Food In Canada

Top 10 Innovators

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Meet this year's Top 10 food and beverage innovators in Canada (in no particular order). We only had room for 10 but there were so many more to choose from.

Each year new companies land on the food scene in Canada — creating whole new categories or shaking up existing ones. And each year Food in Canada looks at 10 of these companies to showcase what new innovations in products, packaging or technology they have to offer. Unfortunately, we have room for just 10, making our decision on which to profile a difficult one. Here are our picks for 2014, in no particular order.

1. Square Snacks Inc.

Toronto, Ont.

The energy bar company is co-owned by MaryAnn Scandiffio, a registered nutritionist, and her business partner Susan Wilkes. It launched in 2012.

Q: What challenges did you face getting started?

MaryAnn Scandiffio: “Budgeting and accessing funds. Figuring out the best manufacturing process for our snacks, meeting packaging requirements and introducing a new brand into the marketplace having limited marketing dollars.”

Q: How long did it take to get from the idea to the actual product?

Scandiffio: “The actual product development and packaging to launch the product took about a year from start to finish. Product development was a collaborative effort between a nutritionist, food scientists and chefs. Everyone had to be happy with the product before we launched it into the market!”

Q: How is your snack different from other energy/nutrition bars?

Scandiffio: “All of our ingredients have a nutritional benefit. The snack-size bars are raw and have a balance of carbohydrates, protein and good fats (from nuts and seeds). There’s no soy, corn, wheat, dairy and whey, and they’re made with carefully sourced non-GMO ingredients.”

Q: Why is healthy snacking a common challenge among consumers?

Scandiffio: “We are all time-strapped, and looking for handy solutions to stay healthy and feeling our best. Even the best, most organized, planners need good everyday solutions in a pinch.
Also, carbs are our brain and muscle fuel, yet we are constantly hearing that they are ‘bad’ and we need to eat protein. The truth is that our bodies are complex (more complex than simple marketing messages), and we actually need all of these nutrients. The trick is to get them in balance and in a format that our bodies can easily use. You should be able to eat your snacks and not be thinking of them afterwards because you have a stomach ache, or not enough brain fuel, or because you are crashing from too much sugar.
It can be difficult to differentiate the messages.”

Q: Where are your products sold?

Scandiffio: “Our products are mostly found in Ontario in health food stores, including Whole Foods, cafés, catering companies and naturopathic and wellness clinics. We also deliver to offices.”

Q: Future plans?

Scandiffio: “We are launching a nut-free line this year that is seed-based and can go into schools and camps. We are planning to have our products available nationally before the end of 2014.”

 2. Golden Beef Producers Co-operative Ltd.

Belle Vallée, Ont.

The co-op was incorporated in 2008 and consists of 10 members, who are all farmers from North Bay to Iroquois Falls. The company’s main abattoir is located in Belle Vallée near New Liskeard, Ont. Jason Desrochers is president of the co-op.

Q: What challenges did you face getting started?

Jason Desrochers: “We faced numerous challenges getting starting including: marketing, cash flow, supply, storage, inventory challenges and logistics. Most of these challenges have been resolved. We have been able to secure retailers that allowed us to bring in more members to meet the supply problem. Processing more cattle also gave us more cash flow to pay the operating costs of the co-op such as insurance, animal harvest fees, trucking and storage. We were able to install a top-notch inventory system to keep track of all products including date packaged, weight, type of cut, animal traceability and expiry date. When we adopted the new inventory system, we partnered with our abattoir to create an onsite storage facility for our frozen product. This storage facility had a shipping area attached, which became the home for our inventory system keeping track of all products going out of the storage. This shipping area also facilitated the logistics of our business.”

Q: How did the farmers come together to form the cooperative?

Desrochers: “The farmers came together as a result of research carried out at the Kapuskasing agricultural research station concerning forage and grass-fed cattle. The beef industry had been hit hard by BSE and farmers in our area were trying to create a sustainable market for quality cattle raised in the North. A small group started the ball rolling with lots of help from OMAFRA and the research station as well as help from our neighbours in Quebec who were starting their own similar project. We expanded from that point on.”

