This is the latest entry in a series called Who Owns That. Normally we ask readers on our LinkedIn group to identify their favourite small businesses from across Canada, and we track down the owners so they can tell us their stories. But this time, it was the editors of the Report on Small Business who, after seeing this unique product in a local coffee shop, set it upon themselves to find out more about the small business behind it.
Introducing Irene Divaris, the co-founder of Meal in a Jar Inc., based in Waterloo, Ont.
Q: Let's start with the basics. Can you briefly describe your business, including when it was founded, what it does, and where you operate?
A: It started with a family fridge in Jan. 2013, full of fresh foods, which my daughters failed to notice when they were on the go. One of my daughters exclaimed, "Mom, there's nothing to eat around here, there's no lunch that I can take to work." So her problem became my problem and I took action. To keep them away from fast food, knowing that the options to buy healthy foods on the go are limited, I took the healthiest ingredients from my fridge and stared at them for a while. On the kitchen counter was a mason jar and I decided to layer her lunch in it; when it was done it looked beautiful. I snapped a photo and put it on Facebook. I immediately had requests to make more. Flash-forward to today, we've grown into a commercial catering kitchen, where we prepare over 1,000 fresh meals per week to be enjoyed on the go in Southern-Ontario with plans to expand.
Q: What inspired you to be an entrepreneur and to branch out on your own with this idea?
A: When requests started coming in for more jars, I started to realize many people had the same problems my daughters had: finding meal choices that fit their healthy, on the go lifestyle. So, for the first two weeks I tried filling the order requests myself just to see if the idea had legs. One afternoon, an ambitious graduate called me up after seeing my jars displayed at his hair stylists – the stylist was common to both of us and was one of my first customers. This young man, Carson Kolberg, a student of Wilfrid Laurier University's LaunchPad for Entrepreneurs, was looking for his next step. We discussed the potential of the business and together we thought we'd keep moving it forward until Kolberg graduated and then we would see if it was worth continuing. Within two months, we clicked and the business kept growing and at the end of March 2013, we co-founded Meal in a Jar Inc.
Q: Who are your typical customers, and how do they find you?
A: Our typical customers actually resonate with our own personalities: young on-the-go working professionals and busy families who need grab-and-go meals from the fridge. We found a great fit for Meal in a Jar with coffee shops, health clubs, specialty grocery stores and on university campuses. Our customers love the look, the convenience and especially the taste. We keep in close touch with our customers through our website (www.mealinajar.ca), Facebook (Meal In A Jar), twitter (@Freshmealinajar) and Instagram (Mealinajar). We keep them updated on our expansion and new recipes, and they love being part of the story.
Q: What are the roles of you and your co-founder in the business? Do you have any employees?
A: I specialize in business development and keeping the books on track. My past experience owning and managing Waterloo's Goodlife Fitness in addition to my flair for recipe development make me the cornerstone of the business. Because I choose to eat wheat free and clean foods with no preservatives, my meals look and taste very different than the norm. They are always colorful, vibrant and extremely fresh. This is my philosophy for the company.
Carson Kolberg, having led Laurier's chapter of the world largest student-run organizations, AIESEC, has travelled extensively, enjoys good food and has even launched new creative menu in a little chalet in the French Alps region, during his year abroad. Kolberg has excelled in "Just-In-Time" education, learning operations logistics and marketing skills to support their shared vision for the company's growth. His experience in the LaunchPad program provided the necessary framework for launching a new venture.
Together we've attracted a team of enthusiastic, health conscious individuals that compliment their existing skill sets and who are eager to see the business grow. Currently, there are 10 members of the MIAJ Team.
Q: You've been identified by one of our readers as a standout business. What do you consider the key element of your success?
A: We seek out incredible partners who share our values, organizations and individuals that are excited about sharing our story, and we understand the demands that an energized life requires today. Eating healthy isn't easy and it makes the difference between being good and excellent.
Some of our greatest achievements in our first year of business have been the following: launching in our first retail store, Vincenzo's, launching at Balzac's Coffee Roasters, a 2013 nomination for the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award, becoming a contestant on CBC's Dragon's Den (filming April 9th); and getting accepted to the shelves at WholeFoods Market.
Just like the first jar I made for my daughter, we're driven forward with the vision of whole meals, in every jar, in every fridge.