Written by Andrew Seale
While pregnant with her son in 2012, Andrea Orazi found herself pining for a horchata de chufa, the nostalgia-steeped sweet summertime drink made from chufa (a.k.a. tiger nuts) that she’d taken up while living in Barcelona. Tiger nuts proved impossible to find and Orazi suppressed the craving.
But two years later when the craving arose again, this time in a park, she wasn’t going to let it go. Running a production company with her husband Scott Abraham, Orazi had been spending a lot of time around entrepreneurs shooting videos with Futurepreneur. And their entrepreneurial drive was starting to rub off on her.
“They were really inspiring to us… we were around all these business owners who were doing incredible things,” says Andrea. “I think it was that day in the park where I thought, ok why can't we do this? I want this drink, why can't we make it?”
They ordered some tiger nuts online and started experimenting with a milk, showing it to Hall’s Kitchen, a vegan soup company that was also consulting good startups at the time.
“We brought them our milk, they said ‘you know this is really great I think you may have something here,’ ” says Orazi. The Chufa Co. was born.
It was a good time for milk alternatives. Fresh juice was becoming trendy and people were starting to shift towards plant-based diets.
Next they took their idea to George Brown College’s Food Innovation and Research Studio (FIRSt). “They were instrumental in getting this off the ground,” says Orazi. They also helped them apply for the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) with the federal government.
“They were very excited about the project because it was a new ingredient and they saw the potential – we found that tiger nut can be grown here, that they produce this oil which is superior to olive oil, that is healthier, and great for cosmetics, great for milk, could be a supplement for baby formula,” she says. “They funded our first project with George Brown in May 2015.”
It took an entire year and a lot of research and development. Plus Orazi was pregnant at the time she was trying to get the business off the ground.
“There was a lot going on,” she says adding that the science behind food shouldn’t be overlooked. “It sounds like not that big of a feat, but tiger nuts have a 24 hour shelf life.” Orazi points out that “nuts” is kind of a misnomer – tiger nuts are actually tubers which puts them in close relation to potatoes or yams. “It's a root and is tiny with a lot of crevices,” which microbial tend to love.
George Brown was able to work their magic and get the milk to a eight day shelf life which allowed them to sell their product at Gluten Free Garage, a pop-up at Wychwood Artscape. Fiesta Farms got a hold of the product within a week and shortly after that they found their way into The Big Carrot.
But eight days was hardly scalable, and a Venture Capitalist who brought them in for a meeting told them so.
“He said: ‘in my experience successful entrepreneurs really focus on one thing. I'm not interested in the packaged tiger nuts or the oils, what is it your company?’ ” says Orazi. They took a step back. Who were they? Were they a tiger nut company? A milk alternative company?
To Orazi, the answer was simple, it was the horchata de chufa that had gotten her there in the first place. They just needed to figure out how to stretch the shelf life further.
“Ice cream,” she says. “We always wanted to try it.” They spent most of 2017 perfecting the recipe, drawing more support from IRAP, the Ontario Centres of Excellence, the York Entrepreneurship Development Institute (YEDI) and seed funding through Bioenterprise.
“They were really the only things that made our project possible,” says Orazi adding that they’d exhausted their own investment. “These kind of projects require a lot of funding, so we were so lucky to have such an innovative project that excited the government.” They also participated in the not-for profit Food Starter program.
The Chufa Co. has since gotten the product to six weeks shelf life and are distributed throughout the province. It’s been a long, and challenging experiment, admits Orazi.
“But the support we've had in the food ecosystem in Toronto has made the world of a difference, from the funding bodies, the government, and all of our colleagues,” she says “There are so many small food processors that aren't so small anymore, and we rely on them for advice – it’s a really nice community.”
Photo Credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)