Q:What makes your beef unique?

Desrochers: “Numerous reasons, some of which you can see, taste and smell and others that are not so obvious. Our beef cuts are much smaller in size than most beef at the store because we harvest our animals at a younger age. There’s a lack of marbling since our animals are not fed grain to be fattened. The taste and smell of our beef is quite different than commodity beef. It’s lean and will not leave a film on your teeth and it smells differently when you cook it. It also has high levels of vitamin B-12, omega 3, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). It’s raised without growth promoting hormones or antibiotics.”

Q: Where are your products found?

Desrochers: “Our product is now available online, as well as through retailers such as Eat Local Sudbury, Railside Country Store in Val Gagné, Dabrowski’s Smoked Meats Ltd. in Timmins and Yves’ Prime Cut Meats in New Liskeard.

Q: Future plans?

Desrochers: “We plan to reach out to more populated areas in Southern Ontario. We also might consider partnering with other grass-fed groups in Ontario.”

3. Latin Foods Inc.

Calgary, Alta.

The company is owned by Rafael Chavez and family, who launched it in 2010. It produces the brand Fresk-O cheese, white fresh cheese made from 100-per-cent Canadian milk. The cheese is available in three varieties: Paisa that is suitable for frying and grilling; White Fresh cheese that doesn’t melt, and which is good for soups, stir-frys or pasta; and White Duro Cheese which is salty with a hard cheese texture and which is used ground.

Q: What challenges did you face getting started?

Rafael Chavez: “Obtaining a federal license. Raising awareness of our product to consumers and non-Latino consumers.”

Q: How did you determine there was a need for these cheeses?

Chavez: “The Latino community is continually growing and there just aren’t enough products. For the non-Latino community, it’s something new and interesting — a cheese that is grilled.”

Q: How are consumers responding to your products?

Chavez: “It’s a product widely known in the Latino community. And we were surprised to find how well received it was by non-Latino Canadian consumers.”

Q: Where are your products sold?

Chavez: “It’s sold in grocery stores in Western Canada, such as Real Canadian Superstores, Loblaws, Sobeys, Save on Foods Market, Sunterra Market, Calgary Co-op Markets and Latin American grocery stores, and La fromagerie Hamel in Montreal. We’re distributed by Antoronto Fine Foods in Ontario.”

Q: Future plans?

Chavez: “We’re going to be building a new federally licensed plant in Alberta. We’re also developing new cheeses like Oxaca, Cotija, Asadero, Trenzas, which are highly sought after by consumers.”

4. Pluck Tea Inc.  

Toronto, Ont.

The tea company was launched in 2013 by tea sommelier Jennifer Commins.

Q: What challenges did you face getting started?

Jennifer Commins: “In the tea business, there are few barriers to entry, therefore differentiation is critical. We blend unique, 100-per-cent natural teas using as many local ingredients as possible. Getting the message out about our approach and our values has been challenging; we’re competing with larger companies.”

Q: How does being a tea sommelier impact your products? Your approach?

Commins: “My training has been a critical step in creating exceptional blends, and I continue to train on my own through tastings, reading and pairing exercises with colleagues, friends and family. Honing one’s palette is a fundamental skill that is required for blending exceptional teas. I have also trained as a chef, so having this mental rolodex of flavours in my head for both food and tea has been essential.”

Q: How are your teas unique?

Commins: “Pluck sources tea from Ethical Tea Partnership sources. We use local 100-per-cent natural ingredients wherever possible (dried local apples, cranberries, lavender, grape skins from Southbrook, cacao from Chocosol). We work alongside chefs and retail customers to create custom teas.”

Q: Can you talk about the Bespoke Tea?

Commins: “Our bespoke program allows us to be flexible in the teas we make for restaurants, corporate customers and retailers. From Orange Pekoe of York for the York Club, and Director’s Cut for TIFF, to the Right to Play blend for a charity event, it’s creative and explores the boundaries of what tea can do.”

