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'Food is now currency': Standouts from Foodpreneur Lab's Start and Scale Path program making waves in food and beverage industry

Eight50 Coffee was recently recognized by the Wall Street Journal while Caribbean restaurant Baccanalle was featured on The Food Network Canada as one of the Top 10 Black-Owned Canadian restaurants to try.

'Food is now currency': Standouts from Foodpreneur Lab's Start and Scale Path program making waves in food and beverage industry
Foodpreneur Lab's Start and Scale program began on Nov. 1st, 2021, and will continue for four years until it closes on Dec. 31st, 2024. It's funded by FedDev of Southern Ontario. FOODPRENEUR PHOTO

Eight50 Coffee and Caribbean restaurant Baccanalle are nearing completion of their participation in Foodpreneur Lab’s Start and Scale Paths program designed to support Black food entrepreneurs in scaling their consumer-packaged goods businesses.

Scheduled to complete the second cohort of the program on Jan. 31, the two participants have already made waves: Eight50 Coffee was recognized by the Wall Street Journal, and Baccanalle was featured on The Food Network Canada as one of the "Top 10 Black-Owned Canadian Restaurants You Need to Try ASAP". Both businesses are based in Ottawa.

Foodpreneur executive director Janice Bartley said starting a food business is a challenging feat. It can test your spirit, self-confidence and skills. In addition, it can be a circular experience of confusion without proper guidance. So, in response, she said the program teaches entrepreneurs from an experiential lens instead of an academic view.

“The intention is to walk away with some foundational knowledge. Without that, it is a circular experience of confusion because our food system is quite complex. We believe entrepreneurship is not academic; it’s experiential,” Bartley told Black Dollar Magazine.

“The bottom line is, you either have it or you don’t. So, it pretty much separates the wheat from the chaff,” she explained. “And so having said that, we designed the pathway so that we could address the challenges that food entrepreneurs face through the process, as opposed to having to backtrack and deal with the challenges after gathering the information.”

Bartley added that the program was designed to help entrepreneurs tackle real-time challenges, ensuring they can troubleshoot, ask questions and gather information on knowledge while growing and scaling their brands.

FedDev of Southern Ontario provides funding for Foodpreneur Lab’s Start and Scale Path program through the Black Entrepreneurship Program. It is designed to support 200 Black entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry between 2021 and 2024. From manufacturing to co-packing to distribution, entrepreneurs join the program to work through challenges involved with their businesses and rise to the occasion to learn the skills needed to get to the next level.

Applications for cohort three are set to open for all entrepreneurs in southern Ontario by April 2023. Bartley said in an email that approximately 50 participants would be a part of its intake process for cohort three.

Coffee ceremony of Ethiopia
A woman pouring coffee for a ceremony in Ethiopia. Zeynep Sümer/UNSPLASH PHOTO

Controlling the narrative through coffee

Her family’s legacy is rooted in coffee. Muna Mohammed’s grandfather was a coffee producer in Ethiopia, so it’s safe to say that coffee growing is a part of her DNA. Her father's stories about her grandfather's days in the fields sparked a curiosity and passion in her that has lasted to this day.

For her, the experience was profound. Then in 2020, she started Eight50 Coffee with her family and community in Ethiopia during the pandemic.

She would later visit a family coffee farm in East Hararghe and travel to the city of Jimma in Ethiopia’s Northern Oromia Region — where coffee was reportedly first discovered in 850 AD (hence the company name) — to explore the hand-picked cherry-to-cup experience.

“I realized the passion behind it and noticed a lot of inequalities when it came to coffee, particularly on the brand level. And for me, that was an area I worked in professionally,” Mohammed told Black Dollar Magazine. “So, it was important that if I were going to get into it from a business level, I would be in it from a completely different end of the supply chain than my grandfather.

“Him being a producer, I realized a lot of the things that he was doing, his stories, and a lot of the things that he did, were never things that we would hear about on this end. As a brand, I realized how much impact and control I had regarding the narrative and the importance of being present in spaces that normally don’t see a lot of diversity.”

Today, she sells her coffee products — four flavours, three blends and espresso — and merch in like-minded retail stores, both independent and large. Mohammed said the B2B market has also been a huge target market for the brand.

Joining the Foodpreneur Lab program came from a desire to expand her business. Wanting to launch new products, she learned plenty about developing her brand.

“I was thinking about how to develop and launch other products and how to better understand what that process looks like at my level, as well as the certification and just a lot of different safety, health regulations and things related to food and beverage that you’re not necessarily taught when you’re studying (or just starting),” Mohammed said.

She was granted access to experienced entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry and attended in-person trade shows that put business owners front and centre before their audiences. As a result, she said she learned better ways to understand her budget and demands from the supply chain as growth occurs.

Her efforts have led her to become a six-figure entrepreneur with a promising future. She's also using her voice and experience to make a difference. Mohammed is a part of the Coffee Coalition of Racial Equity and the Coffee Association of Canada.

"I would love to see more BIPOC professionals in senior executive and board positions in coffee. If it's the same voices leading the decision making, year after year we can’t expect to have different results or improvements," she said in a recent interview with the Coffee Association of Canada.

Announced on Jan. 17, Eight50 Coffee was named a recipient of Visa's She's Next 2023 grant.

'You need to try this': Caribbean resto a staple in Ottawa

The award-winning Ottawa restaurant is bringing Caribbean foods to Canada’s capital.

Founded by Trinidad and Tobago-born chef Resa Solomon-St. Lewis, Baccanalle offers ready-to-eat and stock-the-freezer individual and family-style meals, catering, artisan foods, craft drinks and gifts. In addition, the restaurant features a host of Caribbean favourites, including jerk chicken or curried dishes and a sizable vegan menu.

Baccanalle was recently recognized in the Wall Street Journal’s “Top 10 Black-Owned Canadian Restaurants You Need to Try ASAP” list.

The Algonquin College culinary grad started the business in 2020 during the pandemic when her café was forced to close. But that didn’t stop her from making the adjustments she required to keep her company afloat.

“To thrive in these unprecedented circumstances, it’s about being able to roll with it, to adapt, to pivot, I also think to be open to new partnerships and collaborations,” she told CBC.

She has done just that: From local ethnic community fairs and Ottawa’s Beechwood Market, the restaurant has grown to be a part of several local markets, artisan shows, festivals, in-house dining and catering.