The Food-preneurs of Victoria Bring Passion to the Plate

Artisan foodpreneurs on Vancouver Island are gaining success in niche markets.

1566
Jill Van Guyn. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Have you ever had the urge to turn that legendary family recipe into a successful food product?

It’s a popular pursuit here on Vancouver Island. Look around your local farmers’ market or neighbourhood food store and you’ll find foodpreneurs of all kinds cooking up everything from artisan pasta and gourmet crackers to charcuterie, sea salt, ice cream and bean-to-bar chocolate.

And although Island consumers are strong supporters of local food, there are many challenges when taking an idea from passion to plate.

Small but Mighty

Jenny Payne is a successful — and typical — local food entrepreneur. You may have sampled her tasty Jenny Marie’s Crackers at a Victoria farmers’ market or purchased them from a local grocer. But sales/marketing is only one of the hats this busy foodpreneur wears. Behind the scenes, Payne is all hands on deck, personally mixing, rolling, cutting, baking and packaging her crackers every week in a tiny commercial kitchen in Victoria’s Rock Bay.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet

Like Payne, foodpreneurs often begin businesses with a passion for a food product, a family recipe or personal specialty, whipped up in their own kitchens. It may be a value-added idea, inspired by what’s growing on the family farm, or a personal health concern that propels them into making something better. These entrepreneurs often start small, launching products at local farmers’ markets. Some don’t get beyond that, but most dream of getting their products onto grocery store shelves.

Even with a captive and supportive market, there are special hurdles faced by Island food producers, whether it’s lack of affordable production space and staff or limited processing and distribution infrastructure.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, says George Hanson, president of the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance (VIEA). With a mandate to boost economic development in all sectors on the Island, VIEA recently took aim at the food-processing sector, launching a pilot marketing project called Island Good in early 2018.

“We are fully aware that there are production and distribution challenges on the Island,” says Hanson, “but we decided to start on the consumer end rather than the producer end. Growing the market grows the case for fixing those problems.”

Hanson says VIEA partnered with grocers Thrifty Foods, Country Grocer, Quality Foods and 49th Parallel, and Island food companies including Hertel Meats, Portofino Bakery, Paradise Island Foods and Saputo, to identify local food products with a special Island Good logo.

“The Island is well known as a great place to visit but not as a place where things are made,” says Hanson. “We wanted to improve the competitive advantage for Island businesses and raise public awareness of products produced [here].”

After the six-month pilot project ended in September, Hanson says grocers reported a 16-per-cent increase in sales of the local products they promoted with the Island Good logo.

The program, administered by VIEA, is now permanent and open to all food producers, processors and distributors on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. There is an application process and annual licensing fee, scaled to the size of the business, to use the Island Good logo, says Hanson.

The goal is to increase awareness of Island food products — and to increase demand, investment and employment in the sector. “Islanders are predisposed to shop local,” Hanson says, “and Island Good makes it easier for them to find and purchase Island products.”

The Island Incubator

The small and physically confined market on Vancouver Island acts like an incubator for new food products. Consumers flock to local farmers’ markets, butchers and bakeries. There are several small, independent grocers in Victoria — including Peppers, Market on Yates, Red Barn Market, Lifestyles Market and The Root Cellar — which support local food producers of meats, produce, baking and other locally-produced food products.

But as small foodpreneurs know, moving beyond the farmers’ market to the supermarket requires new levels of food safety and production protocols, including working in an approved commercial kitchen.

When Payne’s cracker business grew to include retail customers, she went on the hunt for affordable production space. She bounced between midnight baking marathons in a local café to sharing a kitchen with Singing Bowl Granola foodpreneur Jessica Duncan before finally landing in her own space.

“I’ve been in so many kitchens after hours — this one I can use during the day,” says Payne of the 300-square-foot space tucked behind a dance studio where she now bakes and packages 360 boxes of crackers each week.

Her sales continue to grow by about 25 per cent each year —with Jenny Marie’s Crackers now sold at Peppers, Whole Foods and some small retail shops — but getting into larger supermarkets has been “extremely challenging,” she says. It would also require scaling up into a bigger bakery and losing control of distribution.

