This Toronto couple quit their New York finance jobs and moved back home to start a pasture-raised meat subscription service. Here’s what happened

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This Toronto couple quit their New York finance jobs and moved back home to start a pasture-raised meat subscription service. Here’s what happened

In October 2019, Charlie Iscoe and Laya Bail, originally from Toronto, quit their finance and marketing jobs in New York City. They bought plane tickets for a trip around the world, hoping to be inspired along the way. They made stops in South America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Europe, but didn’t conceive of their new business idea until Covid forced them back to Canada. While living on a farm in Creemore, where Laya’s parents live, they began researching the meat industry, and how they could logistically start a business supplying and delivering sustainable meat. In July 2020, they opened Sunday Farms to family and friends and have been growing through referrals and word of mouth ever since.

Charlie: As a business student at Ivey, getting a job in finance in New York meant everything. So, when I landed my first job at J.P. Morgan in NYC in 2009, I thought I had made it. What I got instead was 100-hour work weeks and a social life that seemed like a distant, sleep-deprived memory. Two years in, the dog-eat-dog world of investing followed, where the hours weren’t much better. Like so many of my Type-A peers, I was living what I later came to learn was the “deferred life plan”: work hard now, enjoy life later.

Laya: I was always drawn to New York. My dad grew up in Brooklyn so I felt connected to the city. After graduating from McGill, I got my chance. I was accepted to a fashion marketing program at Parsons and moved into a questionable apartment in Alphabet City. From there, I worked my way into the world of luxury fashion. At first, my life closely resembled The Devil Wears Prada, and I wasn’t Meryl Streep. But after some time, I progressed from coffee runner to being the person in charge of launching marketing campaigns for exciting global brands.

Laya and Charlie, paying a visit to one of their partners, Riverside Farms in Millbank

 

Every Sunday Farms order comes in a reusable insulated bag like this one

Charlie: Torontonians in New York have a way of finding each other. I met Laya through a mutual friend and, after a year of pursuing her, convinced her to go to dinner with me. We immediately formed a connection over good food. Five years later, I  proposed over some homemade osso buco. We talked about leaving everything behind and travelling the world before the responsibilities of parenthood set in—but those were just fantasies. Towards the end of 2019, I came home and told Laya that I had just finished my last day at work—I quit. At first, she was in shock, but by morning, we had pulled out a giant laminated map and started drawing lines across oceans and continents, figuring out where our journey might take us.

Laya: We prioritized countries known for their cuisine and natural beauty. That’s how a four-day trek through the Peruvian Andes became the first item on our list. There was no better way to disconnect than being off the grid. What I remember most about that trip was the deep respect our local guides had for Mother Earth, who they called Pachamama. When it came time to eat, they explained what made each ingredient so special. Argentina was the next stop, where beef is like a religion. In New Zealand, we grilled grass-fed lamb chops off the back of our camper van, and in Japan we started the day with wild fish caught just hours before. With each stop, it was impossible to miss the incredible work and respect for quality agriculture that went into good food.

Charlie: In March 2020, Covid made its way to Europe, where we were at the time. With borders everywhere rapidly closing, we raced back to New York, which was quickly becoming the epicentre of the pandemic. We quickly loaded everything into a U-Haul and unceremoniously left New York. Holding back tears, I told Laya that I loved her and then drove 11 hours straight to her parents’ farm near Creemore. Our journey around the world was over, and we had no idea what was next.

Riverside Farm’s Nathan Kuepfer, with his three sons. The two older boys already do their fair share of work around the farm

 

Like collecting eggs, for example

Laya: I loved our life in New York and leaving broke my heart. What was worse, we had left to travel in search of answers. Now that our trip was over, we felt no closer to finding them. We decided to ride out Covid on the farm and think about what to do next. After a few weeks of working in the garden and eating off the land, we were dumbfounded to realize the same passionate agriculture that we spent months chasing around the globe was literally in our backyard all along.

