Food is the original small business success story. Major brands like Campbells and Kelloggs started out serving local communities before becoming global powerhouses. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to bring a new food product to market. The path between home kitchen and supermarket shelf has its challenges, from health and safety requirements to dealing with tough negotiations with retailers and suppliers.

Helping new food entrepreneurs deal with these is the mission of the non-profit Foodpreneur Lab and its founder Janice Bartley. As the only organization of its type in Canada founded and led by a Black woman,  Foodpreneur Lab is in a unique position to support underserved entrepreneurs working to build their businesses, Bartley says.

“I started Foodpreneur Lab because of the demand that was obvious to me being a woman of colour. I was interacting with underserved communities who were seeking guidance, direction, and advice. They had a great product, but didn’t know how to get it to market,” Bartley says.

Bartley brings over three decades of entrepreneurial experience to her work. In addition to assisting the operation of a culinary school and working in the industry, she has also worked with food entrepreneurs at Food Starter.

“I had very good insight in terms of what the struggles were from firsthand knowledge of being an entrepreneur. Coming from a culinary and hospitality background, I understood the food business from that viewpoint too. It was a natural fit in terms of the skills that I had acquired over the years to figure out how we can help create something that will speak to the food entrepreneur,” says Bartley.

Here are five things Bartley believes every potential food entrepreneur should know before trying to take a product to market.


1. Customers are more food-savvy than ever

“Everybody thinks what they have is extra special. Even if it’s an innovative new product, you still need to have a great branding and marketing plan that is going to throw you out into the universe like no other,” Bartley says.

Researching your market and understanding who your customers are and if your product fulfills a need is critical before scaling your business. Consumers have more food and nutrition knowledge than ever before, and Bartley added that your brand and values are as important as your product.

“Millennials can probably tell you more about food than any other generation because they want accountability. They want to know who you are and what you are doing to support UN sustainable development goals. That includes how you are producing your product, where you source ingredients, what is your carbon footprint — the list goes on.”


2.  Never forget: food is perishable 

Food is not like other products — it has a short shelf life. A common misconception among first-time food entrepreneurs is that they can produce something like a soup, package it in a jar, and stock it on the shelves at their local grocer. But what they’re missing is how the product will settle over time. You don’t want customers looking at your product seeing the heavier portions of your product as congealed sludge on the bottom.

“New food entrepreneurs ask how they can make their product last equally as long as a competitor’s product. There's a science to making the product attractive — whether that's colour, flavour or texture.”


3. Product labeling is more than a spiffy logo

Whether you’re designing the packaging yourself or using a designer, creating the logo and branding for your new product is exciting. But before you start printing boxes, you need to research what labelling requirements are needed by stores and online retailers.

If you’re selling at a community market, slapping a logo on your product is okay, says Bartley. But if you’re targeting retail grocery chains, things get more complicated. “The Canadian Food Inspection Agency may love your logo, but they also want nutritional information on your label. You're going to have to double back because you've missed a whole line of testing.” 

In addition to nutritional information, labels need to include potential allergens. If you plan on marketing as your product as organic, GMO free, or gluten-free, there are additional certifications and costs before you add a badge to your product.


4. Investors are hard to find for food startups

One of the major gaps that Bartley sees is the availability of financial support and capital for food startups. This affects all food entrepreneurs and is not specific to underrepresented communities.

“We have to figure out better ways to provide financial support, whether it's through funding or alternative lending methods. The common denominator is that you either don't have enough money, can't get any money from the bank, or don't have other alternatives in terms of borrowing money,” Bartley says.

Securing funding is critical for product development and production. Even with a market-ready product, being able to fulfill orders can be challenging without the production space and capital for ingredients, packaging and staff.

“We constantly see food entrepreneurs who have a great product and a large retailer comes in with an order that exceeds their production capacity. They don’t have the resources nor the dollars to scale up,” Bartley says.

She added that more credit unions are offering funding to food entrepreneurs. There are also specialized programs at many of the major Canadian banks that offer support for entrepreneurs.


5. You’ll need a network to be successful

Regardless of what type of business you’re building, having a great network is crucial. The entrepreneur's journey can be a lonely one and having people you can rely on is important.

“Not a lot of people are built to become entrepreneurs. Be careful who you spend a lot of your time with because it's easy for someone to tell you they don’t think your business is going to work,” says Bartley. “You’ll hear more noes than yeses — but what you need to do is find your people.”


The next cohorts for Foodpreneur Lab’s Start and Scale programs are planned for April 2023. The Start path accepts 35 food entrepreneurs and Scale accepts an additional 15. Foodpreneur Lab also runs events throughout the year.