Lulu Cohen-Farnell, founder of Real Food for Real Kids is photographed in the kitchen of her Toronto home on April 11 2017. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
is the founder of Real Food for Real Kids (RFRK), a Toronto-based company that prepares and delivers healthy meals and snacks to more than 15,000 kids every day in childcare centres, elementary schools and camps.
I grew up in Paris with grandmothers who cooked all day long. After school, the kitchen was my playground. For me, it’s not a chore to cook – it’s an outlet for creativity, it’s psychotherapy, it’s reflection, it represents many things to me.
Within our family, healthy food and real food was a central thing. My mom was very creative and made everything from scratch. She was a very strong role model for me and told me ‘anything is possible,’ you just have to work hard. It’s a mindset.
I went to business school, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know I was going to be in the food business, but during exams, I would cook for all my friends when we studied together. At 1 a.m., when everyone was hungry, I’d make something out of nothing.
I left home at 18 and lived in different countries early in life. I lived in Italy and worked for the Gillette Group, marketing liquid paper. I lived in London for two years and worked for a restaurant group. I was good at branding and promotion, and I was good with people and relationships.
In 1997, I went to South Africa with a friend. Two weeks into my trip, I met David [Farnell], my husband, at a wine-tasting dinner. He was a 25-year-old guy from Massachusetts, and three days after we met, I moved in with him.
My husband was offered a job in Toronto, and he said, ‘What do you think? Toronto is a great city. It has great summers.’ He didn’t tell me the winters were horrible. I came here in July, 1999. I arrived on a Wednesday, and, by Saturday, I had my first cottage experience.
I think [having my son] was the start of me being an entrepreneur. I was working for a brand-strategy firm in Toronto when my son, Max, was born. After a year of [maternity] leave, I was looking for daycare and I was shocked by the state of the food for children. It didn’t matter how expensive, how great the daycares were, they all had something in common: highly processed food.
I asked my son’s daycare [at the YMCA], ‘Can I bring my food in?’ and they said yes. I always ate really well and my passion for cooking was amplified by having a child, so I was making all these purees and using chia and coconut oil and flaxseed oil. I brought Max’s food every day and it was noticed by the caregivers. One day they asked me if I could help them with snacks. We did a pilot and, after six months, they asked, ‘Can you help us expand this program to 12 more YMCAs?’ I thought, ‘I love this, I’m happy every morning, I’m changing the way these kids are eating.’ It was my calling.
I quit my job and started Real Food for Real Kids in May, 2004. David joined me about a year later. Through word of mouth, other centres heard about us, and they asked, ‘Can you do lunches [too]?’ When we started, we knew nothing about the industry, the regulations. We learned as we went, and we grew very organically.
I’m still learning about being a leader. Working with David, who is my partner in life and who I love, is a challenge in itself. We don’t always agree. But we find solutions together, we compromise. Being a leader is learning how to listen, learning how to make mistakes and remembering always there is a lesson in everything.
Hire people that share the same values. You have to find the right people who will get it, who will do the work the way you would do it. It’s about finding people that are mini-entrepreneurs, in a way. And don’t be afraid of sharing challenges with your staff. We ask everyone for feedback and have a very open policy when it comes to sharing ideas.
You need to accept that change can be good. We’re evolving constantly and we have to be adaptable to our market. Attend conferences and connect with people and nurture the relationships you have with your clients.
David and I could not have done this without each other. We have two children, and [RFRK] is our third kid and it’s probably the most challenging one. We have issues and challenges and we stick to it and we don’t give up. That’s my biggest advice to anyone: never give up.
As told to Shelley White. This interview has been edited and condensed.