Food

Partnership with EIA will allow local food entrepreneurs to compete globally

Author of the article:

Liane Faulder

Chris Lerohl and Ray Mah (a married couple) with some of their products in their Uproot Food Collective facility.

The have created a partnership between the collective and the Edmonton International Airport to build a federally certified food production facility and packing facility in an old airline prep kitchen at the airport. Uproot represents Honest Dumplings, South Island Pies and Natural Kitchen Delights. But it was the Honest Dumplings proprietors, Chris Lerohl and Ray Mah (a married couple) who began the whole operation with their dumpling company nearly 10 years ago. Taken on Tuesday, June 15, 2021 in Edmonton.  Greg Southam-Postmedia
Chris Lerohl and Ray Mah (a married couple) with some of their products in their Uproot Food Collective facility. The have created a partnership between the collective and the Edmonton International Airport to build a federally certified food production facility and packing facility in an old airline prep kitchen at the airport. Uproot represents Honest Dumplings, South Island Pies and Natural Kitchen Delights. But it was the Honest Dumplings proprietors, Chris Lerohl and Ray Mah (a married couple) who began the whole operation with their dumpling company nearly 10 years ago. Taken on Tuesday, June 15, 2021 in Edmonton. Greg Southam-Postmedia Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia

Amid the chaos of a tumultuous year, a success story emerges from within Edmonton’s food community.

Uproot Food Collective has just announced a partnership with the Edmonton International Airport to expand the region’s food processing capacity, and with it — the prospects of a host of food entrepreneurs.

The collective — comprised of three farmers’ market startups crafting dumplings, savoury pies and chocolate — will work with EIA to convert a former flight kitchen into a new, federally-certified food production and contract packaging facility.

Known as the Ag-celerator at EIA, the space (supported with a $550-million investment from the federal government) will offer small food manufacturers a way to scale up production, access transportation partners and increase national and global reach for Canadian-made food products. Uproot Food Collective (whose members are Honest Dumplings, South Island Pie Co. and Natural Kitchen Delights) will co-lead the construction of the facility and become its first long-term tenant.

Advertisement

I first met Uproot CEO Chris Lerohl in 2014 when he and his wife and business partner Ray Ma began Honest Dumplings. At that time, Ma — born and raised in China before coming to study law at the University of Alberta — thought the city could use a boost to its dumpling scene. In the beginning, the duo produced 2,000 handmade dumplings a week. Today, their weekly dumpling total — herbivore and carnivore varieties made in Edmonton with no fillers or preservatives — often hits 30,000. Honest Dumplings’ revenue has jumped from $15,000 the first year to $1.7 million in the last year.

Furthermore, since joining their brands under the Uproot Food banner, the collective has connected with dozens of, mostly Albertan, food entrepreneurs (including local stars such as Drift Food Truck, Nongbu Korean Eatery and Confetti Sweets) to deliver (via their own distribution network) a range of top quality products to households in 85 per cent of the province.

The Journal spoke to Lerohl about building a bigger, better eCommerce site, balancing babies and business, and the upside of COVID-19. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q COVID-19 threw many businesses into a crisis. How did it affect Uproot Food Collective?

A Just before COVID, we had soft-launched Uproot Food Store, and we had our brands plus two or three more. But when COVID hit, all the farmer’s markets and (food) shows were cancelled on us, and we pretty much lost all revenue and growth possibilities. Plus, we quickly found out grocery stores were no longer taking in new products or interacting with anybody, which put a brake on the wholesale side of things.

Advertisement

So we said, ‘What options do we have?’ Jamie (Scott, of South Island Pie Co.) and I spent two days and flipped our eCommerce site live, which changed things instantaneously for us. We were able to leverage our followers and the brand, and we had week-over-week growth of 50 to 100 per cent for six to eight weeks straight. It was pretty wild.

And then we said, ‘I think there is something here beyond COVID.’ The feedback we were getting was that people loved bringing together not just our products, but other top local food brands and farmers’ market products. Because we had invested over the last seven or eight years to build the business, we had the capacity to do this. In the last year, we’ve doubled the size of our team.

Q The EIA project will see you develop a facility that’s licensed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which means you can process food, including meat, for shipping across the country. That’s a goal you’d been working towards for several years. What does it mean to your business?

A The infrastructure requirements and the size of the facility you need (to be CFIA certified) have been difficult to raise the capital for. The tech industry gets a lot of investment, and the same with energy, but there are limited dollars going into the food industry (in Alberta). With our limited market size — four or five million people in Alberta — you can only get so big without that meat license.

The (EIA) expansion creates a massive opportunity for us to expand geographically. We want to be in all the major urban centres in Canada and take our three product lines to grocery stores nationally and beyond. This facility will let us have an early-stage access to the U.S. and full access to Canada.

Advertisement

Q You’ve said you want to be the Google of the food industry. How would that work?

A We want to be that disruptive organization that can transform the food industry. It obviously takes a lot of partners and opportunities and time and effort. But the data says Alberta has one of the slowest growing food sectors in Canada, and that’s what we are trying to change.

The biggest challenge is the scaling up of a food company. As soon as you’re in the grocery stores, you’re giving up 35 to 40 per cent to the stores. And you need distribution, so you give up another 35 points or develop your own system. The whole industry is riddled with toll takers leaving almost nothing for the producers. With all of those costs, only 11 per cent of food products succeed in retail. Uproot is trying to set up our infrastructure and our relationships with vendors to enable them to succeed and grow. Rather than being a toll taker along the way, we want to be a partner.

Q At the same time as you’ve been growing your business, you and Ray have had three children, Darwin, 5, Cohen, 3, and Hedy, who is six months. That sounds like a lot to cram into seven years.

A It’s a bit crazy. But having the business has probably made it easier, in that we have more flexibility in our approach, and to involve the kids in the business. This business is obviously not about living the lifestyle where you have tons of money. So you stay relaxed with your kids and enjoy a simpler life. We couldn’t have done it if we didn’t have the family support. (Two grandmothers) watch our kids during the day.

yegarts@postmedia.com

Edmonton Journal Headline News logo

Edmonton Journal Headline News

Sign up to receive daily headline news from the Edmonton Journal, a division of Postmedia Network Inc.

By clicking on the sign up button you consent to receive the above newsletter from Postmedia Network Inc. You may unsubscribe any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link at the bottom of our emails. Postmedia Network Inc. | 365 Bloor Street East, Toronto, Ontario, M4W 3L4 | 416-383-2300

Read More

Related posts
Food

Pig Cuts Straight Through American Foodie Hypocrisy

Food

‘Billionaires are flying to space – why are we still struggling to open food jars?’ Company claims first major lid innovation in over 75 years

Food

STOP Foodborne Illness delivers plan to improve U.S. food recall process

Food

Where To Eat Korean Food In Metro Manila This 2021

LET'S BE FRIENDS

Get exclusive recipes,
tips and more!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *