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A charismatic chef and a pioneer in the food industry, Yves Potvin created North America's first veggie dog in the 1980's and continues his innovative ways today with Gardein, an award-winning line of healthy and delicious plant-based foods. He is photographed at Hotel Le Germain in Toronto February 28, 2011. (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)
A charismatic chef and a pioneer in the food industry, Yves Potvin created North America's first veggie dog in the 1980's and continues his innovative ways today with Gardein, an award-winning line of healthy and delicious plant-based foods. He is photographed at Hotel Le Germain in Toronto February 28, 2011. (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)

Gardein Protein founder reveals his recipe for success Add to ...

Yves Potvin is waiting in the lobby of a downtown Toronto hotel, seated in the weak spring sunshine, ready to deploy his passion. He is an admitted workaholic. His laptop is open on the table. His appearance has the look of a calculated pitch presentation. There's just the right amount of business vibe in his designer-style glasses, the black pants, the dark, conservative shoes. And there's a hint of creative flair in the choice of an open-neck purple shirt.

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He is a food entrepreneur who has a habit of making daily (sometimes even nightly) lists. Which is obvious in his precise demeanour, his bullet-point answers to questions. Those lists have shaped his career as the Canadian millionaire pioneer of meat-replacement products.

"I have too many ideas. I create a stir," says the founder and president of Gardein Protein.

Take this interview. It has the feel of a calculated, pro-active list.

1. Make sure reporter understands how to pronounce the word Gardein (like protein), a combination of plant proteins, soy, grains and vegetables.

2. Don't forget to mention that since 2008, Gardein was featured three times on Oprah and three times on Ellen DeGeneres's talk show. Casually throw in fact that Kathy Freston, the vegan queen and author of Quantum Wellness and Veganist, is a huge supporter, too.

3. Drop hint that the company's aim is to reach $100-million in sales - which is not too far off. Confirm that the company started in 2003, but suggest that in the past few years, since the Oprah and Ellen endorsements started rolling in, Gardein Protein has been doubling sales. Say things like, "It's the right product at the right time. Shape magazine featured us as best snack. Tony Robbins [life coach guru]has been tweeting about us." Shrug a bit, as if the success seems incredible, even to you.

Growing up in Sherbrooke, Que., the fourth of five children born to a mother who was a housewife and a father who was in charge of the painting department at Bombardier, Mr. Potvin had to eliminate possibilities in order to discover his passion.

1. Forget architecture. He liked it. But his math wasn't good enough.

2. Ditch the childhood-sweetheart girlfriend. She wanted to marry, settle down, have kids. They were both in their early 20s. He wasn't ready.

3. Decide to bike across Canada even though you have never been a cyclist of any note. Camp for six of seven days. Treat yourself to a motel on the seventh day. Spend the 45 days thinking about what to do next. The road is good for silent meditation.

4. Forget having a restaurant. He may have gone to cooking school for two years and successfully run a French nouvelle-cuisine restaurant in Sherbrooke and later worked in a Vancouver establishment, but "it doesn't pay well and you don't have a life. It's a stressful job. There's a lot of alcoholism."

"Life is like a balance sheet. What do I have? And what does the world need?" he says to explain his entrepreneurial calculation. It was the early eighties, and he could see a confluence of consumer trends. He made a list of things that eventually resulted in the creation of Yves Veggie Cuisine, which produced healthy fast food.

1. Working mothers wanted convenient foods. They have no time to cook.

2. Cholesterol was becoming a big concern.

3. Jogging was becoming popular with health-conscious baby boomers, the eldest of whom were turning 40.

4. Develop a little self-help aphorism. "I always say, 'You need the radio to be open, if you want to listen to the music.'"

5. He watched vintage movies, and one classic film, East of Eden, convinced him to take a risk by investing $10,000 of his own money and borrowing $30,000 from friends and family to begin development of the world's first veggie hot dog. In that film, James Dean's character becomes successful by investing in beans just before the U.S. enters the First World War. "The moral of the story was he was in the right time at the right place." For a year, he experimented in the kitchen of a Vancouver restaurant. He tried various materials. He brought in a food scientist from the University of British Columbia. Finally, in 1985, he launched his line of veggie wieners, burgers and deli slices. In 2001, he sold the company for $32-million.

Have a few things to say about the dough.

1. Actually, don't say much. Just smile and acknowledge politely that you hit pay dirt.

2. Mention that his father, who worked hard, always saved his money. He could never bring himself to spend it on himself or an investment. Mr. Potvin Jr. vowed he would never be the same way. He and his wife, Sylvia, a Chinese-Canadian, who is 12 years his junior, live in the tony neighbourhood of Kerrisdale in Vancouver with their two children and have a house in Whistler.

3. Say that he likes a gamble. He recognized that the hot dog and burger business was good but it had become a commodity. Many big players had entered the fray. He had already started to develop Gardein, which he considered the next generation of alternative foods for a growing audience of environmentally, ethically and health-motivated vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians. "It's like being in Vegas. You win and you put all the money back down on the table."

The company sells Gardein in more than 100,000 stores, 90 per cent of which are in the United States. The company also provides Gardein for private-label products in Canada and the U.S. such as Loblaws and Traders Joe and Chipotle, as well as Harvard University's cafeteria.

When asked about his entrepreneurial intuition, which has served him so well, he has only one point to make.

"Maybe I was a prophet in another life."

 

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