Q: Where are your products sold?

Commins: “On top menus around Toronto and select retailers including Toronto International Film Festival (concessions and the shop), the Art Gallery of Ontario Shop, Rowe Farms stores and McEwan Gourmet Grocery. In the fall, Pluck will be available at one of Canada’s largest retailers across Canada. You can also purchase online.”

Q: Future plans?

Commins: “We plan to grow our foodservice and wholesale business, so we will be investing in packing equipment to help us scale up production. Currently, all blending and packing is done by hand. And we’ll be revamping our online store.”

5. Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup


The company is owned by the Lyndsey Berwyn Larson and Sylvia Frisch Family, who launched it in 2004. It’s based in the Yukon at 63 degree 37′ North, 137 degrees 15′ West, or 14 km down a dirt track from km 582 North Klondike Highway.

Q: Challenges getting started:

Lyndsey Berwyn Larson: “There were and still are plenty. Finding a large healthy birch stand in Yukon was the first challenge. The best we found was 14 km from the nearest all season road. The next challenge was setting up a syrup camp in such a remote location. It is not easy getting syrup making equipment from Quebec into a remote Yukon location. We had to haul all our equipment in by snowmobile. This included a heavy 12′ long evaporator. Then making the delicious syrup.”

Q: How is birch syrup different from maple?

Larson: “Expecting birch syrup to taste like maple syrup is like expecting apples to taste like oranges. Birches make a much darker and stronger syrup and it’s used mostly in cooking. While maple trees can be tapped each year, birch trees can only be tapped two years in a row. The sugar content of birch sap is far less than maple. Therefore it takes about 100 Litres of sap to make one Litre of birch syrup. Compared to maple which is a 40:1 ratio of sap to syrup. The main sugar in birch syrup is fructose, which can burn at just above the boiling point. So finishing birch syrup without developing any burnt flavours is a real trick; it took us a few years to  perfect.”

Q: Why go through the effort?

Larson: “What a great way to spend the spring!  We get to live and work in the forest. Because there is nothing like a good batch of birch syrup right off the evaporator. My wife says, ‘Birch syruping is the process of transforming subtly flavoured sap into a precious syrup; through hell or high snowdrifts, the reward draws us back each spring and ensures that the treasures of the boreal forest are not forgotten.’”

Q: Where are your products sold?

Larson: “Mostly in the Yukon. A distributor has approached us to distribute our syrup in Ontario and Quebec.”

Q: Future Plans?

Larson: “We are harvesting the Chaga fungus that grows on birch trees and is valued as a healthful tea. We are experimenting with northern beekeeping to see if we can make wild honey and perhaps a birch/honey blend.”

6. Seed to Sausage Corporation

Sharbot Lake, Ont.

The meat business launched in 2011 and is owned by Michael and Kenneth McKenzie.

Q: What challenges did you face getting started?

Mike McKenzie: “Finding a small space where I could make dry salami and meeting provincial guidelines. We ended up moving into an old slaughter facility that had gone out of business and we rebuilt most of what we needed our selves. We really didn’t have much money. After that our problem was getting the pork we needed to our door. No one would ship to us. I was driving around everywhere to pick stuff up in our delivery van. When we would speak to people about our high standards of quality for the raw meet we were looking for people would never return our calls. We still have a problem finding what we’re looking for but people return my calls now. We are only as good as the service we provide our customers and that means we will only provide the best possible product we can. This is where we will never make an exception.”

Q: Why the name Seed to Sausage?

McKenzie: “When we first started I was getting all our pork from Haanover View Farms in Marysville. We could trace our salami right back to the feed that was grown for that pig. Since then we have grown. But the idea is still to produce a product while looking at the whole chain of traceability. We source antibiotic-free pork, certified-humane meats, we use few preservatives and everything is gluten free. We even look at how our food is distributed and try to find ways to reduce that carbon foot print.

Q: What is your company’s specialty?

