President and CEO, Guardian Angel Foods
For Julie Larochelle it was heartbreaking to see her son, who has severe food allergies, always left out during celebrations and family gatherings when it came to eating cake or treats. So she came up with her own recipes and perfected them until everyone loved them – whether they had food allergies or not. But her real light bulb moment came in 2005 when her family was invited to a birthday party and she didn’t have time to prepare a “solution cake” as she called them. Her son was three and when she told him he couldn’t have a piece of the cake that was being served, he finally realized he was different. He was so upset that Larochelle decided she had to do something more. The result was Guardian Angel Foods. Today, the Boucherville, Que.-based company’s 30 products include cakes, muffins, chocolate and bread, as well as products for institutions. Almost all of the products are found across Canada and are all free of eggs, nuts, peanuts and dairy.
What do you love most about your job?
“The feeling that I bring happiness to people with food allergies. I receive e-mails all the time from people saying, ‘Thank you, I’m 30 years old and today was the first time I had a piece of chocolate cake.’ People tell me ‘For the first time the Easter Bunny came to all houses [Larochelle launched chocolate Easter bunnies just this year] and my kids, their eyes were filled with stars and it’s all thanks to you.’ That is priceless.”
What is the most challenging part of your job?
“I wear a lot of hats. What’s most challenging is making sure not to forget anything and that we’re on the same track every day, going in the direction we want to go. It’s not so much in production, but more in the way things work with grocery chains, making sure that everything goes well and that our sales are there.”
What issues is your sector facing?
“Allergen-free food is new. So it’s awareness, getting people to know that we exist. That’s one thing I’m working on. One of the issues that we face is that not every company applies the same seriousness we do when producing allergen-free products. It’s easy to claim it’s peanut-free on your package but to be able to prove it is something else. We do lab tests on our raw material and finished product. Our plant looks like a pharmaceutical plant, but inside all this strictness we have fun and create delicious things to eat. But we have to keep on top of that and ask questions; you have to call suppliers and make sure that they are as diligent as they say in keeping allergens and traces of allergens out of their products. The government still hasn’t issued any law that forbids companies to claim their products are peanut-free if they don’t do lab tests. We have to work on that, just as I had to work on getting to people and letting them know they could now have cake. I had to reach them one by one, and tell them yes, you can have a piece of cake, too!”