Food industry scales up from COVID
When Isabelle Lam and Jaimie Lee met while studying at McGill University’s dietetics and nutrition program in Montreal, they discovered they were both from the Toronto suburb of Markham and became fast friends.
The two dietitians went on to co-found Remix Snacks during the final year of their undergraduate work in 2018 and have since appeared as contestants on CBC’s “Dragons’ Den” and landed deals with several grocery retailers.
Now the former roommates are looking forward to a five-month entrepreneurship program with an affliate of Toronto’s York University, which plans to open a satellite campus in Markham in 2023.
“It is actually very close to home because it’s based in Markham,” Lee said in a joint phone interview Friday of the York Region Food and Beverage Accelerator program.
“What we’re hoping to get out of it is, first, being able to surround ourselves with mentors that are in the industry. This is actually the first time we’ve had a set of mentors that is very integrated in the food industry and in the food business.”
Among other things, they want to learn about online marketing, e-commerce and how to improve distribution of their products.
They’ll also develop contacts with other young entrepreneurs who are at a similar stage of their business development.
This year’s cohort of eight in the accelerator program also includes a maker of a non-dairy oat drink (Oat Canada), a gluten-free bakery (Leo & Co.) and a maker of Asian-inspired energy bites (Nufs).
“Sadly, because of COVID, it’s all virtual,” Lee said from Montreal, where Remix is based.
But the partners noted that they’ve already begun to build up their network and share ideas through the accelerator.
“Especially because of COVID, we’ve had a lot of re-strategizing, a lot of pivoting, and they’ve helped a lot – even before the program,” Lam said.
David Kwok, who co-founded the university’s Markham-based YSpace in 2018, said in a statement that COVID has increased the need for the program.
“Business owners are concerned about smaller retailers closing their doors for good, supply-chain delays and the increasing cost of operating production facilities and research development labs because of requirements like personal protective equipment and redesigned workstations,” Kwok said.
The food and beverage accelerator program has received funding from a variety of sources, including from federal and provincial programs, the Regional Municipality of York, and the cities of Vaughan and Markham.
The York region, directly north of Toronto and part of the 905 area code that surrounds Canada’s largest city, estimates the agri-food industry contributes $2.7 billion annually to the local economy.