throw in a couple more that are fine and want credit for all four. I have found that I have to draw the line on credit for invisible mould--seriously, this happens over and over--people pointing at a perfectly fine loaf claiming that it's mouldy. I don't enjoy saying "sorry", but most of them take it OK. "You can't blame a girl for trying," one woman remarked philosophically to me. The deli manager at the particular store that launched this tangent is the other kind, she gets agitated at me when I explain that the mould has to be visible today, not tomorrow. Nor can they get credit by putting it aside for a few weeks and then showing me that it's mouldy--that's why there's a best-before date! Oh well. This same chain was foolish enough to launch two big stores only two miles apart just as the recession got underway; no one was surprised when one of them closed its glass doors just before Christmas, while this one is still limping along. I guess their pockets are somewhat less deep than they used to be.
A couple of stores always have genuinely mouldy returns; I seriously believe at least one place hot-boxes the unsold bread for a day or two before I come, to ensure they will get credit. At least they play the game and don't scream at me like little babies to get their way. I hate that.
After my north-end stops along the 407 corridor (urban sprawl R us), it's down the 427 and onto the Gardiner, then I enter Toronto proper in the famous Polish-Canadian Roncesvalles Avenue neighbourhood. Lots of small stores in that area, doing steady business. My favourite is the least convenient to get to, a mile east on Dundas into the heart of Parkdale. Cathy the owner always greets me by name--that is relatively rare even at places I've been going to every week for six years--pays cash and doesn't hustle returns. A pleasant, hassle-free stop. Sometimes my employer asks me if it's worth the extra distance on my route, and I tell him yes, cause it's a good account that is growing nicely. See, it pays to be nice to your delivery guy, and not try to show him invisible mould.
After that, I ping-pong back west to Bloor West Village. This is a tricky one--the store is about ten feet wide and sixty deep, and I have to work my way into the front door and deposit three boxes on the cash counter, at the same time that they're serving customers. I feel like I'm getting in the way (because I am) but this is how they want it delivered. It's another small-store with big turnover, so it's worth the hassle. They double-count the cash payout and I am on my way, nodding to the street guy who is making up songs with tambourine accompaniment. He's not bad in a way; I'd tip him but my hands are full.
Up to The Junction, and the next few stores are a little easier to navigate, as I head into the heart of downtown residential Toronto, the leafy green Annex neighbourhood. There are four different stores just in the Annex--my boss doesn't believe in exclusive territories--and they are all different. Fiesta Farms is an independent supermarket with a great deli and organic selection; Karma, an actual 70's-style hippie food coop in a back alley--I actually rememer going there in the 70's (the staff there is now unionized!), one location of the local chain Noah's Natural Foods, and a small but bright, recently changed-hands and renoed spot on Bloor Street. I often see the former owner of the latter store around town; she now works for another distributor, and looks really happy not to be trying to keep up with the crushing overhead of a downtown Bloor Street location, one which has always had trouble keeping their account up to date.
Here's a bit of video from my tour of The Annex, from the fierce winter two years ago. This is the block where Jane Jacobs, the urban planning visionary who helped save the neighbourhood from destruction-by-expressway in the 70's, lived until her 2005 death. In her last book she complained about delivery drivers using her street as a shortcut so we don't have to wait for the lights at Bloor and Bathurst. Spot on, Jane. But we drive slowly due to the traffic-calming measures you fought for. In fact, a lot of the things that make The Annex a great neighbourhood are attributed to Jane Jacobs and the community groups that stopped the Spadina Expressway. They kept the area as low-rise, medium-density housing, with a diverse population, exceedingly pedestrian-friendly, all within easy walking distance of the Bloor Street commercial district, and with all those beautiful old trees everywhere.
(Yes, I know driving and videoing is a bad idea. It's illegal now so I don't do it much anymore.)
As my Star-of-David tour of Toronto continues, I enter the free-for-all 0f Kensington Market, where another small store does big business, enough that it's worth it to navigate this famous vehicular nightmare of a funky-chic market. Then it's farther east past Queens Park to the gay village (I think), a hop over the Danforth Viaduct to the Big Carrot, our largest retail outlet anywhere. They sell about twelve boxes of our bread per week. Amazing business success of a worker-owned co-op (one that's acting a little more corporate every year; thats the way the world goes).
After the Carrot, I cut back across the Don Valley via Pottery Road (a charming 19th century pothole sanctuary) and make my way to my last two stops, farther north on Yonge in the early rush-hour traffic that three o'clock brings. After my final drop, at yet another Noah's (my fourth of the day), my mission is to get the hell outta Dodge ahead of the traffic crush. No passengers today; other weeks I enjoy the company of various of my friends' kids, kids' friends, and sometimes my own kids as they catch a free ride to or from Toronto in the shotgun seat. Helps keeps me in touch with the younger generation who have left Lanark County for school or to seek their fortune in the Big Smoke. They keep me awake on the dreary return drive, and can help me load if there's a grain pickup for the bakery enroute.
After the traffic bottlenect on 401 east around Salem, I am clear of the city by 4:30, another three and a half hours and I'll be rolling home. Another fourteen-hour day done, twenty stores, 30-odd boxes of bread, and about four thousand dollars of business done. Sure enough, my employer calls me and instructs me to do a bank deposit, this business runs on cashflow. I'm not complaining.
That's a slice of the life of this delivery guy.