As his potato chip company takes off across Canada, Alfred Lea is encouraging young people to follow their own dreams and build businesses.
“Don’t think they can’t do what they want,” he said. Kids need leadership and encouragement — and he aims to give it to them.
Lea owns Native Canadian Chip Corporation, which is based in Riverton in the Interlake. Tomahawk Chips potato chips is his flagship product.
Only July 16, Lea announced he’d signed a deal with Star Wholesale to distribute Tomahawk Chips across Canada. The deal will likely increase his sales four or fivefold, he told the Co-operator.
Lea has also been president of the Riverton and District Friendship Centre for 14 years where he is an “advocate for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,” said Tanis Grimolfson, the Friendship Centre’s executive director.
Alfred Lea is a member of Fisher River Cree Nation and grew up in Pine Dock, a fishing community in the Interlake. By summer, his family fished. By winter, his dad was a cook for a transportation company that hauled freight up north.
Lea described his mom and dad as a creative, problem-solving team.
“You had to be when you’re a fisher,” he said.
Dad would build things, but Mom gave him the ideas, Lea figured. That creativity got passed on to him.
“It’s just in me to identify voids,” he said.
Lea also worked on his uncles’ farms as a youngster, where they raised cereals, cows and chickens. It was long, hard days.
“I remember picking those rocks,” Lea said. “It seems you’d pick one and two would pop up.”
But it sure made lunch go down easy.
“Oh my god. It tastes so good,” Lea recalled.
Lea worked hard as a teen — first as a provincial civil servant collecting and reviewing applications for a student employment program. He was the student body president in Grade 11.
“I guess my mouth got me into trouble. I always had ideas. People used to say to me, ‘well, put your money where your mouth is,’” said Lea.
After he graduated, he took a civil service job with the federal government.
When he got to college, he realized he made too much money to qualify for student aid, but not nearly enough to pursue his goal of medical school.
However, he did find a business opportunity. Lea said he met two guys associated with Equinox Industries, which makes fibreglass and thermoplastic products. He liked to toss around ideas with them, and eventually they invited him to tour their factory and create a product with them.
Lea thought back to his fishing roots, and the predicament of hauling fishing gear onto early-winter ice. To mitigate the risk of breaking through thin ice, fishers would haul a canoe or small boat with them. But that was cumbersome.
The “Big Boggan” was born. Product testing back in Lea’s home community showed — with a few modifications — it was useful on the trapline, hauling fish, as a little boat, and even a bathtub.
“That was pretty funny,” said Lea.
Into the food business
Lea’s first foray into the food business was with cola and carbonated drinks through the Aboriginal Beverage Company.
Lea recalled struggling to find someone to produce his cola, particularly working around the juggernaut of Coca-Cola. In the mid-’90s he finally found a bottler in the Cott Corporation and was able to export products worldwide.
The business also brought him in touch with Virgin Group magnate Richard Branson who was kicking the tires on his own cola company — Virgin Cola, which was a bust. An associate at Cott Corporation introduced Lea to Branson. Lea said at the time he had no idea who Branson was.
Lea said he told Branson, “do not poke the bear,” meaning Coke and Pepsi. Branson gave advice in trade, said Lea. He said that banks are not your friend, and that Lea should keep his businesses private.
Native Chip Corporation began in 2015. Lea said he was looking for a lighter food product — something easier to transport without freezing, and that his female employees wouldn’t struggle to carry.
Lea devised his recipes, tested them in a couple of communities, and found a cooker in Mississauga. Today Tomahawk Chips are made in Manitoba, Ontario and the U.S., the July 16 news release said.
Lea sourced the chip bags’ striking design from Indigenous artists, who he said often don’t have money for marketing and advertising.
“I thought this was a medium they could work with,” Lea said.
He’s spent the last six years pounding the pavement. Tomahawk Chips found buyers in Manitoba and northern Ontario, along with Amazon and international snack subscription service Munchpak.
The distribution deal with Star Wholesale will soon see Tomahawk Chips in western Canadian Pharmasave stores, IGA in B.C., and others, the news release said.
Paying it forward
“I hope to be an inspiration to others and demonstrate that hard work can bring about success for one’s endeavours,” Lea said in the news release.
For Lea, this has involved years of work with the Riverton Friendship Centre, where Grimolfson said he’s volunteered numerous hours.
“Alfred always attends the (National Association of Friendship Centres) youth forum, held once a year,” she said. “Alfred volunteers his own time and attends to make friends, support the youth and their business, and from time to time to participate in their yearly volleyball tournament.”
Lea has spoken with many of the young people about starting their own business, and this year offered business training, Grimolfson added.
Lea said he’s sometimes hard on the kids, but they seem to understand why. The world isn’t easy, he said. You have to work hard.
“You have to earn their respect. They will listen,” he said. “I just have to open the door for a lot of them. They already know what they want.”