McKenzie: “We make cured meats in general, dry salami, bacon, sausages. We make food we love and love to see people enjoy it whether they’re eating our saucisson sec at the House of Commons or our cheese smokie at a dive bar.”

Q: Where are your products sold?

McKenzie: “There are a few stores in Toronto, many in Kingston and Ottawa and then spots all over the rest of Ontario.”

Q: Future plans?

McKenzie: “We’re in the process of setting up our own lab to do all our  own in -house testing when it comes to food safety. We also want to use those same resources to better understand what is happening to the food we make. How does bacteria, time, humidity and temperature all affect the food we make from a flavour perspective. It is our goal to create distinct Canadian products but on a world class level. We want to make some of the world’s best salamis here in Canada. To do that we must continue to learn and become masters of our craft. That means getting out the microscope, learning and logging exactly what our food is doing.
We’re also just opening a new store in Ottawa, a small space, to showcase all our products and creations as well as other artisan food producers. I would like to take that opportunity to show consumers what so many artisans are doing. But not only in that store, we have all these great relationships with our customers so we can really help those artisan producers out in whatever area they need but mostly with sales and distribution. It’s really hard to make good food, pack it up, deliver it and be the salesperson all at the same time when you’re just one person. And if you’re a small producer and trying to talk to a distribution company – good luck. We have made it past a lot of that and want to work together with producers, distributors, retail and restaurants to help smaller artisans grow past those few first hurtles we faced. The idea is to help with deliveries, sales and collections until they are able to move to a larger distributor, one that has more than just one van. Try to sell bacon to 20 customers who pay you every 30 days. It really doesn’t make growth easy when you have no cash flow. We have had so much support we have to pass it on to others tenfold.

7. Troll Bridge Creek Inc.

Arthur, Ont.

Keith and Lorraine Harris formed the company in 2009 and launched the KiKi Maple Sweet Water beverages in 2010.

Q: What challenges did you face getting started?

Keith Harris: “Everything. I knew very little about maple sap, how to form a company, how to market a new product. I came from an automobile parts manufacturing management background.

Q: What challenges were/are there raising awareness among consumers about your product?

Harris: “Money doesn’t solve everything with marketing but it does help. The fact that this product is close to the Canadian experience helps, too. The difficulty was that up until last year we were in this alone. Now there are several companies (with more advertising dollars than us) starting up.”

Q: Where are your products sold?

Harris:This is a unique premium natural beverage for re hydration and to help replenish lost electrolytes. It is available in high-end whole/health food locations, such as Nature’s Emporium, Whole Foods Markets, Fiddleheads Health & Nutrition in Kitchener, and Bamboo Natural Food Market in St. Catharines. We are now available at Ryerson University in Toronto. We’ve also sent our first shipment to Europe.”

Q: Who are your customers?

Harris: “Almost anyone who reads food labels. We have young athletes, people who want to live and eat better, and golden-agers who are looking for a taste from the past.”

Q: What makes your products unique?

Harris: “KiKi Maple Sweet Water beverages were the first maple sap beverages made from 100-per-cent pure maple sap and offered globally and year round. We are still the only company to offer maple sap with popular berry flavours, using natural berry concentrates and purées. We are also the only product offered in glass. Beware the products that are made with the process wastewaters from the sugaring off or that add water. KiKi Maple Sweet Water beverages never have water added.

Q: Future plans?

Harris: “We’re targeting foodservice as well as universities in Canada. We plan to ship to the U.S. this summer.  Long term we are continuing to promote our products in Europe and Asia.”

8. LeHave Forests

Lunenburg County, N.S.,

The company and brand Haskapa are owned by Simon Fineman and Evie Kemp, who launched it in 2010. Logie Cassells and Liam Taylor are directors of the company. The company’s haskaps were first planted in 2011.

Q: What challenges did you face getting started?

