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Going Global Toronto entrepreneur eyes vast expansion for her business producing ready-made international cuisine meals

Five years after Lisa Sohanpal started her business – and with a couple of false starts already behind her – Nom Noms World Food is finally on the rails and picking up speed. The only problem? It may be moving too fast for her to manage on her own.

Ms. Sohanpal is what you might call a woman of the world – an Aussie of Indian heritage who married a Brit and then moved the family to Canada.

Today, she runs her London-based business remotely from her home in Toronto, where she lives with her husband and three young children.

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That means waking up at 3 a.m. Toronto time every morning to deal with the day-to-day affairs of Nom Noms, which sells ready-meals in supermarkets across the U.K. It may seem like an unusual working life, but Ms. Sohanpal says she’s accustomed to taking executive calls in her pajamas.

Even when she was working in London, as a director of a big medical devices company, Ms. Sohanpal says she was managing employees in 47 countries. So when her husband landed a job in Toronto, the idea of working from abroad didn’t seem like a stretch.

Today, Ms. Sohanpal has parlayed her health-care background into a health-food business. Nom Noms’ packaged meals make a number of claims that separately aren’t all that different from the competition. Combined, though, they offer something entirely new.

Lisa Sohanpal

Nom Noms meals are fully prepared, never frozen and inspired by international cuisine, with no additives or preservatives. The closest thing today would be the kind of food found behind supermarket deli counters, but Nom Noms has taken advantage of modern logistics to get perishable food from the manufacturer to the supermarket with a week to spare.

The idea, says Ms. Sohanpal, is to make life a little easier for busy parents who want their kids to experience a diverse range of cuisines, without compromising on health or spending a fortune. For $5 to $8, depending on portion size, adults and kids alike can enjoy meals with names such as Moroccan Veggie Tagine and Malaysian Chicken Laksa.

The company currently sells its products in thousands of co-op stores across Britain and on British Airways flights,. It’s also embarking on a rapid expansion into the United States and Canada by September, and into France by the end of the year.

Ms. Sohanpal won’t divulge volumes, but she says the company aims to sell US$15-million of product within the next 12 months, and US$60-million the following year.

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Getting Nom Noms off the ground wasn’t easy, though. The company was founded in October, 2013. R&D took more than a year, and then by mid-2014, around the time she was ready to make deals, the company found itself in a chicken-and-egg dilemma. “Our buyers wanted a finished product,” she said, “and manufacturers, producers, they wanted commitment on volume.”

Working with food manufacturers proved particularly frustrating. Ms. Sohanpal says they would agree to anything to secure the contract, and then drop out because they couldn’t handle the volumes or find the right ingredients. Or, worse, they would try to persuade Ms. Sohanpal to compromise on quality to make the food cheaper and easier to manufacture.

A turning point came in August, 2015, when Nom Noms finally test-launched its product in the prestigious Selfridges chain and online supermarket Ocado. Within six weeks, they were sold out.

Since then, the company has grown in fits and starts, but research suggests that Nom Noms will have a tough time cracking the ready meal-category in North America.

According to global market research firm Mintel, consumers in Canada are actually moving away from prepared meals. From 2014 to 2016, annual per-capita consumption in the category fell seven per cent.

Joel Gregoire, associate director of food and drink at Mintel, says Nom Noms could be squeezed out by competitors on either end of the market.

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On the low end, the company will compete with frozen foods, which can make all the same claims regarding health and international flavours, without the concern of perishability.

On the high end, meanwhile, Mr. Gregoire points to the meal-kit phenomenon and a quirky consumer behaviour called the “stirrer effect.”

As Mr. Gregoire explains, consumers actually prefer to be involved in food preparation.

“If you take a meal and you throw it in the microwave and you serve it to your kids, do you really feel like you’re involved in nourishing your children? But if you put something on the stove top and mix it up and add one thing, that makes them involved,” said Mr. Gregoire.

It’s part of the reason that meal kits such as HelloFresh and Chefs Plate – which package chopped-up ingredients and simple cooking instructions – are so popular right now.

That kind of criticism won’t deter Ms. Sohanpal, who says she’s been inundated by requests from grocery chains. The company is in discussions with three more chains in the U.K., two in the United States, and one in Canada.

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She’s also been invited to meet with U.S. retailers Walmart and Target. If even one of those accounts comes through, Ms. Sohanpal says, the company will need to hire another five food manufacturers just to supply the account.

The real problem isn’t so much finding the business; it’s finding partners. Up to now, Nom Noms has been self-financed with the help of four small angel investors, and family and friends. She’s now looking for a strategic partner.

With the right one, Ms. Sohanpal says she’ll be able to fund a C-suite of managers in the U.S. If that doesn’t work, Plan B is to take on a loan from the bank or Export Development Canada, or to rely on invoice financing, where orders are used as collateral.

Of course, the other option is to just go slow – by selling at the farmer’s market or on commission to local grocers – but Ms. Sohanpal says the time to grow is now, while her brand is building momentum and she’s got the attention of heavy hitters.

“If I don’t think big,” she said. “I can’t build a big business.”

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