Local produce is more likely to conjure up images of farmers’ market bounty than is a lineup of glass jars inside a grocery store. Ontario’s Own is attempting to turn that preconception on its head in order to build its brand, which is all about preparing, preserving and bottling preservative-free, locally grown produce.
Despite using fail-safe recipes formulated by star chef Jamie Kennedy and his former partner Dan Donovan, the two-year-old company has faced an uphill battle since its launch. That’s mostly due to the fact that supply chains in the processed-food world do not easily accommodate small, local or artisan suppliers.
Ontario’s Own had no trouble finding qualified farmers to supply delicious fruits and vegetables for its tomato soup, Bolognese sauce, vegetarian chili and purées. It was tough, however, to find a co-packer that was willing to produce small high-quality batches of the finished product. What’s more, the start-up needed to engage a federally certified packing plant in order to sell to national retailers. After finally tracking down a partner, Ontario’s Own founder Carole-Ann Hayes had to ask the co-packer to add the extra step of washing and chopping the vegetables because it wasn’t accustomed to working with raw whole ingredients.
Then, with food in production and destined for environmentally friendly glass jars—a company signature—Hayes had to persuade retailers to make space for her products on their refrigerated shelves, an unusual request for a soup company. “But it’s much tougher if you’re not on the shelves where consumers expect to find you,” she says.
Store by store, Ontario’s Own is finally gaining ground. Its products are sold in select Loblaws and Metro stores in the Greater Toronto Area; at Rowe Farms, a small retailer specializing in local foods; and in several other independent stores. Sales for the first half of 2011 have exceeded all of 2010 and Hayes is hoping to add more stores this year. As well, she is evaluating cheaper packaging options and pondering the launch of a Canada-wide brand.
Average monthly sales goal: $100,000 Progress toward monthly sales goal: 33% Gross sales per month at the company’s lowest point: $1,500 Company products that are fully traceable from Ontario farm to fork: 98%
1. Trail-blazing is more expensive than you might imagine. “Whatever you think you need in capital, you need a heck of a lot more,” says Hayes. “It’s great to be an early adopter, but it’s tough. We needed more money because the market’s not with us yet. It’s just now turning our way.”
2. Lean on your experts—building a successful food business takes more than a great idea. “You need some great advisers or friends who come from those worlds,” Hayes says. Close contacts with expertise in the food industry, in packaging and dealing with major retailers have been vital to Ontario’s Own’s growth.
3. Look good but taste better. “Make sure whatever is in that jar, people are going to absolutely love,” Hayes says. “There’s no point...if you don’t taste good at the end of the day. We always say we’re what Mom would have made.”