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Jennifer Carlson is founder and president of Baby Gourmet Foods Inc. of Calgary. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Jennifer Carlson is founder and president of Baby Gourmet Foods Inc. of Calgary. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

TURNING POINT

To go big, she had to close her company Add to ...

Jennifer Carlson made her first foray into her neighbourhood grocery store’s baby food aisle when her daughter was six months old. She had expected to walk out with a cart full of jars, but instead she was shocked to see nothing but mush.

The one can of green beans she bought was “brown, had water floating on top and smelled canned,” she says. “I disliked everything about it.”

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What she wanted was something organic and tasty. If that wasn’t available, she thought, then she would make it herself. That afternoon she pureed some broccoli and fed it to her daughter. Less than two months later she had developed 12 baby food recipes, all of which were healthy and, she says, delicious.

Ms. Carlson, the Calgary-based founder of Baby Gourmet Foods Inc., knew she might be onto something. In 2006, four months after that fateful visit to the store, she began selling baby food at her local farmer’s market. It was an immediate hit.

Sales grew and soon baby food became her full-time job. Two years later she was bringing in $30,000 in sales a week and still selling her food only on weekends and only at one farmer’s market.

She considered selling her products in stores across the country, but there was one problem: She didn’t know the first thing about the grocery industry. “How do you take a product from the farmer’s market to a grocery store?” she says. “There’s a huge learning curve there.”

She had no connections in the industry. She would also have to create organic food that could be stored for long periods and make the food in a more controlled environment than her own kitchen.

To do all this, she needed time to research everything from sales to production, but she was so busy with her business that she couldn’t spare a second to work on it. She had to make a difficult decision. Should she close down her farmer’s market operation to work on bringing her food to stores, or keep going as is and somehow find time to build the company?

She was leaning toward the former, but when she asked friends, customers and potential investors what she should do, they said she would be nuts to shut down. “A lot of people advised against it,” she says. “They said people would forget about the brand and investors wouldn’t be interested in a company that wasn’t generating revenue.”

It was a tough call, she says. She knew she would have to invest her own money to expand her company and while she could have returned to the farmer’s market, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to.

However, she also understood her target market – she interacted with parents every weekend – and was sure that people wanted a product like hers.

So, in 2008, she chose to close up shop. She set up meetings with grocery industry professionals and associations. She learned the best ways to package foods and gathered as much information as she could about the food business.

While she mostly felt like she was on the right track, there were times she wondered if she may have made a mistake.

In April of 2009, she purchased a $150,000 machine from China that would help her package her food. The machine that arrived, though, wasn’t what she ordered and she couldn’t send it back. “It was such a huge blow,” she says. “I was duped.” That was the first time she second-guessed herself.

However, instead of quitting, she went to a tattoo parlour, got the word “believe” etched into her skin and soldiered on. “I got the tattoo to remind myself to keep going,” she says. “I still look at it a lot.”

It took more than two years, but in February of 2011, when her baby food appeared on Wal-Mart shelves, she finally proved her naysayers wrong. Today, she has 33 products in more than 200 stores across the country. She always knew she made the right decision, but it wasn’t until she walked the Wal-Mart baby aisle that it sunk in.

“I didn’t feel like I had succeeded until I saw it on the shelves and saw that people were buying it,” she says.

Looking back, she admits that she likely never would have gotten this far if she hadn’t taken time off. She also knows that not everyone can close their company to expand it, but she says that if you know your target market, have an innovative product and a little bit of savings, taking a break can be a good idea.

“Say to yourself, ‘Do you believe in the opportunity and can you afford to quit?’” she says. “If the answer is yes then it can very well be worth the risk.”

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