Liam Taylor: “Most people were very sceptical about bringing a new crop to Canada. Despite the fact that there are indigenous Haskap across Canada, the idea that a new crop could be made profitable was met with significant doubt. Certainly the conventional farmers who had seen prices of blueberries, cranberries, etc. plummet thought there was no way that these weird CFAs (Come From Awayers) with their strange fruit could make a success of it.  The sentence ‘I’ve been growing blueberries for 50 years, why would I want to complicate life?’ was heard a number of times!
In order to convince potential growers that the Haskap had a viable commercial market, they needed to see commercially available products. However, without Haskap berry growers and their berries, we didn’t have enough volume to create any commercially viable products.  So we started growing the berries. Then we scoured the world looking for more Haskap berries and found that we could get a few tonnes from Europe, some from Saskatchewan and some from our own orchards and with this volume we created the first range of Haskap products outside of Asia. We launched them in October 2013.  These products have proven that you can make tasty, healthy products from Haskap berries and since the launch of the products, the interest in Haskap production throughout Canada has grown significantly.
Despite being recommended for a number of government funding programs, the general consensus was that the market wasn’t ready for a new fruit and we had no viable products. Yet we were too far developed to apply for ‘product concept’ funding. We approached a number of banks for invoice financing and rolling credit lines, as a seasonal company our revenues dip significantly over the winter months, yet we were turned down for almost every funding option that wasn’t asset based (mortgages etc) and without personal guarantees on overdrafts etc there was nothing they could do.”

Q: How did you come to grow 40 acres of Haskap berries in Canada?

Taylor: “Simon Fineman was a frequent visitor to Nova Scotia for holidays for many years and met Logie Cassells in 2007, they began discussing the potential of a business in Nova Scotia and in 2010, formed ‘LaHave Forests’ Inc, which was principally a forestry company (Simon Fineman is Managing director of a UK Timber company – Timbmet).  However, it became apparent that the timber on land in Nova Scotia is not as mature as was hoped and a new crop was required to bolster any timber revenues generated from the company.  Logie Cassells searched google for a new berry crop and discovered the Haskap berry was being researched in Saskatchewan. After serious consideration, a test plot was planted in a cleared forest area in Fall 2010 and revisited again in the summer of 2011.  The Haskap plants had done exceptionally well despite significant competition from weeds and some even had berries!  At this point the decision was made to start planting acreages of Haskap berries on the first farm purchased by LaHave Forests in Lunenburg county 1776 Northfield Rd.  In late 2011 a further farm was purchased within 5 mins drive of 1776 Northfield rd, and planted up in 2012, with another farm bought close by and planted to in 2013.  The aim is to grow our own orchards by 20 acres a year, and continue to encourage others to grow and cement agreements to buy their berries.

Q: What challenges were/are there raising awareness among consumers about your product?

Taylor: “The first phrase we normally hear from people when we explain that we grow Haskap berries is, “the Has…what?”  A significant part of what we do is educate the consumer, retailer, in fact, pretty much everyone we meet. As a new berry to Canada with limited stock, the main challenge is to answer three main questions people always ask as quickly and as coherently as possible. What does it taste like? A combination of a blackberry, raspberry with a hint of blueberry. Where does it come from? Siberia and Northern Japan where the name ‘haskap’ actually means ‘little present on the end of the branch.’ Is it healthy? It has more vitamin C than an orange, triple the antioxidants of a high blush blueberry and more calcium than an apple.”

Q: Where are your products sold?

Taylor: “Through our website or resellers throughout Nova Scotia. We have launched our products in Ontario this year.”

Q: Future plans?

Taylor: “We continue to introduce new Haskap varieties that are high yielding and tasty. We’ll be launching a new Haskap Jalapeño jam and a Haskap chutney and other condiment. We are developing a health juice. We also started developing haskap wine, port and beer. Nutraceutical applications are a buzz word at the moment and we are working with research teams to extract the antioxidants and other bioactives.”

Q: What makes your products unique?

Taylor: “The nutritional benefits are way above any other Canadian-grown berry. They add a unique taste experience with a tangy, zingy flavour and a pleasing aftertaste due to the high levels of tannin.

