s h i r a  m c d e r m o t t  a n d  j a n n a  b i s h o p - g r a i n

The FaceTime interview with Shira and Janna took place when we were both sitting on our respective back porches drinking tea.  They happened to be wearing matching outfits (not planned, but supposedly very typical).  They're a thoughtful, slightly sarcastic, and creative duo that are bringing transparency to dry goods.  They've managed to make wheat berries sexy. If that isn't enough of an impression, they put the most heart you can imagine into their product and their 'back to basics' approach is captivating their city in a way that is refreshing and long overdue. 

Eat Grain Happenstance

How is your day going so far?

S: It’s been good!  

J: Well, I work two jobs. I work full time as a designer at an outdoor brand here. My second job is here, with Grain. I spend 7:30am to 3:30pm at my full time job and then I switch into Grain mode!

S: And there’s no overlap ;)

J: None!

S: Texting is our friend but there’s “no overlap” during the day (laughs). We’re really lucky that way. I’m more of a freelancer so I tend to spend quite a bit of time on the company but I tend to keep a lot of other projects going just because I am more free with my schedule. A typical day for me is driving around, phone calls, emails. I’m pretty fortunate that I can do that work from wherever.

What sparked your thought for Grain - how did this whole concept come into fruition?

S: I always ask Janna to start this one because it really begins with her.

J: Well my family has a farm in Saskatchewan where they grow lentils and chickpeas and a few other things and I used to bring those things to Shira and all of my friends on the west coast whenever I visited. This was always a thing. I found that dry good quality was poor in the grocery stores and there was no transparency - I couldn’t even find out if it was Canadian or not. There’s no way to tell where these goods come from, who grew them, when they were harvested, or anything like that. I don’t have any expertise in the food industry at all. I come from an apparel design background. So I was just dreaming.

Shira and I became closer and she had all kinds of experience and contacts in the food industry and I approached her about it one night over drinks and it seemed total accident - not planned at all ;) It had always just been something I dreamed of but she liked it and she’s a bit of a go-getter so within a month we were working on a business plan. 

S: We were both in the same boat in that I spent my whole life working in the food business and it was something I knew I always wanted to do. We realized over the course of our friendship that we share the same values when it comes to food. Janna’s search for transparency and high quality so pertained to what I do every day of my life. When we realized we were on the same page, it happened really fast.

Eat Grain Vancouver

You guys have such different backgrounds coming into this. How would you say your previous knowledge influenced how you’ve shaped this company?

J: My background in design has been really helpful from a practical point of view. Like, being able to work on our logo and elements of our website and photography tied in nicely. It’s something we couldn’t have lived without for speed’s sake.

S: It’s nice not having to bug a graphic designer all the time. 

J: It’s a lot of farm knowledge and contacts that my family provides as well and that’s been helpful too. Shira’s food background has been indispensable as well.

S: I spent quite a few years in the coffee industry.  I started that in 2007 when Vancouver’s coffee scene was reaching this pretty cool point of maturity. I’ve been able to take a lot of practical knowledge from how specialty coffee companies build their businesses and educate people. They’ve provided total transparency.  

So how did you two meet?

J: We have mutual friends, mostly through my job!

In terms of running the business, are there certain hats that each of you wear?

J: We collaborate a lot. The only thing that Shira does that I don’t do is one-on-one calling customers. Other than that, we’re basically each on every single email. 

S: I feel really lucky that creatively, we don’t see things all differently. We even wear the same clothes (in our FaceTime interview, they looked down and were both wearing white button downs with jeans). It’s great to be on the same page about everything because it makes for a totally collaborative environment. We pretty much hash every thing out together. We share the load completely but we respect the value that each other has to offer. There’s a lot to be gained from including everyone.

Where do you see Grain going?

J: We have some really ambitious goals - none that I’m really wanting to publish at this point (laughs). We want to get into more people’s homes, we want to be on more people’s plates, and we want transparency in this industry to be on the tops of people’s minds. It should be something that people expect. And not just foodies - just everyday people. In terms of our business, we have an amazing flour mill that we brought in from Austria so we can expand our grain assortment into flours as soon as we can jump through some hoops with the city.  We want to expand our product line and also find more farmers.

S: I’d love to see us get into some more niche stuff. We work with some incredible chefs in this city. That’s what I love most about all of this. The chefs who are cooking with it and serving it in their restaurants have a lot of heart. Long term, one of the biggest goals in the company is to create more consumer demand for these products. This lets more small farmers be able to keep farming and it creates a viable and attractive career path for more young people.

