Company: Summer Fresh Salads Inc.
Founder and president: Susan Niczowski
What does it take to go from zero to about $100 million in annual sales? Roasted Garlic Hummus, Brown Rice Edamame and Peri Peri Red Pepper feta cheese spread – to name a few of the ready-to-go salads, dips and appetizers made by Summer Fresh. Ms. Niczowski’s passion for the business and a non-stop, 16 hours a day, seven days a week work ethic didn’t hurt.
“We laugh about those early crazy hours and crazy times,” says the 48 year old, who founded the family run company with her mother 21 years ago. “But it was all fun. When you’d get up in the morning, it felt like playing.”
Armed with a BSc in chemistry from the University of Toronto, some experience as a microbiologist for Maple Leaf Foods, and a $100,000 RBC loan that had to be co-signed by her mother after her father turned her down, Ms. Niczowski began with 20 recipes created in her parents’ kitchen. From there, it’s been a rewarding – if somewhat hectic – road.
“You just keep chipping away,” says Ms. Niczowski, who was savvy enough back in 1991 to recognize a gap in the market for fresh gourmet salads in supermarkets. “I never thought about making that first million. I just wanted to create great products for the everyday average consumer that were available at retail level.”
Now with about 300 employees and two food processing facilities in Woodbridge, Ont., totaling 143,000 square feet, the company grew 12 per cent last year and it expects double-digit growth again in 2012.
Q: Why salads?
A: I’ve always enjoyed cooking and creating with vegetables and fruit. My father tells a story about me picking green tomatoes from our garden when I was four years old and then barbecuing them. I always had some sort of concoction going on. I love creating and tasting food.
Through the years we’ve added on to those first recipes. We have a research and development team so we’re always brainstorming and putting things together.
Q: Why did you need a co-signer to get initial financing?
A: I was young and naive. When the account manager at the bank asked how much collateral I had, I said: ‘Collateral? I don’t have any collateral.’ Everything I’d made up to that time went to shoes, purses and jewellery. I went to my mum and dad thinking my parents would say ‘no problem,’ but my dad said ‘no.’
He told me later it killed him to say no but he didn’t want me to think everything was going to be handed to me on a silver spoon. He wanted me to look elsewhere and to teach me a lesson about saving for a rainy day. But I did get the loan because I was able to convince my mother of this great business venture and to co-sign for me. My parents have always been very supportive of my sister and me since we were born and backed us up in everything we did.
Q: What was the first roadblock when you started?
A: Finding great team members to add on as we grew. Making products and keeping up with volume would be another. You really want to develop a great infrastructure so that products are made today as they will be next week and as they were last week. Quality and consistency is extremely important to me. I believe that stems from the bottom right up to the top.
I tell my people, if you wake up and say, ‘Aw, I’ve got to go to Summer Fresh,’ then do me a favour and don’t walk through those doors. I want people to be passionate about the job that they do because you can feel it in the end product – whether it’s a sales call, a developer making a product or somebody on the packing line. Everything should be done with passion.
Q: What family members are involved in the business?