After 20 years in a high-pressure corporate job in Toronto, Seema Pabari found a new career one morning while packing her son's school lunch. As she filled the traditional metal "tiffin," Ms. Pabari realized her Indian heritage could provide the business idea she was seeking.
Ms. Pabari founded Tiffinday, a lunchtime-only meal delivery service, in June and now starts her day at the crack of dawn, working with two chefs to offer "tiffin-box" vegan Indian meals to Toronto office workers. "My typical customer, which blew me away, is the young, white male working in IT, law and finance," Ms. Pabari said. "They just want good, healthy food delivered to them."
While it speaks to the growing diversity of Canadian tastes, Tiffinday is also an example of an opportunity for entrepreneurs – businesses inspired by foreign traditions, products or services that could flourish if adapted and launched here.
"There is a long history of products that had zero presence in Canada that have taken off this way," said Brian Mitchell, the executive director of Trade Facilitation Office Canada (TFOC). For instance, he said, "the mango is now almost mundane, but there were none available here in the 1970s … we don't even think of them as exotic now.
The trade office, an Ottawa-based non-profit set up by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in 1980, helps importers from developing-world countries establish their business ideas in Canada.
"What we see the most often are things that are initially brought in for specific diaspora communities, ethnic communities, and some [of these] things go mainstream," Mr. Mitchell said. Foodstuffs and agricultural products, for instance, account for roughly 60 per cent of the TFOC's work.
There are other examples of business ideas that take off when adapted to North American or Canadian conditions, said Dr. Darren Dahl, a professor of marketing at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. One of the most famous is the coffee chain Starbucks.
"It's from the idea of 'a third place' – not home, not work – which comes from Europe. Starbucks is a bastardized version of that idea, but this is where it came from," Dr. Dahl said.
"It did not exist in North America in the '70s and '80s; [back then the norm] was Maxwell House instant coffee. The individuals who started Starbucks travelled and realized here was something they could really import to a North American context."
Ironically, after the Starbucks model was grounded in North America, it was shipped back to Europe, where it has also been a success, he said.
Lorraine McLachlan, the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Franchise Association, said franchising has been one way for local concepts to spread globally.
Two members of the association that have accomplished this are the private tutoring company Kumon, which originally hailed from Japan, and De Dutch Pannekoek House restaurants, from the Netherlands.
"Most franchises are modified to fit the cultural context. Canada is so multicultural it is attractive to people wanting to bring in new ideas because it is so receptive to them," Ms. McLachlan said.
Retailers often play an important part in the adoption of foreign ideas and products, Mr. Mitchell said. "So much of this is retailer driven. They can be the most innovative, though this can come about by being defensive, by feeling the need to 'catch up' with other parts of the world, particularly Europe or the U.S.," he said.
Ms. Pabari's inspiration for Tiffinday was rooted in Mumbai, where the tiffin tradition is a mainstay of that city's busy office culture. The service is known for its affordability, reusable packaging, and the dabbawalahs who deliver the meals and retrieve the tiffin boxes afterward.
"I'm a vegetarian and I found food courts to be a problem, so I used to bring my lunches to work in a tiffin, too. I grew up with them," Ms. Pabari said.
She had left her former job in 2008 because it "wasn't conducive to my being a single mom … I wanted to start something that I knew I would love doing. I realized this was it," she said.
"I always loved feeding people," she said, "but the main thing with my food was my desire to have a company that was also environmentally sustainable. When I say it is vegan, some people shy away from it, but when I say it is Indian, they like it. Nobody notices, they are concentrating on the flavour."
The company needed to sell 100 meals a day to make it viable, and Ms. Pabari said she was well within this target, with most customers based in Toronto's financial district.
"I would be happy to get to 1,000 customers but we've started this with minimal advertising. It's so low tech and we've been growing by word of mouth, so it's been great," she said.
Dr. Dahl said Tiffinday's environmentally friendly system of service and delivery would be as compelling for customers as its menu.
"There is some value with respect to it coming from a different place. That has cachet that will pique people's interest," he said. "But it's also more than that. It would make people pay attention for a few moments, but unless it does something that meets your needs, you won't buy into it for long."
The North American palate is more diverse today than ever, said Dr. Dahl, which helps companies like Ms. Pabari's. "[Tiffinday]is going to hit a number of sweet spots. It's not surprising that it's taken off; you can import the concept that works over in India and because there are similar conditions it works over here, too," he said.