Carly Minish-Wytinck, 28, is the founder and president of SmakDab Foods Ltd., a mustard specialty food company in Winnipeg with production facilities in Swan River, Man. Launching four flavours at a farmers market in 2014, SmakDab has expanded to Canadian food retailers.
Are you from a farming family?
No, but I grew up on a farm in Swan River, about a five-hour drive north of Winnipeg, doing typical things country kids do. Some childhood friends were farmers so I’d bottle-feed calves. My grandfather farmed wheat, canola. I have so much respect for farmers and the hours they put in. I was super blessed to have four grandparents, great role models; my other grandfather was a businessman so I had the farming mentality and business side.
Growing up, what career ideas developed?
In school, I played volleyball competitively and did a ton of travelling, an intensive few years. In Grade 12, I faced reality: Volleyball wasn’t a career – I’m 5 foot 5. But I got a sports scholarship, always loved to cook. My family are all great cooks – our lives revolve around food. We’d put dishes together from our garden’s vegetables or cook wild meat my dad hunted, fish from the lake. With the scholarship, I applied to Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institute of Technology culinary school.
You must have been driven …
The first year was one of the hardest of my life because I like to do one thing well and I couldn’t focus: up at 6 a.m. to catch the bus for kitchen classes, then theory. Evenings, I had volleyball, then I’d work out. In second year, I decided to focus on school, get my Red Seal (interprovincial standards for trades). For cooking, it’s a diploma, a number of hours working signed off by your chef, then an exam.
So why and when did you decide to go into business?
The idea sparked during my apprenticeship in Manitoba. Chefs used Dijon and whole-grain mustards in sauces and marinates. It made dishes delicious; many people don’t know its use beyond a burger or hot dog. Our family likes to make gifts anyway, so super broke before Christmas, I made different flavoured mustards. Everyone liked it: “I don’t like mustard but love this.” I wasn’t going to stay in restaurants forever, so I put it on the back-burner. The name came to me so I registered it, not knowing what I’d do with it. After my Red Seal, I took time off. My parents suggested I sell my mustard. I went to a farmers market and mom and I sold around 36 jars which felt like 1,000. We slowly launched into stores. Now there are six year-round flavours and one seasonal. We source Canadian ingredients – 85 per cent – Prairie mustard seeds, Quebec maple syrup, beer from Winnipeg.
From 2015 to 2018, almost $482-million worth in seed was exported. Of that, almost $257-million went to the U.S. and Canadians buy that back processed. Even France’s Maille uses mostly Canadian seeds. Do people know that?
It’s crazy it comes back as [known commercial brands]. We’ve North Americanized mustard and it’s so far from what mustard was meant to be: whole-grain and wholesome. There’s lots of oil [from seeds], so grinding gives it a potency people don’t always love. I mix in beer, honey, horseradish and wine.
With people buying local produce and products, how do you compete?
We’ve been very lucky that stores, even major chains, focus on purchasing local. It goes back to how powerful food is and its impact in gatherings. That, “You’ll never guess I got this from the Co-op, it’s made by …” – that adds so much to an experience. Rarely do people get into farming if they don’t have parents in it, so they feel much more connected.
I have a great magnet: “Organic food is what my grandparents called food.” There’s been a wave of processed foods since the 1960s, but the fact that your family’s garden exists and that 44 per cent of your buyers are 25 to 34 is encouraging.
Yeah, the millennial bracket cares about what they buy and 100-per-cent care about retailers supporting local vendors. Also, young people freakin’ love food. They Instagram food, they want experiences and it makes our lives so much more fun to explain why mustard adds value to them. I’d love to go crazy and make all sorts of things but the process of food manufacturing is challenging.
You got married on National Mustard Day?
The first Saturday in August! Later, my maid of honour texted to ask me if I knew it was that day – I’d no clue. People don’t believe us; it was a big joke. We gave little jars of mustard as favours.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Trust, then verify – I live by that. It moves your business forward. Oh, and self-care. As entrepreneurs, if you’re not working certain hours or making a certain amount, you’re not doing enough. Every business moves at its own pace, so be kind to yourself and give yourself credit. To recharge your batteries, see friends and family, have a good laugh because Netflix isn’t self-care; you’re not going to feel refreshed, you’re just going to feel the same.
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