Food In Canada

My Little Chickpea turns 10

By Nithya Caleb   

Food In Canada Bake & Snack Food Editor pick Ontario

Founder Rula Sharkawi on her ambitious journey from board room to food plant

My Little Chickpea specializes in RTE appetizers and burgers made with whole ingredients. Photos © My Little Chickpea

The annual SIAL Canada trade show is a great place to meet innovative food entrepreneurs. One of the inspiring people I met at this year’s edition was Rula Sharkawi, CEO and founder of My Little Chickpea, a gourmet food company in Scarborough, Ont. A trained chef, Sharkawi left a comfortable corporate job to pursue her passion for creating healthy food products that are ready-to-eat, tasty, and made with clean, whole ingredients.

Rula Sharkawi, CEO and founder of My Little Chickpea.

Life begins at 40

My Little Chickpea was Sharkawi’s 40th birthday gift to herself. Call it bravery or insanity—perhaps a mix of both—but in 2012, Sharkawi decided to move away from crisis communications and marketing and plunge into the unknown world of food entrepreneurism. However, it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. Sharkawi had been toying with the idea of launching a CPG company for some time. In fact, she had registered her company in 2007.

“Food brings people together,” said Sharkawi, who certainly benefited from the shared food experiences that is part of her Middle Eastern culture. She was also concerned about the quality of food available in the market where it isn’t always easy to find  the ingredients used. A series of illnesses prompted Sharkawi, a picky eater, to make changes to her diet. Clean, whole foods began to dominate her meals, which made a world of difference to Sharkawi’s health.

These positive outcomes inspired Sharkawi to create a line of food products offering the “same quality as home-cooked meals,” are preservative-free, without refined sugars, and made with clean ingredients.

My Little Chickpea officially began operations in 2013. Sharkawi used all her retirement money to kickstart the business.

Given Sharkawi’s Middle Eastern background and the fact that her parents owned a falafel restaurant, it was a no-brainer for her to first offer a gourmet twist to the ubiquitous, high-protein street food.

Sharkawi hired a product developer, rented a facility in Scarborough, and experimented until she got it right.

Fast forward 10 years, My Little Chickpea has six product lines spanning falafels, veggie balls and burgers. It is selling in over 500 retail locations across Canada. The products are all RTE and either frozen or refrigerated. They address the growing need for convenient cooking for consumers that are leading busy, demanding lives and don’t have hours to create a healthy meal. One of her popular products is the mushroom risotto balls made with arborio rice and shiitake mushrooms. As Sharkawi explained, the format is innovative. She has transformed a typical entrée into an appetizer with these risotto balls.

Milestones

This mother of two boys has come a long way in her entrepreneurial journey. In 2017, Sharkawi was RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award finalist. In the same year, My Little Chickpea moved to a new, purpose-built facility with BRC certification and Safe Food for Canadians licence in Scarborough.

As a female person of colour entering a new industry, the path hasn’t been easy for Sharkawi. She had to learn everything, from setting margins, hiring staff, commercializing products to shelf life, cash flow, etc. Her passion for offering “real food that tastes good” kept her motivated. Along the way, Sharkawi got support from BDC, industry peers and retailers. She didn’t hesitate to ask for feedback on her products. The feedback helped Sharkawi improve her products.

Looking ahead, Sharkawi hopes to export her products. Her parting advice is, “Ask for what you want because when you ask, the possibilities open.”

This article was originally published in the June/July 2023 issue of Food in Canada.


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