For the past few years, distiller Paul Poutanen has been toiling away at his facility in Okotoks, Alta., focused on making gin. His company, Tippa Inc., has been around since 2018, producing the popular Lovebird Gin – recognizable to many drinkers by its colourful bottle design (by acclaimed Calgary woodcut artist Lisa Brawn).
Last year, Mr. Poutanen launched an offshoot of Tippa called Alchemist Vinegar – a new line of unfiltered, unpasteurized vinegars that was an unexpected result of the pandemic.
“I was one of the first distillers to start making sanitizer [in Alberta] – then the market became saturated with sanitizer, and I was left looking for a new market,” he explains. “Spirit sales had dropped off considerably. I realized that I had to pivot to survive, and that’s where my vinegar journey began.”
Most working in the food or hospitality sectors have found themselves having to pivot during the pandemic, many turning to new takeout options or developing unique products for sale to try to recover some of the income lost during lockdowns or slowed-down sales.
Of the many food-and-drink startups that have emerged recently, Tippa’s small-batch vinegars, which have garnered attention from specialty retailers and were a finalist in this year’s Made in Alberta awards, stand out. And while many restaurants and bars that launched take-home meal and cocktail kits to survive COVID-19 have since dropped them as the industry recovered, some of the ingenuity born of the pandemic has survived, including projects like Alchemist.
“I know a number of distillers who tried to make vinegar and failed. It took me about 3 months of innovation and invention before I came up with one that I liked,” Mr. Poutanen says. “It is very technical to produce a repeatable process to make vinegar.”
From his experimentation emerged more than 20 artisan vinegars that can be used in everything from salad dressings and soups to cocktails. Variations include black garlic, honey-rhubarb and more standard options like apple cider vinegar. Made with a base of Tippa’s own spirits, the handcrafted vinegar offers a depth of flavour that far surpass the standard versions found on grocery-store shelves.
Chefs and restaurant owners are also among those developing new items to expand their dine-in or takeout options for existing clientele and to draw in new customers.
“Chefs who specialize in unusual flavours or particular cuisines are finding that their unique food products help to define them as the trusted sources for consumers who want to offer their family and friends exciting eating experiences around the kitchen table,” says Dana McCauley, chief experience officer for the Canadian Food Innovation Network, a new non-profit that aims to drive innovation in the food sector.
Like Tippa’s Mr. Poutanen, veteran Calgary chef Kaede Hirooka has also been trying his hand at new innovations despite the challenges the pandemic has presented to the hospitality industry.
Best known for his imaginative Japanese pop-up Respect the Technique, Mr. Hirooka was also the opening chef for Banff’s Hello Sunshine earlier this year. He’s since found additional success in the grocery market with his packaged taro-root chips and unique spin on bacon – it’s cured with red miso.
“The reception has gone quite well for those who are open to trying new concepts, but we are especially fortunate for our Respect the Technique fanbase as they continuously order our new products,” Mr. Hirooka says.
Currently available at several local grocers and food shops in Calgary, the ready-made items came about in part from Mr. Hirooka’s desire for a less hectic work week, given the arduous hours restaurant workers spend in the kitchen.
“I think it’s the fact that most chefs want a creative outlet with more of a balance between work and life,” he says. “The pandemic has allowed time for people like me to re-examine their choices.”
He adds that he’s been able to take the time to develop his product line and hopes to take it nationwide eventually.
Fellow Calgary chef Talerngpong (TJ) Charoenpan has been following a similar path. After moving to Canada six years ago from Thailand, Mr. Charoenpan has spent most of his time in the restaurant industry, currently working as the chef de partie at the Calgary Zoo, overseeing banquets and its Grazers restaurant.
In early 2021, he started Gr8t Thai Sauce, his own line of authentic Thai sauces that have been gaining popularity with curious home cooks and Thailand expats alike ever since. While Mr. Charoenpan primarily sells at pop-up markets around Calgary, such as the Inglewood Night Market, most orders come through his website directly.
Using the premade sauces are a good way for those who want to learn how to cook Thai dishes to get started, says Mr. Charoenphan, who plans to also offer takeout Thai meals next year. “I hope I can help everyone make authentic Thai food at home and the end result should have the same taste and flavour” as the food he grew up eating with his family in Thailand, he says.
With restaurant margins lower than ever before, the trend toward chefs and restaurateurs diversifying their businesses is likely to continue well beyond the pandemic, says Ms. McCauley from the Canadian Food Innovation Network. “These tenacious, passionate businesspeople are discovering new ways to use their culinary skills to connect with consumers.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Paul Poutanen's name.
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