Tamara Shelly of Classic Juice Co.
Running a business

Classic Juice Co. is Empowering Customers to Leave Toxic Habits Behind

In honour of Black History Month we are celebrating amazing BIPOC small business owners that are pillars in their community. We interviewed Tamara and Clifford of Classic Juice Co. so they can share their journey as small business owners. 

Name: Tamara Shelly & Clifford Watson

Location: East Toronto, Ontario

Business: Classic Juice Co.

Describe your business and who you are

Classic Juice Co. makes healthier eating easier with offerings that include a variety of over 48 cold-pressed juices, superfood drinks, nutritious food products and holistic cleanses that boost immune health, digestion and metabolism.

Our offerings and emphasis on personalized nutrition empower you to leave toxic habits behind and kickstart a healthier lifestyle.

Why did you decide to start your own business? How did you get started?

I started Classic Juice Co. for a few reasons. I wanted to share the powerful effects of raw, cold pressed juice and I wanted to create an experience that I couldn’t find while experiencing my own healing journey.

I started as an Incubator in a B Corp Café and the feedback built my confidence and helped me gain insights about what was important to our customers. Shortly afterwards, I began to get invites to Farmer’s Markets and requests for catering.

What is the biggest lesson you learned in the first year?

The biggest lesson we learned in the first year was be diligent with our bookkeeping and analyze our financials to determine the health of our business and strategize for the next steps.

What was the most surprising thing about becoming a business owner?

How flexible you have to be in your approach to business. Sometimes you have to work ON the business; sometimes you have to work IN the business, sometimes you have to work on the product. There’s a lot of dancing.

How does running your own business make you feel?

It’s an ebb and flow of emotions. Some days we feel so confident and our instincts are strong, other days we feel overwhelmed and we are unsure of the direction we should choose. But we are grateful to be pursuing our passion and it gives us a lot of satisfaction. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome or are working to overcome?

As we scale our business and grow our team, we have to improve our processes and streamline things that have become second nature to us. It’s not a straightforward task because we have to consider different learning styles and adjust our communication styles so that people who step into these roles can be successful. There’s a lot of relearning that takes place at this stage and the truth is we just want to be able to focus on things that are more urgent and of a higher priority.

What is your best advice to other small business owners for hiring and retaining staff?  

Skills and experience are great. But the soft skills are what matter the most. Behavioural questions can help you tap into the work ethic and motivation of candidates and determine if they are a right fit for your team and if they will add to the culture of your organization.

Once you find the right fit, it’s important to learn about what inspires your staff so you can help them grow, develop and stay engaged.

Have you faced specific hurdles or adversity as a Black entrepreneur?

Yes. Mainly centered around people's attitudes, most of the time they are passive things that people ‘do’ more than the actually ‘say’. But there have definitely been a number of peculiar questions asked and things said. We once had a customer tell us that when we were building out our brick and mortar that there were concerns that we were running an illegal operation out of the space. Thank God the police weren’t called. 

What challenges do you feel are unique to Black small business owners?

Access to capital is a unique challenge to Black small business owners. So many of us are bootstrapping with a little to no financial literacy or any generational wealth or assets. This makes accessing loans or investment a hurdle and the life cycle of the business suffers. There are also traumatic experiences with money and issues stemming from systemic racism within financial institutions that compound the issue.

How did you overcome those hurdles to build your business?

Adapting the mindset and work ethic of Black Excellence is an attitude you have to embrace in order to not fall into the trap of negative stereotypes, the hurt and disappointment of being judged and to be an example to your community that you can in fact overcome these hurdles and win. 

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The biggest lesson we learned in the first year was to be diligent with our bookkeeping and analyze our financials to determine the health of our business, and strategize for the next steps.

What advice would you give to other Black business owners just starting out?

Work with a financial advisor as early as possible, share your vision and develop a roadmap towards success. They will help guide you on your financial journey. There will be a considerable cost to their service but the bank can give you a low interest loan towards working with an advisor!