Jenny Payne. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

“That’s my hesitation: I might have to increase production tenfold and move to a bigger facility,” she says. “[Right now] I bake to order and I am very proud of my product — my worst fear is seeing my crackers sitting in a warehouse and going stale.”

It’s been a similar challenge for Matt Horn of Cowichan Pasta Company. The chef-turned-entrepreneur now shares a commercial production space with a caterer and kombucha maker in Duncan but says renting kitchen and storage space is “a huge problem for smaller producers.”

Horn makes his healthy, whole-grain Emmer, Spelt, Khorasan and Red Fife pasta with stone-ground semolina milled by Island-based True Grain Bread. It’s sold by grocers and served in restaurants across the Island and the Lower Mainland. His products are unique, but competition in the pasta category is stiff.

“There’s definitely a following, and more people looking for unique local products, but the retail space is a very difficult space to get into,” he says. “We’ve doubled or tripled our retail sales every year, but the product is handmade, organic and double the price of conventional pasta, and that’s a very hard barrier to break.”

Geoff Pinch of Four Quarters Meats has sidestepped that problem by focusing his energy on wholesaling his smoked sausages, bacon and other artisan charcuterie to chefs, restaurants and specialty retailers. After five years, Pinch is at capacity in his production facility in Sidney, and has recently found a distributor to take his product farther afield.

“We’ve just broken into the mainland market with Legends Haul, a new Vancouver company that is selling a variety of products that are made at a local, artisanal, craft level,” Pinch says, noting Cowichan Pasta and Tree Island Yogurt are also distributed by Legends Haul.

“There are now enough of us little producers to make this kind of distribution company viable.”

Selling Farther Afield

Though launching a food product here at home can help foodpreneurs get off the ground, getting off the Island is important, too, for those who want to grow.

“The advantage to launching a product in Victoria and Vancouver Island is that this region has a very educated base of food consumers,” says Taylor Kennedy, entrepreneur behind the award-winning, bean-to-bar Sirene Chocolate. “You have very savvy customers and get good support very quickly. In other cities, that’s not the case. But the population is small [here], so there’s no room for error.”

Kennedy sources cocoa beans direct from growers in Guatemala, Tanzania, Ecuador and Peru. He makes his chocolate from scratch, roasting and grinding beans, then moulding and packaging the bars by hand in his home-based Victoria studio. His slim Sirene bars command high prices but are among the best in the world. His Tingo Maria Peruvian bar was named the best dark bar out of more than 1,000 North American bean-to-bar products at the 2017 International Chocolate Awards in New York.

Kennedy says his business is now growing by 30 to 40 per cent each year. Sixty per cent of his sales are in B.C., but the bars are also in shops in seven countries, in world-class cities like London, Paris, San Francisco and New York. He’s also selling some chocolate in bulk to local chefs and chocolatiers.

“Selling abroad has been very tactical,” he says. “People don’t always take you seriously locally until other people take you seriously.”

He has considered expanding to a larger retail space and retail storefront in Victoria but says the price of real estate is prohibitive.

“People who are struggling aren’t paying attention to the business side,” he says. “Food is a very difficult business — you need to look at the spreadsheets, know the exact costs, the taxes. It all needs to be done ahead of time. It can be quite boring, but you can’t do the fun stuff before you do the work.”

Do the Hustle

Hustle and chutzpah can take a small entrepreneur far, but cash is key. Several Island food entrepreneurs have been seeking new investors this year, whether by crowdsourcing funds on platforms like Kickstarter or appearing on CBC’s Dragons’ Den.

Jill Van Gyn is one of the latest locals to appear on The Den, pitching her “superfat” Fatso Peanut Butter, enhanced with coconut, MCT and avocado oils, flax and chia seeds, and prebiotic tapioca fibre.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Van Gyn bought the failing local company for $15,000 in 2016 and turned it around. She reformulated the nut butter, found a Canadian co-packer to produce it and re-launched with bold new packaging, raising the Fatso’s value to more than $2 million in less than two years.

Van Gyn ultimately turned down the Dragons’ Den deal, but TV exposure has brought new retailers and investors. Fatso is now sold by more than 300 retailers across Canada and to international customers from Van Gyn’s online shop which, along with warehousing, sales and marketing, is based in Victoria.

