Taking a Gourmet Leap of Faith
We all have items in our fridges and pantries that we just have to have on hand. Whether it’s a small-batch condiment that takes a burger to the next level, or a refreshing soda to enjoy on a gorgeous day, these little indulgences become something to look forward to. But you may never have stopped to think about the businesses behind these everyday treats: In many cases, your favourite items were created by those who were taking a chance and fuelling their passions. For these companies, it’s beyond personal — their products are their babies.
The artisanal brands featured in the pages to follow all have a few important things in common: They all started small, with a spark of an idea, and have stoked the embers of innovation into the successful businesses they are today. They also all continue to refine their offerings — refusing to rest on their laurels — by adding new flavours, new product lines and new marketing initiatives. And when you consider that they have grown from hyper-local, regional names to having stockists across the country, that’s pretty darn remarkable.
Wildly Delicious’s café and retail outlet is located at 11 Tank House Lane, The Historic Distillery District, Toronto.
Back in 1995, when Austin Muscat and his then-partner, Michelle, launched Wildly Delicious, they had no idea it would become a household name. “My wife at the time was out of work, and she bottled some oil and vinegar. They were really pretty, and I took one look at it and said, ‘You could sell that.’ That was it,” says Muscat, who is a mechanical engineer by trade. The pair were shocked when it took off: “We got into some Christmas craft shows, but we were still really just playing with it. The reception was fantastic, though, so we got to January the next year and thought, ‘What now?’ Then we got into the Toronto Gift Show, where we rented a shelf from a distributor and we sold about $15,000 worth of stuff. Then it was like, ‘Well, I guess we’re in business!’”
The company started in the pair’s home but by August of that year, they had grown so much that they had to move to their first location. They also began to get significant media coverage, showing up in all kinds of magazines. Not long after, they expanded from their original oil-and-vinegar line into sauces and other products. “The rest is history,” says Muscat.
Twenty-one years after its humble beginnings, the Wildly Delicious store opened in 2016 in Toronto’s Distillery District. “I really wanted a store that showcased what Wildly was all about,” says Muscat. “We make more than 220 different products but at best, even our biggest distributors carry only 30 or 40 SKUs. The store really showcases all of what we do. We have a café, too, and it’s a pretty dynamic environment.”
Wildly Delicious now employs more than 50 people in their plant, and around 30 people in the store. They produce their own line of products, as well as producing items for other companies, too. They’re also coming to the end of a two-and-a-half-year process of retooling the entire plant floor, for better efficiency, to produce at an enhanced level. They also hold national and international certifications in food manufacturing. “I only wish now that we had taken bigger leaps of faith sooner,” says Muscat. “When you take a big leap, there’s always a fear that it won’t work out or pay for itself. But I wish now that we had made bigger investments upfront, and we’d have been in a better place quicker. But hindsight is always 20/20.” With that in mind, consumers can expect to see a Wildly Delicious rebrand in the months to come, as well as a whole host of new products, says Muscat. That’s a far cry from their early days of bottling products in their kitchen.
Founded by Dennis Gyorffy in Norfolk County in 1960, this small-batch horseradish manufacturer has become a household name across the country. While the ownership of the company has changed hands three times (in 1980, 2008 and 2020), one thing remains the same (in addition to Dennis’ name!): The company controls the process from start to finish, from the growing of the horseradish root and the quality control of other ingredients, to bottling, labeling and much of their own distribution. The products are certified by Feast On, an accreditation given by the Ontario Culinary Alliance.
The original owner started the company out of his home, growing horseradish on his property and creating the product out of his kitchen. But “the industry was quite different back then, with about 10,000 acres of horseradish being grown in Ontario. But many farmers swapped out for higher cash-producing crops, like ginseng, garlic and onions,” says Mark Healy, CEO and co-owner with two other Marks — Mark Whitmore, COO, and Mark Vandenbosch, CCO. Healy and Whitmore purchased the company in 2020, with Vandenbosch joining as a third partner in 2021.
Eventually there were only two growers in Ontario, and neither were in Norfolk County, where Dennis’ is located. The solution was to contract a local grower to grow horseradish root exclusively for Dennis’. “We don’t drive the tractors ourselves, but we consider our growers to be a part of our team,” says Healy. The growers, Lindsay Menich and Drew Patterson, are located just kilometres from Dennis’ manufacturing facility. It has been an eventful two years for the new Dennis’ team, who purchased the company in the middle of the first COVID-19 lockdown in May 2020. “To say that the conditions have been imperfect would be polite,” says Healy. “But it forces you to be really sharp about the decisions you’re making.” That includes new products: The Marks bought eight recipes as part of the sale, “and we’ve stayed really close to the knitting of those products. We are still producing six of the eight SKUs regularly, and the other two we will produce on demand or seasonally,” says Healy. “But we have also evolved the line and innovated two new products — a maple horseradish that we produce in very small batches in the spring, and a cranberry that is produced from Thanksgiving through Christmas.”
None of the Marks grew up in the food industry, but they have taken on this new challenge with gusto. “It’s a pretty steep learning curve, but I really like it,” says Healy. “Everyone in this space is good, honest and hardworking. And it’s true wealth generation in the purest, old-school sense: You take a thing, you convert it into something else, you sell it on and it makes people happy.”
The County Bounty Artisanal Soda Company
You might say that the County Bounty Artisanal Soda Company came about by accident. Founder Dodie Ellenbogen didn’t grow up with a farming background, but after attending post-secondary school in Edmonton, she became engrossed in the farming community. “When I moved back to Ontario, the National Capital Commission (NCC) up in Ottawa had put all of these properties in the greenbelt up for lease. So the idea was that you wrote a business plan and pitched your farm idea and you could be awarded a property,” says Ellenbogen. The NCC chose Ellenbogen and her partner, Mike, for a lease but in the end, it didn’t feel like the right fit. “Then, at the same time, my parents sold their house in Ottawa and began looking for a place in Prince Edward County. Three days later, they were like, ‘We found this great farm, come check it out,’ and all of a sudden, we were all living together and farming that summer.” The couple and their new baby moved to the farm and the County Bounty brand was born. The soda, however, came later.
Ellenbogen and Mike farmed a one-acre section of land of the farm’s five aces and sold their wares at farmers’ markets and CSAs, but it became apparent after a couple of years that it wasn’t lucrative enough. At the same time they were trying to determine their next move, a friend gave Ellenbogen a flat of strawberries, thinking she canned or made preserves, which prompted the novice farmer to try her hand at making cordials for flavoured soda. “The sodas became so popular that I only farmed for a year after that,” she says. County Bounty now sources their ingredients from local farmers, rather than growing their own.
The soda line was a small operation to start off with. Ellenbogen would go to markets with homemade cordial and a Sodastream and mix sodas on the spot. But that was short-lived and the product moved to keg format, where Ellenbogen would shake CO2 into the liquid manually and pasteurize products on the stove. “It’s wild to think about that now because it was so time-consuming,” says Ellenbogen. They have since purchased homebrew equipment and are now producing up to 5,000 litres per week.
It has been a long haul on Ellenbogen’s back: “So much of it at the beginning was just internet-sleuthing. I used to do everything — source the ingredients, make the soda, pasteurize it and drive it to wherever it needed to go — but it has since evolved. We try to double our production and distributors year after year. We’re up to four distributors now, but we do our local deliveries, too.”
Ellenbogen says she’s always been this way — fearless. “I’ve always sort of thought, ‘Let’s try this and see if it works,’” she says. “But I didn’t know the soda thing would take off this much. It’s really exciting.”