Written By: Andrew Seale
Before Tonya Johnson became the founder of The Ancient Bakers; before the late nights sifting through academic journals on the lost crops of Africa and the first visit to Toronto to join the Food Starter program – there was a sick child. Johnson’s child, her son Bennuamen.
It was the simplest, yet most terrifying thing.
“He was 15-months-old, a little guy, and I was having eating challenges with him,” recalls Johnson. The first sign of health problems had shown up at four months in the form of eczema. Bennuamen started to scratch. The doctor’s solution was eczema cream. By six months it’d spread. Anemia said the doctors.
But at 15-months, there was no question something else was going on.
“He stopped growing entirely, he started to waste away, failure to thrive kicked in… the eczema was worse, the anemia was off the hook,” says the Boston-based entrepreneur. “He had acute malnutrition.”
It’s a dire diagnosis to hear. If acute malnutrition takes a hold of children under five years old, it can lead to developmental delays that could reverberate out a child’s lifetime. Failure to intervene could lead to death.
The doctors started turning on Johnson, a practicing vegan. There was squabbling and blame. But then there was a breakthrough with Bennuamen.
“We tested him and found out he was allergic to everything – eggs and milk and dairy… soy was problematic with him,” she says. Everything.
It was a lot to take in and no one seemed to have any answers. So Johnson, a premedical studies candidate looking to become a naturopathic doctor, enlisted her mom, a seasoned baker, and the two teamed up to develop some nutrient-rich alternatives for Bennuamen.
“I found a book through the National Academy of Science called the Lost Crops of Africa and started to learn about marginalized grains and edibles and plants that have kind of fallen to the wayside,” says Johnson. Over the next decade, she started developing new experimental ways of baking using ancient binders that acted in place of things like eggs.
In 2008, taking the research and experience she’d put into feeding her son, she launched The Ancient Bakers in Boston.
It started growing quickly. There was an upwards swing in free-from eating, nutritious products that eschewed the staples – rice, corn, wheat, and soy. She saw interest from large food services and realized she needed to scale up.
She perused the options in Boston and beyond Massachusetts. Then she stumbled on Food Starter, a Toronto-based launchpad for early-stage food processors. It seemed like a long shot but she applied. In 2017, the Ancient Bakers became the program’s first international client.
“They understand the stages of growth a food entrepreneur would go through and what they need to do… they didn't make you feel bad about it,” she says. “They still wanted you to feel encouraged and calm and work with the experts there.”
Not to say that she hasn’t found support back home. The Ancient Bakers was awarded a $10,000 IDEA Gap grant from Northeastern University in Boston last year. But it was the space that was needed.
“We found a facility in Food Starter and now we can actually scale,” she says, adding that she’s hoping to bring her first baked goods to the Toronto market this year.
But it’s impossible to forget where it all began. Bennuamen’s 18-years-old now and, in all likelihood, has just as many dietary quirks as the average health-conscious individual has.
“I’m really pretty amazed,” says Johnson. “(Starting a business) was the last thing on my mind, I just wanted to get my son healthy and have him be well and not be marginalized because he couldn't eat certain food… now it’s like, whose company is this?”
Photo Credit: Cameron Bartlett