Hana James is a co-founder of Toronto-based Greenhouse. She talks about the pivot she made from applying to med school to becoming a juicing renegade, the reason activated charcoal worries her, and why she’d want to invite Beyoncé over for dinner (who wouldn’t?).
Q. Why juice?
Throughout my undergraduate studies my goal was actually to go to medical school. But after graduating, I started working at a health-focused cafe — one of those places that served quinoa before it was cool — and I realized how much I loved interacting with the customers daily, talking about how food healed them and changed their lives for the better.
At the same time, I was writing med school applications and realized that I’d be lying if I had to say I loved research, that my idea of medicine was very different from what it really is in practice.
So I decided to start my own business. Its first iteration was a healthy food and juice (but not cold-pressed) shop which I ran for a couple years. At the same time, my now partners, Anthony and Emma, were working hard, long hours in L.A. and discovered cold pressed juice and fell for how great it made them feel. They asked me if I wanted to bring cold pressed juice to Toronto, and it all fell in place from there…
We opened our doors — the first cold-pressed juice spot in Toronto — on a cold winter day. Our expectation for sales in the dead of the winter were low, but we sold out within an hour. Toronto was ready for it. We knew the city was on a health cusp, but it was more ready than we thought.
"Once you understand the functionality of [cold-pressed juice] it's no longer a fad. It's something you do because you understand the WHY behind it."
Q. Greenhouse and your work life aside, who are you?
I’m loyal, very close to my family and friends. I’m also quite laid back and a lover of life and food and happiness. Above all, I want to be happy in life. In choosing to be an entrepreneur over a doctor I chose to take a bit more risk and be my own person because the end game was to be happy no matter what, and that included having a career that would give me the time to be there for my family and friends.
Q. If you were a Greenhouse juice what flavour would you be?
The Goods — it’s my favourite one! It’s a pure vegetable juice but it’s still light and crisp and kind of tart. It has a very complex flavour profile but it’s still approachable.
How I see myself in The Goods? I have a lot of different layers. I love interacting with people and dissecting them, figuring out what makes them tick. I’m complex in that I’m not one person in every situation — I’m adaptable to many situations and find that enjoyable to navigate.
Q. What’s one recent trend that excites you?
Low sugar functional beverages. In a way, it’s how I use beverages — juices that are high in greens and low in sugar.
At Greenhouse, we call ourselves “recreational juicers” because we never wanted to create products that are inaccessible or in any way exclusive to the health world. We want everyone — regardless of dietary preference or knowledge of health and wellness — to be able to feel comfortable coming into our stores, to feel like there’s a product for them that tastes good and still does something amazing for their body.
I’ve seen a shift in the four years we’ve been in business from people buying products because they’ve heard they’re good for them, to people wanting to know the functionality, what the products are doing for their body.
When we opened Greenhouse, people asked us how we felt about starting something that was a fad. We don’t look at cold pressed juice as a fad. We look at it as something with functionality that you can incorporate into your daily life. And once you understand that functionality it’s no longer a fad. It’s something you do because you understand the WHY behind it.
Q. What’s one recent trend that worries you?
Charcoal being added to food and beverages, because so many people don’t understand its power. It’s definitely an amazing tool for detoxifying and cleansing, but it’s also leaching and can take both good and bad things from the body.
While a lot of companies are using it in small quantities, as a general trend, it worries me because it’s not regulated. We get so many requests to produce a charcoal lemonade. But people can go overboard — they can drink as much as they want in a day and we can’t control that.
People see the words “detoxifying” and “cleansing” and think “how can that be bad for me?”, but they don’t know that there’s a threshold where it does become bad for you. Charcoal can be used for alcohol poisoning, it’s a potent substance. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t get moderation when it comes to health, and that what worries me — not understanding the power that food can have as medicine.
Q. Who is your dream dinner guest?This is a tough one! But right at this moment I’m going to say Beyoncé. I just saw her perform so she’s top of mind. She’s amazing — a strong female role model advocating for women, especially women of colour. She’s also balancing motherhood with her career, and she’s had such an interesting path. Interviews and media are one thing, but I’d love to get to know her.
(Photo from Greenhouse)
Q. Desert island food?
Asian rice noodles with lots of green veg (I actually prefer cooked over raw!) — kale, rapini, collard greens, bok choy, zucchini — and whatever fish I could catch. True island food. I’d be set!
Q. Guilty pleasure?
Deep fried potato products. Definitely poutine. I went to university in Montreal for 4 years and you get hooked!
"In entrepreneurship you have to be innovative and creative and persistent. You have to be passionate about your idea, but not so tied to it that it deters you from change."
Q. What are a couple of your favourite spots in Toronto and why?
Leisure: The Toronto ravine. I live right by the Don Valley trails and try to get there every day with my dog. It’s grounding. It’s “me” time in nature.
I also love going to Brick Works or any farmers’ market — even if I don’t buy anything. The community it builds, the accessibility to local farmers… it’s so special and gives you such a great feeling every time. I love that about Toronto!
Food: Bar Isabel and Bar Raval. I think that Grant Van Gameren is one of the best, most inspiring chefs. I’ve met him and he’s such a cool, open minded guy. He started with the Spanish concept restaurants but he’s so creative and innovative and not boxed into any one thing. Innovation is what he does really well. I always tell people visiting Toronto to go to any of his spots.
Sweat: My favourite workout studios are Lagree, Barry’s Bootcamp and the Roots Yoga Studio. I’ve always loved working out but less so for the physical side of things. It’s huge mentally — I get lost in it, it’s great stress relief. Even after a long, hard week I still fit in a workout because I need it mentally.
Q. If you could have done one thing differently relating to Greenhouse what would it be?
There are definitely a few juices I wouldn’t have released! (laughing)
One in particular was The Ailment. It was a garlic, onion and lemon booster shot and actually made a few people throw up! Mainly staff though — not many people wanted to smell like onion and garlic! I created that one, and because I’d been experimenting with all sorts of ingredients my body was fine, but onion and garlic are so detoxifying and for some people the shot was too intense!
Q. One piece of advice you would give any entrepreneur?
To be persistent. Having a business isn’t easy and sometimes things don’t go well the first few times. A lot of successful entrepreneurs that I’ve talked to say that just because something doesn’t work perfectly the first time, you don’t give up or assume it was a bad idea. You find a way to look at it in a different light. You have to be innovative and creative and persistent.
I think that in entrepreneurship it’s very important to be open to different roads and be persistent in making one of those roads work. You have to be passionate about your idea, but not so tied to it that it deters you from change.
For example, at Greenhouse, we were not totally ready for what came and how quickly we grew — to about 13 stores in 3 years. It was a great thing, but it was hard as we didn’t have the proper infrastructure to support the growth right away and then had to play catch-up. But the ability to be open and willing to do something beyond what we initially expected was a huge asset for us.