So often, when we think of Canada’s food scene, we quickly jump to trend-setting restaurants, innovative chefs and dynamic producers growing or raising all sorts of unique ingredients. B.C.-grown wasabi and potatoes plucked from the red soil of Prince Edward Island are just two examples of the delicious things we eat from coast to coast.
It’s rare, though, that we ever stroll down the aisles of a local grocery store appreciating different packaged goods produced in our own country.
A large aspect of the country’s food business that frequently goes unnoticed is consumer products and the people behind them. Starting out in the food world as a chef or baker does not always lead a person to a restaurant, but rather an industrial setting. It’s a career choice that heads into dramatically different territory than a restaurant in terms of finding success, but the values of culinary fundamentals, hard work and business savvy still apply.
Pina Romolo is the co-owner of Piccola Cucina alongside her mother, Anita. The artisanal baked-goods company based in Winnipeg launched in 2009 and offers items such as Italian macaroons, almond tart shells and more.
When she opened her company, Ms. Romolo lived in Calgary. Her mother would make headway in Manitoba by offering samples to retailers, and in Alberta, Ms. Romolo recalls approaching cafés and specialty food shops with small brown boxes wrapped in a bright lime-coloured ribbon. Inside were freshly baked amaretti (Italian almond macaroons), generally to people’s delight.
“Higher Ground Café was one of my very first buyers, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, well this is kind of neat,’” Ms. Romolo says, laughing. “Then, more places came on board in Calgary and Winnipeg. In a couple of years, Piccola Cucina was added to Planet Organic shelves. That was really big. It’s winds like that along the way, big and small, that help to keep our fire going.”
From a humble kitchen space almost 10 years ago to something much more substantial due to demand for her products across Canada, Ms. Romolo does not have as much time to hand out samples door to door. Instead, she looks to consumer-product trade shows such as last month’s SIAL Canada in Montreal.
For anyone remotely interested in the consumer sector of the food world, being at SIAL is like being at a kid in a candy store. More than 1,000 vendors serve samples of anything from Chuck Hughes’s apple cider vinegar to pickled mussels from Newfoundland. Piccola Cucina is just one of those vendors hoping to connect with national and international food distributors or buyers for grocers.
“This is the largest specialty food show in Canada, so I think it’s both important and beneficial to my company that I come here every year,” Ms. Romolo says. “A large part of it [for potential buyers] is seeing if you have staying power, because some product ideas simply come and go.”
Ms. Romolo wants to see her cookies and pie shells available at grocers in the United States and beyond, including parts of Asia, but stay true to her Italian family roots in the process.
“Of course, everybody evolves all the time, but the core of our business is the same and that is to share what we cook with others and to always stay true to making things the same way they were made in our little home.”
Just a few booths down from Piccola Cucina at the trade show was the continually expanding Saskatchewan-based consumer product company Three Farmers.
Launched in 2011 and primarily owned and operated by sisters Elysia and Natasha Vandenhurk, the company found initial success with its camelina oil before branching out to pulse-based snack foods. Their roasted green pea snacks were awarded a gold medal for innovation at SIAL Canada owing to a combination of their manufacturing process, packaging and being a natural option for consumers.
“Our goal has always been to build a portfolio of value-added products from farms in Saskatchewan and to become a trusted household name and brand,” Elysia Vandenhurk says. “We set new and bigger goals each day, each quarter, each year. The business is ever-changing, alongside the industry and alongside our consumer.”
Care Bakery, an industrial gluten-free bakery in Alberta, was launched in 2010 by father-daughter team George and Kerry Bennett. The company’s products have now been brought on by a variety of stores on Vancouver including Western Foods and Village Food Markets.
Ms. Bennett is in talks to have products stocked in several national grocery store chains by the end of 2018. Many restaurants are now serving her gluten-free products and this change to the dining culture is where she sees her true success.
The company’s leaf logo is baked into its pizza crusts and buns, providing reassurance for celiac or gluten-sensitive diners.
“We offer an area of expertise that a restaurant [generally] can’t offer,” Ms. Bennett says. “We provide safety and reliability to their patrons. People have told us we’ve changed the way their families can eat out, and that is a powerful thing.”