March 26, 2020

How three small food enterprises in Calgary cope with a pandemic

Nimble operations run by UCalgary alumni pivot during these challenging times
Bessie Box
Bessie Box

With COVID-19 news dominating headlines, it’s been tough to see the world as anything but apocalyptic — but the bright side of these dark times has been the outpouring of donations, kindness and acts of generosity.

Just a few days after the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 began to spike in Calgary, Lourdes Juan, MEDes’09, the founder of Calgary Leftovers Foundation (a food redistribution charity) and her squad of volunteers picked up 22,000 pounds of food — and that wasn’t from its usual network of grocery stores and bakeries. It was from 11 restaurants temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. From eateries at the Calgary Zoo and Heritage Park to some of the city’s top restaurants like Model Milk, Cibo, Ten Foot Henry, The Palomino, and others. “So many, in fact,” Juan says, “that food security is manifesting itself in so many different ways during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Not only have 18 new restaurants contributed to Leftovers’ redistribution network, but the charity has also been able to channel food to 12 new social agencies such as Discovery House, Brown Bagging for Kids, Made by Momma, YW Hub and others.

Just as Calgarians rallied around in 2013 during the flood, we are doing it again, says Juan


The Leftovers Foundation packs up another food pickup.

In the past two weeks, the foundation collected 21,000 pounds of food from local restaurants.

Lourdes Juan

Sidewalk Citizen Bakery

Aviv Fried, owner of Sidewalk Citizen Bakery, is back on the line, making loaves of sourdough.

A sourdough fixture in Calgary: Aviv Fried

A different but equally beloved fixture in Calgary’s food scene is Aviv Fried, BSc (Eng)’08, owner of Sidewalk Citizen Bakery which operates the bakery at Sunnyside Natural Market and The Simmons. A third enterprise, a restaurant in Memorial Park, closed temporarily two weeks ago after operating for a short but busy four months.

Although an engineer by profession, Fried launched his bakery business while a grad student in 2009. Aiming to raise $2,500 to build a library in Malawi, Fried started pedalling, quite literally, loaves of sourdough bread on a customized bike.

Not only did Fried and others get that library built, but lucky Calgary also got Fried. Although the engineering grad had lined up a job in Toronto, he scrapped that and decided to stay and bake bread. The last few years Fried has been busy at a desk managing operations as Sidewalk Citizen rapidly expanded, but now he’s back on the line baking their famous round loaves of sourdough and rye.

And he’s been pivoting, evident in how his company is rapidly responding to our community’s evolving needs. In the past three weeks, Sidewalk Citizen has begun packaging family dinners-to-go, making one-litre jars of soups and stews, and has set up a delivery service, allowing customers to order premade meals, bread (of course) and regular provisions that Sunnyside Market carries to many neighbourhoods in Calgary. Delivery is $10 from the Sunnyside location and pick-up is daily from Simmons. They are also donating food on a daily basis to CUPS.

Bakery's famous sourdough.

Bakery's famous sourdough.

Note from a customer: "Thank you for keeping us nourished."

Note from a Bessie Box customer: "Thank you for keeping us nourished."

Bessie Box home deliveries pick up speed 

A newer player on Calgary’s food delivery system is Bessie Box, created a year ago by three UCalgary alumni: Shanika Abeysinghe, BA’16, Alex Leakos, BSc (Eng)’16 and Spencer Kerber, BSc (Eng)’16 (pictured at the top of this article). Working with local farmers, Bessie Box delivers boxes of hormone-free meat and Ocean Wise seafood directly to your door. Since Calgarians began social distancing due to COVID-19, the number of callers and size of orders has been steadily growing, so much so that they’ve recently hired laid-off service-industry workers to help keep up with demand.

“People want to limit the time they’re spending in grocery stores,” says Abeysinghe, “so they are calling companies like ours.

This prompted us to launch a ‘no contact’ delivery option in order to protect our customers and staff.

Besides alerting customers about specific drop-off times, Bessie has also begun to offer its customers complimentary extra packs of ground beef (labelled “Share Me”), “so they can give some food to family and neighbours who may not be able to get to a store right now,” explains Abeysinghe, who has been personally moved by the sweet notes left by customers on their doorsteps.

We never really know how each of us will respond in a crisis or a tragedy until we are truly tested like we are right now, during these unprecedented times of self-isolation and economic contraction. One thing, however, that is spreading even faster is the kindness, generosity and community support demonstrated by these alumni whom we profiled today. We intend to give you frequent breaks from all the critical COVID-19 updates with more of these stories that focus on hope, charity and some of the good news that’s coming out of the pandemic.

Fresh food donated to Leftovers Foundation.

Fresh food donated to Leftovers Foundation.