Food entrepreneurs offer recipes for success

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The idea for a cracker business started to stir in Korey Kealey’s mind following a trip to the doctor.

Korey Kealey is president of enerjive, an Ottawa company that makes gluten-free crackers.

By Mark Brownlee 

A few years ago, when she was diagnosed with food sensitivities, the doctor handed her a recipe that would help her replace wheat in her diet. It was great for making her feel better but, unfortunately, not particularly tasty.

She began experimenting with the recipe and eventually managed to come up with a formula that actually tasted good.

“It just grew from there in between friends and other people spreading the word,” she said.

Today enerjive gluten-free crackers are available at more than 400 stores across Canada, including at Sobeys, Metro and Whole Foods.

Enerjive is just one of dozens of niche products springing up across the city, according to Andrew Craig, the president of local industry group the Ottawa Specialty Food Association.

Yummy Cookies, the Salty Don and Olivia Chocolatiers are just some of the companies that have helped push the number of local producers from roughly five a few years ago to more than 50 today.

But what is the right mix for moving a product from the kitchen to store shelves?

Clean manufacturing

Ms. Kealey said a good deal of what allows her business to succeed comes from her manufacturer.

Because many of her customers are looking to avoid consuming certain ingredients, she said the production process is particularly important.

That means that when it comes time to find a manufacturer, the business owner has to have absolute certainty that it is going to produce the food to its standards.

She advises up-and-coming food businesses to be very rigorous and ask as many questions as possible once it’s no longer possible to produce the product on a small scale.

For example, she was almost ready to sign a deal with a manufacturer in Toronto, but pulled the plug on that when it became clear that it wasn’t going to take seriously the requirement that its equipment be free of contamination from gluten or peanuts.

“You have to figure out how to take a product you’re making at home and … (do) it properly in a facility,” she said. “Being a gluten-free product, there’s risk because any cross-contamination with wheat in any of the ingredients can really make people sick.”

She eventually settled on I Crave Natural Foods, a gluten- and peanut-free bakery based on Industrial Avenue southeast of downtown Ottawa. In addition to giving her certainty that enerjive’s crackers will be manufactured the way she wants them, it also provides packaging on-site.

Ingredients

One of the more volatile expenses for producing enerjive crackers is the cost of the materials going into the product, according to Ms. Kealey.

“You need to know your ingredient costs; you need to have that nailed down,” she said.

As an example, the company is now paying roughly a third more for quinoa – one of the key components of her crackers – because demand for that item has grown in recent years due to its popularity with consumers.

Ms. Kealey said enerjive re-evaluates its ingredient costs quarterly in order to ensure it’s getting the best price.

Freshness

One of enerjive’s main selling points to customers is the wholesomeness of its products. Avoiding the chemicals that go into a lot of other products, however, means that the shelf life of the crackers is significantly diminished.

“The best-case scenario for us would be able to make as much as possible in a month and store it for a couple of months and then ship it out as purchase orders come in,” said Ms. Kealey.

“But because it’s such a clean product with no preservatives, we bake it fresh to each purchase order, so our biggest challenge right now is managing purchase orders and keeping the product as fresh as possible.”

Food products need to stay fresh for at least three months, she said. That’s because products end up in sellers’ warehouses for long periods of time before they eventually hit the shelves in grocery stores.

The company is hoping to combat that by adding a nitrogen flush to its packaging, said Ms. Kealey. She anticipates this will extend the life of the product to eight months without forcing them to add any extra ingredients.

Sidebar: A helping hand for food entrepreneurs

The market for food startups in Ottawa has expanded so quickly that an association has already sprung up to give them a helping hand.

Andrew Craig, who runs his own local food company called Major Craig’s Chutney, started the Ottawa Specialty Food Association two and a half years ago.

Part of the group’s function is to provide advice, he said. Many members may be experts when it comes to whipping together tasty recipes, but know less about the mix of rules and regulations that come with actually selling a product.

That can include anything from getting the labelling on the package right, to complying with rules from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, to where to acquire jars for salsa.

The group also tries to bring strength in numbers to members who, in most cases, support their businesses with full-time jobs.

Mr. Craig’s group negotiated a deal with local legal firm Andrews Robichaud, which gives companies a discounted rate for trademark and incorporation advice.

The association also has a similar deal with an insurance company, he said.

Mr. Craig expects the group to grow alongside what he sees is a rise in demand for its members’ products.

In “the city of Ottawa and even throughout North America, you really see a drive back to clean, healthy food,” he said.

Organizations: Ottawa Specialty Food Association, Sobeys, Metro inc. Whole Foods Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, Toronto Industrial Avenue North America

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