9. Lufa Farms

Montreal, Que.

The rooftop greenhouse business, which is privately held, was launched in 2009 by Mohamed Hage.

Q: What challenges were there getting started?

Mohamed Hage: “The first was getting buy-in from architects, engineers and building owners. Finding a rooftop that would work. As a team, we also had to learn to grow vegetables from scratch.”

Q: How long was it from the concept to the first rooftop greenhouse?

Hage: “It was a roundabout route. I originally had the idea to grow lettuce hydroponically in Lebanon, where my family is from, in the early 2000s. After talking with my brother, who still lives there, I decided there might be more potential in feeding Montrealers hyper-locally. I got together a founding team around 2008 and we spent a lot of 2009 and 2010 testing hydroponics at McGill’s MacDonald campus. We also started approaching architects about how to make the rooftop greenhouse idea work. It took us about 18 months to find a site, then we started construction in late 2010. We had our first harvest in April 2011.”

Q: Did anyone think the idea was crazy?

Hage: “Yes. Most definitely. There was one two-hour meeting with an owner to explain the concept. At the end, he was quiet for a few minutes and then said, ‘Very interesting, but I really don’t want cows and tractors on my roof.’ There were a lot of misunderstandings and people thinking it was crazy before we had anything to point to and say, ‘This is what we want to build.’”

Q: How have consumers and industry responded?

Hage: “Incredibly well. We’re seeing a huge unmet demand for local and responsible food, especially in the dead of winter. We give public tours every few months and see about 2,000 people. Industry folks are starting to realize how powerful this can be. That’s why you see grocery stores exploring this model and a bunch of companies trying to figure out ways to grow produce for urban customers right where they live.”

Q: Future plans?

Hage: “We’re only feeding about 5,000 Montrealers out of 1.6 million, so there’s room to grow. We want to get to a place where we’re putting a real dent in feeding the city. This means having more farms and more partnerships with local growers and food artisans. We’re also looking at new cities for expansion.”

10. Naturally Homegrown Foods Ltd.

Maple Ridge, B.C.

The company, which produces handcrafted potato chips under the Hardbite brand, launched in 2000, and was acquired by new owners in fall of 2011. In the last two years it has been rebranded, and embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign. Kirk Homenick is president.

Q: What challenges did you face getting started?

Kirk Homenick: “We batch fry all of our chips by hand and it is a real art form to cook the chips consistently over time due to the different nature of the potatoes used (sugars and starch values fluctuate over the course of a season).”

Q: What made you think chips needed perfecting?

Homenick: “No one was linking chip to grower effectively in Canada. Our owners also own the Heppell Potato Corp, and with the link to their potato farm we have been able to take our products from seed to snack. We also cook all of our chips by hand to give the consumer the very best ‘homemade for you’ experience in a snack food.”

Q: How long was it before you arrived at a potato chip that met all your criteria?

Homenick: “Our process has been perfected throughout the years, and we are very proud of our fry cooks. We stamp every bag with the name of the fry cook who made those chips.”

Q: What flavours do you produce?

Homenick: “All Natural, Rock Salt & Vinegar, Smokin’ BBQ, Wild Onion & Yogurt, Jalapeño, Schezwan Peppercorn, Sea Salt & Pepper, and Ketchup. We just recently launched a Parsnip Chip made from fresh parsnips, which has been really well received by the trade, and we are excited about this alternate root vegetable snack.”

Q: Where are your products found?

Homenick: “Throughout Canada through partnerships with Overwaitea Food Group, Loblaw, Sobeys, Whole Foods Markets, Choices Markets, Buy Low Food Group, Federated Co-op, among a number of independents. Last year we also launched the brand into the U.S. and have Hardbite in Whole Foods, Market of Choice, Metropolitan Market, Zupan’s Market, as well as independents.”

Q: Future plans?

Homenick: “We believe that the future of the snack category is going to be driven by innovation. On the heels of our Parsnip Chip launch you will see other new and innovative veggie snacks from us soon.”

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