 

“Vancouver Island has an amazing reputation for entrepreneurial endeavours and for product development,” says Van Gyn. “I think that living on an island comes with its challenges, and as islanders, we really rise to that and take on those challenges.”

The word “hustle” is part of Lori Joyce’s vocabulary too. She knows too well how hard it can be compete in major grocery chains. She launched her premium Betterwith Ice Cream in Vancouver two years ago and has since moved back to her family’s farm in Saanich to market the brand. After a high-profile run developing the Cupcakes bakery chain, Joyce wanted to produce premium ice cream, made with “traceable” milk from an ethical source. It took over two years for her to work out the logistics of obtaining local milk to make her high-fat ice cream base. She then contracted with Avalon Dairy to co-pack her product and launched a line of six flavours in B.C. grocery stores, including Whole Foods, Thrifty Foods, Choices, Nestor’s, Safeway and IGA.

While she’s gained wide publicity and endorsements from top Vancouver chefs, Joyce says it’s difficult for a small player in the premium ice cream category.

Lori Joyce. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

“A lot of small business people don’t go into it understanding what you have to give up to go big,” she says. “I’m competitive — I one hundred per cent wanted to go head-to-head with Häagen Dazs in the category.”

Joyce did $1 million in sales in her first year, but her projected growth has not yet materialized, and sales have begun to dip.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

“I naively thought I could make the best ice cream and that would be good enough,” she says. The cost of prime supermarket shelf space is just one issue facing small startups, but she’s counting on financial and marketing support from a new U.S. partner to expand this year. “I’m not a quitter, but it’s difficult. I want to create the world’s best ice cream, no compromises,” says Joyce. ”You can’t give up.”

If You Build It

The Very Good Butchers are facing the opposite conundrum, struggling to meet the huge demand for their vegan meat alternatives.

“We have scaled up, but we’re maxed out,” says co-owner Mitchell Scott. “We are working 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days, and we have a waiting list of more than 100 restaurant and grocery customers that want our product.”

It’s been a whirlwind of rapid growth since chef James Davison first opened a storefront in the Victoria Public Market in 2017. On opening day, 1,000 customers lined up at The Very Good Butchers for his bean-based burgers, sausages and pulled “pork” sandwiches. He had to close for a week to restock.

A year later, Davison and Scott closed the original Denman Island production facility and, with $64,000 raised in a Kickstarter campaign, expanded into a larger restaurant and production kitchen in Victoria Public Market.

While the restaurant and retail will remain at the market, in January, the company moved production just down the road to a 4,000-square-foot space complete with new equipment to stuff their vegan sausages and press their burgers. It will increase output five to tenfold, says Scott.

Sales in the first year reached $850,000 and topped $1.1 million in 2018. Though the pair pitched the Dragons’ Den in 2018 and sealed a deal with two dragons on air, they eventually walked away from the offer. They’ve since raised nearly $600,000 in a FrontFundr campaign, with the next goal to open a retail butcher shop in Vancouver.

Community Support Needed

There are food technology centres across the Canada which support food processors. B.C. is the only province without such a food tech hub, but it is coming.

In its 2018 budget, the provincial government announced it will support development of a new Food Hub Network at the University of British Columbia (UBC), with regional hubs, to provide research, development, processing and equipment resources for food processors.

The BC Food Processors Association (BCFPA) and the Island-based Small Scale Food Processors Association (SSFPA) also announced a digital tool this year, BC Food Connection (bcfoodconnection.ca), designed to connect food producers with co-packers, commercial kitchens and other services.

“Similar initiatives have been successfully launched in the Ontario and Manitoba food processing sectors, so we are optimistic that we are on the right track,” says SSFPA executive director Candice Appleby. “Having a food innovation centre would really help food producers with that scaling-up piece of the puzzle,” she adds.

It all feeds into the growing consumer demand for healthy, artisan food products that support the local economy and encourages more foodpreneurs.

So bake up a batch of your family’s famous cinnamon buns, test the market and join the Island’s seasoned foodpreneurs — it just might be a recipe for success.

This article is from the February/March 2019 issue of Douglas.