“I’ve always really believed that the best food is the simplest food, and because of our tendency to overcomplicate things, that tends to be hard for us to do, and hard for us to accept.“
For Shira McDermott, seeking a better understanding of what’s on her plate is simply a no-brainer. It’s one of the influences that inspired the launch of Flourist (formerly Grain), the Canadian dry goods company she co-founded with long-time friend Janna Bishop.
Since 2014, McDermott and Bishop have been sourcing 100-percent traceable legumes, grains and freshly milled flour – all grown by farmers in the Canadian Prairies.
“I felt like we had an opportunity to really bring these things to a position of prominence, and elevate them to what they deserve to be, which is a really important food group,” Bishop says.
Connecting Canadian farmers with their consumers has remained a core value for the co-founders since the beginning. It’s also something Bishop holds a personal connection to – her family background is rooted in farming.
The story goes like this: in the early days before their company was conceived, Bishop brought some chickpeas and lentils for McDermott to try, after a recent visit to her stepfather’s farm in Saskatchewan. The moment she cooked with them, her world was forever changed. A life-long vegetarian, McDermott was undeniably familiar with legumes, yet hadn’t tasted any grown in Canada.
“I still kind of get goose bumps when I think about it because I spent 37 years of my life not being connected to this, and none of us have,” McDermott recalls.
Most of their goods can be found on the shelves of local grocery stores, with the exception of the flour. Milled to order, it’s available exclusively online or at their events. McDermott explains the obvious reasons for this being freshness and quality, but beyond that, she says, is the ‘lost piece of magic’ which the stone-milling process is reclaiming. “You have this really simple, uncomplicated method for processing your food and I think there’s a real romance there.”
While Bishop and McDermott have been offering dried legumes and grains since day one, incorporating the fresh flour element into their business came with a few challenges, as it was a new concept to the city.
“Like any innovators’ space – I think it happened with micro-brewing in the early days – they didn’t really know what to do with us, if what we were doing was safe, there were no precedents,” Bishop recalls. “We spent about two years convincing them we weren’t the enemy, just wanted to add some quality nutrition in the form of freshly milled flour.”
Once business was in full swing, Bishop and McDermott began plotting how they could offer an in-person experience, and offer an opportunity to taste the products. ‘Flour Shop’ seemed like a natural next step. Currently held at Gastown’s DiBeppe restaurant, the ongoing series of events has allowed the Flourist team to connect with their customers on a whole new level.
“We’re celebrating the farmers, we’re celebrating the source, which gives us a superior raw product, and our direct farmer-to-consumer connection. [Flour shop] is really just an in-person activation of everything our brand stands for,” McDermott says.
Since its launch in spring 2017, Flour Shop continues to draw a diverse clientele, from aspiring bread bakers, hospitality industry locals to older people who “knew food before it was bastardized,” says McDermott. Connecting with their customers has been rewarding, but beyond that, they’ve been able to give a much-needed voice to the farmers they work with.
“What we really want to say to the people buying our products is, ‘Hey, actual families grew this great product and let’s do what we can to connect these two pieces,” Bishop says. “If we can take that excitement our consumers are generating and feed it back to those farmers, they are more likely to stay in farming.”
The farmers also have the satisfaction of knowing someone is going to take their product home bake bread with it, adds Bishop. “That’s a gratification that he’s never been able to experience because of companies shipping it overseas. What we really want is to keep farms and agriculture in the hands of families.”