Inside Coho Collective’s East Georgia Street location
Even as the commissary company grows, community is at its heart, co-founder insists
It was just three years ago that Amrit Maharaj and Andrew Barnes leased an East Vancouver building with the hope of eventually quitting their day jobs. Maharaj was working for his family’s real estate business, and Barnes was a tech exec who had plied his trade at Electronic Arts.
They were foolish enough to think that their combined backgrounds—plus a mutual love of food and a desire to give back to the community—would prepare them to launch a commissary kitchen that played host to a variety of chefs and food entrepreneurs.
So Maharaj and Barnes got approval from the City of Vancouver in March 2018 to launch a baking-only facility (they wanted to see if the model would work with no grease). The Powell Street operation was approved in June. By the end of the year, it was full.
Since then, it’s been an absolute whirlwind for Maharaj and Barnes. Coho Collective now has three locations (another in East Van and one in North Vancouver) and has grown to 25 employees and 110 members, including local favourites like Kozu Sushi Pizza and French taco outlet Brick’N’Cheese. The pandemic in particular was a boon to the pair’s business model, which lets restaurateurs operate out of Coho’s buildings via takeout and delivery.
But that’s just the start. In March of this year, Coho raised $3 million in an oversubscribed Series A funding round. Maharaj admits that although the company is profitable, it’s also “burning money” as it reinvests the funds back into the business. “It’s all about hiring the right people,” he says. “We’re very proud to have this amazing staff that works with us— quality individuals that we want to make sure are paid well above industry average.”
Coho is set to launch a fourth location in Gibsons this fall, and Maharaj estimates that the company will have five more in B.C. in the next two years, with cities like Victoria and Richmond joining the fray. In two years, he sees Coho having more than 100 employees and locations in Toronto, Montreal and the Prairies.
Expansion is important as competitors (especially those in the U.S., like ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens) eye Canadian markets.
“Canada was kind of a sleepy area where no one was paying attention, and now people are realizing there is a demand here, there is density,” Maharaj says. “Some of the bigger out-of-country players are coming in, so we want to make our push as fast as we can.”
As things stand, Maharaj and his team believe the market will support aggressive expansion. The company has a waiting list some 250 potential clients long. But despite the funding and growth and everything that comes with that, what gets Maharaj out of bed in the morning is the feeling that he and Coho are growing the communities they operate in.
“This business is just so much fun,” he says. “To see companies grow and succeed, sometimes it’s daunting and stressful. But to have even one person come by and thank us for helping them grow, or seeing a company that has a Syrian refugee contingent be able to produce for their families, you don’t need a greater reward than that.”
The latter hits home for Maharaj, who grew up in Richmond but was born in Fiji. “I remember my dad struggling to get a job even though he was highly educated,” he says. “So for us to produce the walls and the marketing or bookkeeping or whatever we can do for immigrants to come in and succeed, it definitely makes every single cent, every sleepless night worth it.”