Also, Black entrepreneurs should work together whenever possible. You can increase your buying power and share resources that can increase your revenue  when you collaborate with other businesses operating in your industry and market. So if you are a clothing designer, connect with other clothing designers and buy a bulk of white t-shirts for your summer lines, instead of each of you buying your t-shirts separately and paying a higher price individually. 

Do you work with an accounting professional? If yes, how have they helped you?

Yes. They have helped us to understand the fundamentals of Business Finance and better understand how your financials tell the health of your business. 

Where do you get financial and business advice? Do you have a mentor? If yes, how did you meet them?

Financial and business advice has come from other Black Business owners in our family and our community, but we have strengthened our business acumen, through business accelerator programs as well as Black business associations and the mentors that have been introduced to us through those avenues. 

How do you engage with the community?

We engage with community in a number of ways:

  • Classic Juice Co. operates as a circular economy by purchasing rejected, ugly, surplus produce and upcycling the juice pulp and fibrous by product of our manufacturing to Black Farms and Black-led Urban Farming Initiatives that will repurpose the food waste into agricultural compost to help grow more healthy food. Together with our partners we have upcycled over 48, 000 lbs of food waste into compost since 2019!
  • Through our commitment to diverse, fair, equitable hiring practices and job skill training that remove barriers to employment, employing 67% women, 100% BIPOC individuals, 50% youth, 67% of which have learning disabilities and/or struggle with mental health trauma issues. 
  • Our Pay it Forward program supporting 60 BIPOC Youth athletes with healthy food options each year while participating in sports
  • And through partnerships with local, BIPOC, women purveyors and Black Farmers

What is a moment in your small business career where you had to be courageous? What happened?

During the pandemic people relied on us to stay healthy and keep their immune systems strong. We were a new business and we didn’t qualify for any grants/loans.

We had to maneuver strategically to stay safe, operate within the Government guidelines and restrictions and still meet the myriad of needs of our customers. We stayed open during the entire pandemic despite facing a crazy amount of challenges that would’ve made it easy to throw in the towel.

What are your proudest moments?

Our Top 5 proudest moments include:

  1. Being nominated for Best Juice Bar in Toronto in Now Magazine’s Readers Choice Awards within our first year of opening and consecutive years after that (Pre-COVID)
  2. Selling out of our entire stock for the first time!
  3. Being championed by Penny Oleksiak as one of her favourite places to eat and drink in Toronto in her Hidden Gems episode with Taste Toronto.
  4. Maintaining a 5-star Google rating since opening!
  5. Catering for the Toronto Raptors. (They went on a winning streak- just saying)

When you’re having a tough day, who or what inspires you to keep going?

When we have a tough day we think of our parents and the things they have had to sacrifice as immigrants to this country and endure as first-generation Canadians. We also think of our children and what we are modeling for them. And we think of all the people who have invested in us, supported us and are rooting for us.

How do you maintain a work/life balance as a small business owner?

Work/Life balance is truly hard, especially when you love what you do, are driven and enjoy problem solving. Not to mention trying to survive a pandemic.

We’ve closed for 1 day a week for over a year now and it’s been good but we are still working on that and have set goals for the year.

What’s your “power song” and why?

“Lifestyle” – Beenie Man is a sonic reminder of why we work hard. We play it almost every day in our store!

How can people support you?  

People can support us by choosing Classic Juice Co. to cater events, team meetings, team lunches, gift baskets, employee perks etc. Our cold-pressed juices and wraps show you care about the well-being of your associates and it helps everyone stay healthy and perform at their best! And please pay your invoices electronically so we can avoid scrutiny at the bank! 

What are the next big plans you have for your business?

We are 98% ready to launch our e-commerce and delivery and have plans for an outpost location this summer.

To learn more about Classic Juice Co. and support their business, visit their website or check them out on Instagram.

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