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How do you start that conversation?

J: You have to put it in a really pretty package. Millennials are the most important consumers and they’re not really willing to sacrifice anything. I think the next wave of our customers will be a lot more concerned with these things. Authenticity is key. And you just have to keep saying the same things over and over again. Make people excited about it and keep banging the drum. I also think it’s important to engage with people who have a wider reach than us to try to expand our influence. We want to make it cool and fun and interesting for people to get on board with. There a lot of other brands to look to - Everlane comes to mind - when it comes to transparency in sourcing policies. I don’t think that people will get tired from hearing about transparency. Knowledge is power.  

S: I don’t know how else to do it other than to do it in ways that feel right for us. Janna said it perfectly.

What has been the happiest accident that you’ve encountered in this whole process?

S: Like “Oops” moments?

Yeah, but a good oops!

J: WHEAT BERRIES! My father grows wheatberries which is just red spring wheat. It’s Canada’s staple crop and it’s quite world famous, actually, for being a really high quality to bake bread with. We brought in wheat as a small amount of inventory with the intention of using it with our flour mill. We weren’t expecting a lot with it because the mill wasn’t up and running yet but then we decided to throw it onto our price list (this happened during a phone conversation while I was at the grocery store). The price we came up with wasn’t totally profitable, but it’s been a great seller for us! 

S: Yes, people are loving the wheat berries! It kind of fed into our goal of educating people about whole grains. We help train consumers and chefs about ways to prepare them and it’s been such a surprise! They’re a top item.  They’re so nutritious when it comes to protein and fiber too - more than quinoa. So they’re great for plant-based vegetarians. 

How would you describe the food scene in Vancouver?

S: It’s thriving! I traveled with my family to New York this summer and we got to meet with a fellow restaurant friend who was also visiting. We were amazed because we were in this city whose restaurants you read about all the time in magazines and on blogs and it made us realize that for the size of the city that we live in in Vancouver, the quality of the food we have is actually so high. We forget how lucky we are to live here. The most enjoyable part of my days is interacting with all the people who are as excited about the industry we’re in as we are. By and large, those are the chefs.

J: I was reading a blog today that was a city guide to Vancouver. They listed a bunch of places that were food/coffee/microbrew focus. It was funny because in the comments, people were saying that this was a great overview of the food scene, but there are so many other scenes within that. There’s the innovative and upscale scene, the microbrew scene and the well-done casual food. And there’s an Asian/SE Asian/dim sum/sushi/noodle scene that is also really amazing. There’s no excuse to eat bad food in this city.

Do you have a favorite restaurant to go to?

S: There are so many good ones. My family eats a lot at Nook, but Cafe Medina is amazing for brunch.  It’s really hard to narrow down the best ones.

J: Everyone has their neighborhood sushi place. I also really like Heirloom.  

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Do you have any rituals that you stick to daily?

S: Haha, coffee. Always.

J: She’s a hardcore addict.

S: The first time Janna and I traveled together, she couldn’t believe my intake.

J: We’re both really active. We’re going to TRX class together now - our mantra is “lean and strong”!

S: We want the lines in places no one else has.That’s all we think about when we have to get up and be there at six in the morning!

J: Lean. And Strong. Lean. And Strong. We both love to cook as well and I don’t blog about it but Shira does.

S: I have to get outdoor time - even amongst the busy schedule of work and family and everything. It’s way more for mental energy than anything. And foot massages.

J: Yes! Personal care - reflexology. 

S: I have a very affordable reflexology place down the street and I make it a point to go at least once a month. It’s easy when you work for yourself or when you do multiple jobs to martyr yourself into thinking you can work crazy hours all the time.  We realized part way through this summer that Grain isn’t something we’re going to kill ourselves for. We have to take time to make sure we ourselves are ok and healthy. You cannot neglect personal time, personal care, haircuts, manicures, all those things!

Who inspires you?

S: I’m going to be really, really corny but I only surround myself by inspiring people. My husband is ten years older than me and he’s been a big mentor for me in my life. Janna has a lot of those qualities too that I don’t have. 

J: I never look to just one person or one project. I look to the scene in San Francisco a lot and all the people who are working in various food scenes there. It keeps us engaged and motivated.  I think it comes down to every day, we surround ourselves with people who push us. It’s funny because the entrepreneur scene in our city isn’t competitive, it’s collaborative. Everyone wants to know each other.