Birdseed crisps—the original name of the artisan cracker that has gone viral in specialty shops across Canada—was not exactly hunger-inspiring. Even so, Lesley Stowe’s catering clients in Vancouver were gobbling up the nutty but sweet little toasts she had created to pair with cheeses and savoury dips.
When Stowe (who did her chef’s training in France) decided to shutter her successful catering and retail storefront operation to devote her full attention to mass-marketing the crisps, she rechristened them Raincoast Crisps. The name manages to evoke the healthy, Zen-like nature of the West Coast lifestyle without reminding consumers they’re paying a premium for dried fruit and seeds. The decision has paid off. Stowe’s thin-sliced handmade cracker alternatives—which are produced in her bakery outside of Vancouver and come in such flavours as rosemary raisin pecan and salty date and almond—have taken off. Raincoast Crisps have graduated from specialty stores and are now sold on the shelves of large grocery retailers in eight Canadian provinces and in the United States.
Their success has spawned a handful of imitators—a constant incentive for Stowe to stay on her game. “Everyone thinks they can do the same thing, but I have yet to see a product I think is equal to ours.”
B.C.-based staffers producing the crisps: 60 Flavours of Raincoast Crisps: 6 Years Stowe has been in the food business: 20 Provinces in which the crisps are sold: 8 Country on Stowe's radar for growth: United States Of consumers stock some form of cracker: 90 per cent
1. Protect yourself. “With food, you can’t patent your recipes. But you can trademark lots of things: your name, graphics, packaging,” says Stowe. There are a number of things we did do, but some we didn’t and have learned we could have. We created a category within the cracker business that didn’t really exist before; we have something that is unique and has done well, and is now being prolifically imitated.”
2. Don’t compromise on quality. Food companies are under constant pressure to widen margins by cutting costs, and expensive ingredients often come under scrutiny. Stowe’s culinary background makes her a staunch advocate for continuing to buy the highest quality ingredients. “People appreciate quality, and they come back for it,” she says.
3. Ride a good reputation. Stowe credits her 20 years’ worth of catering and specialty food sales in Vancouver for Raincoast Crisps’ “overnight success.” Local market confidence in her talent eased her crisps’ entry into kitchen cupboards; she leveraged her culinary background (which includes authoring three cookbooks) when pushing the product outside of her home province.