Natalie Dueck recalls the day she won gold at the Great Manitoba Food Fight.
She’d just accepted a $15,000 cheque at the 2011 event for a snack food made with hemp seed and realized this meant no turning back from becoming a small-scale food processor.
At the time, the New Bothwell mom was doing a brisk business as The Bread Lady selling specialty breads at St. Norbert’s Farmers’ Market.
“I remember going up to get the prize and thinking to myself, ‘what did I just do?” she says with a laugh.
“You’ve got government money to start developing this now. There’s expectations that you go forward with this.”
She did not hesitate. She invested the prizewinnings further in product research and development, and began expanding a commercial kitchen built on to her New Bothwell home.
In 2012, she incorporated her company as Natalie’s LifeSense Inc. and has since launched a line of raw (not baked) products including her prizewinning hemp snackers plus flax crackers, packages of chia, hemp, and brown and golden flaxseeds, and innovative products using buckwheat. They’re sold under the brand name ‘Rawnata’ and are available in locales such as New Bothwell Cheese Store and Generation Green at The Forks Market in Winnipeg, as well as St. Norbert’s Farmers’ Market during the summer months, its new online store, and an online outlet of her own she will launch a little later this winter.
Dueck’s emerging small-scale food-processing company is one of literally hundreds across Manitoba, as entrepreneurs like her take hold of business opportunities in a market hungry for specialty locally produced foods.
A vendor at St. Norbert’s Farmers’ Market since 2003, Dueck says others are on similar paths to grow their food businesses.
“I think a lot of us are going into the retail end of things now,” she said. “Many of us are working towards getting our products into stores.”
Carly Minish fast-tracked her small line of gourmet mustards, sold under the name Smak Dab, into store shelves in under a year.
The Swan River-born culinary school graduate was working as an apprentice in Winnipeg restaurants when she was inspired to whip up a batch of specialty mustard to give as Christmas presents. Friends and family gave her rave reviews and insisted she try selling them, which is how she would end up selling at St. Norbert’s last fall. Her customers wanted to keep buying from her after the season wound up so she has since pursued retail opportunities. She now direct markets online.
The Red Seal Chef turned entrepreneur said the products are selling so briskly she’s devoted herself full time to running her company.
“This wasn’t anything I intended on pursuing forever,” she said. “But it’s turned into a really great business.”
Both women said resources in marketing, product and business development through Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and the Manitoba Food Processors Association have been helpful to their business. Minish says Buy Manitoba has been an especially important program, with advisers who have helped her navigate the ins and outs of running a food business.
“They are people who have been really alongside me. They’ve been really amazing advisers, she said.
These kinds of businesses are also benefiting from new opportunities to reach customers. More independent grocers are seeking out local, small batch-made products and specializing in made in Manitoba, including stores such as Local Meats and Frozen Treats in Winnipeg, Generation Green at The Forks, and innovative marketing venues such as St. Norbert’s online market.
Phil Veldhuis, honey producer and past president of the St. Norbert’s Farmers’ Market, said farmers’ markets are pivotal in helping jump-start ideas and help innovative products come to market. They’re where people have that first opportunity to see if their idea flies. They get immediate customer feedback, which helps make that all-important decision to branch out.
St. Norbert’s Farmers’ Market’s online store was launched to help with that decision. In just a few months it has seen sales growth among vendors akin to what vendors at the physical market saw in about three years, Veldhuis added. About 40 vendors are participating and some are reporting sales of about $1,000 a month through it.
A new report now before Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development Minister Ron Kostyshyn carries recommendations on how to grow the smaller-scale processing and production in Manitoba. It has attempted to quantify the value and extend Manitoba’s small-scale food-processing sector.
Direct-marketing sales in Manitoba had an economic value of between $65 million and $79 million in 2012, Dr. Wayne Lees, Manitoba-based retired chief veterinary officer who facilitated consultations that led to the report told a weekend conference. Combined sales at the province’s 70 farmers’ markets are now at “somewhere around $240 million.”
“That’s nothing to sneeze at,” said Lees. “It’s a tiny part of the industry right now, but interest in small-scale food production and direct marketing is growing.”
The report includes a series of recommendations on how more support can be provided for emerging niche and specialty product makers and small-farm entrepreneurs.