Charlie: With no jobs and nothing but time, we started reading about our food system. The more we learned, the more we uncovered the ugly impacts of factory farming, which remain well hidden by misleading words used to sell meat. We also learned that Canada is one of the few developed countries still allowing the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture, despite their known negative impacts to our health. On a more positive note, we started to understand the important role of regenerative agriculture in reversing climate change.

Laya: Luckily, Charlie’s older brother Alex was already a couple steps ahead of us. Alex was a father and, like so many parents, wanted to make sure he was feeding his kids the most nutritious food he could. Unable to easily find nutritious meat, he decided to go straight to the source, visiting many local farms until he found a handful that were raising their animals right. He even had their 100-percent grass-fed beef lab-tested against beef he’d been buying from his local butcher—which further validated his beliefs.

#hog goals

 

Armando the alpaca keeps the sheep in line

Charlie: Through Alex, we found a solution to our problem of sourcing sustainably raised meat. As we reconnected with our Toronto friends, we realized how many of them faced the same problem and wanted in on our solution. That’s when it all started to click. My brother already had great relationships with local farmers, we had interested customers and Laya had a marketing background. Most importantly, we knew our customer because we were our customer. Sitting around Laya’s parents’ kitchen table, Sunday Farms was born.

Laya: Starting a business was new to us. It didn’t help that my parents’ farm is in an internet dead zone. I would not recommend starting an online business using dial-up speeds. On the flipside, one advantage of our living arrangement was our new roommates. My mom is an amazing artist and quickly developed a can-do attitude in response to my lack of digital design skills. After testing out different mediums we landed on paper cut-outs for our website icons and brought in leaves from the garden to use for colour swatches. My dad—who wasn’t even on Instagram—was brought on as resident-chef-slash-head-of-content, and most meals went cold before we were done documenting them. It’s a real family business!

Charlie: As Laya was learning to build a website, I was rushing to bring on more farm partners. My first call was rough, with the farmer telling me there was no money in grass-fed beef and that our business was doomed to fail. Great start! We pressed on, and after a few weeks we’d set up our first round of farm visits. As we passed many horse-drawn carriages in our car, we felt increasingly out of place. But despite being from different worlds, we all spoke the same language and saw each other as partners in a collective mission. The farmers still liked to have their fun with us city slickers, though. One of them asked me to help him gather eggs—easy enough, I thought. Reaching into the coop, I immediately received a sharp peck and, in a panic, pulled my hand out, slicing it on a metal grate. Laya, the farmer and his seven-year-old son burst out laughing—I guess we learned who the real chicken was that day.

Charlie and Laya (and Molly) with a couple of lambs

 

It isn’t all fun and games… but this looks pretty fun

Laya: Charlie wasn’t the only one getting lessons from the local livestock. I learned that chickens have very sharp claws and they don’t like to be held, evidenced by a sizeable hole in one of my shirts. Despite some minor injuries—mostly it was just our pride that suffered—we found our partners, and our first shipment arrived a few weeks later. By that time, I had how-to’d my way to a working website. It was chaotic to say the least, but in just three months, we were live. The site wasn’t perfect but the product was great, and we just needed people to try it. One of the first things we did was set up a referral program, and soon we had second- and third-degree referrals that remain loyal customers.

Charlie: People always say you wear a lot of hats starting a business. This is true, but I’d say it’s more like you wear a lot of gloves. With nobody to delegate to, you’re not just responsible for the company’s vision: you’re also order picker, product sorter, delivery driver and everything in between. The irony is I’m still working 80-hour weeks, but those hours are much more meaningful than any finance job I’ve had. Our work and our passion are now firmly intertwined—good food has connected Laya and I right from our first date—and we’re constantly energized by our growing, loyal customer base. With every positive review or email from a happy customer, we’re reminded there are other people just like us. People who are fed up with our broken food system and looking to live healthier lives by connecting to the food they put on their table.