She's come a long way, baby!
P.E.I. foodpreneur Julain Molnar's vegan cheese business, Fresh Start Fauxmage, has exploded in the last three years, since she sold her first batch of 32 faux cheeses at Charlottetown's Riverview Country Market in just an hour and a half.
"Lots of doors opened and I got the green light from many, many different angles," says Molnar from her home in Stratford. "I just ran with it."
She has fulfilled one dream — opening a booth at the Charlottetown Farmers' Market.
She was already busy keeping her fauxmage on the shelves of 40 to 50 smaller, niche stores throughout Atlantic Canada, including Local Source Market and Organic Earth Market in Halifax and Aura Whole Foods in Fredericton.
Now, Fresh Start has inked a deal to provide fauxmage to 40 select Sobeys stores in Atlantic Canada, a deal Molnar said "takes me to a different level." She has already shipped 250 cases of 12 — that's 3,000 units — and is sending another 200 cases in the coming week.
"I really kind of have to reach out and send my product further, where there are larger markets, to really make the living that I would like to make for all my hard work and for all my employees' hard work.
"Plus I want to get my product to more people who really want it — there are people who are really really looking for a high-quality cheese alternative, and there's not a lot out there."
'Pretty wide customer base'
"The plant-based food sensation is definitely growing throughout Canada, and we're committed to providing families with diverse food options we know they're looking for," said Lynda Stewart, local development manager with Sobeys Atlantic in Stellarton, N.S.
She said customers have been asking for Fresh Start Fauxmage and are excited to have easier access to it at the grocery store.
Sobeys promotes products like the fauxmage with several different kinds of signage pointing out that they are local. They also encourage makers like Molnar to market their products in stores via demonstrations.
"Right now, I know this product has a pretty wide customer base for people that are vegetarian or follow vegan diets," Stewart said. However, she expects conventional shoppers will also buy it and that it will become "a little more mainstream."
'Leap of faith'
Fauxmage now has three employees — a sales associate/social media manager and two production managers — and plans to hire more soon.
"I really enjoy being a boss and I love my employees," Molnar said.
How hard was it to give up control of every aspect of her startup?
"It was hard at first, for sure," she said. "I had to kind of take a leap of faith and trust that I hired the right people."
When she broke her leg this past spring, she said it became clear she couldn't do it by herself. Production came to a halt, and she quickly went into debt.
"That was kind of a big wake-up call for me," she said.
She has retained control of the company's finances for now, but said she wants to hand off more of those responsibilities to concentrate on growing her product line.
'Learning never ends'
How does a former full-time professional musical theatre performer go from treading the boards to running a successful food-manufacturing business?
"The learning never ends," said Molnar, who is in her 50s. "I had a vertical learning curve, for sure ... it's insanity right now."
Molnar still teaches courses in musical theatre part-time at Holland College's School of Performing Arts in Charlottetown.
Although she is producing more and selling more all the time, Molnar said the product, handmade from high-quality ingredients including cashew nuts, is expensive to make and her markup is not high.
"My costs are very high, and in order to make a living I have to sell more than I might if my profit margins weren't the way they are."
She pays herself from Fauxmage sales, but not a regular amount.
Making ends meet
"Things are pretty tight right now," she said.
"I'm sure every entrepreneur goes through this — there's a crunch where you're growing and you need investment, you need working capital to do that.
"Waiting for the first cheque from Sobeys — that'll be a happy day!"
When she started three years ago, Molnar had invested about $3,000 of her own money — that amount has risen substantially, she said.
She just got a $30,000 grant from Food Propel, part of the Food Island Partnership, to help her scale up and hire more staff.
Molnar credits great mentors with helping her with every aspect of her business — including the Startup Zone business incubator, the Food Island Partnership, Innovation P.E.I. and BioFoodTech.
"There's always somebody there, which is really wonderful," she said. "It's a credit to the Island, really, and government programs."
Until recently, Fauxmage was packaged in a paper-based carton. It looked crafty and cute, but it didn't meet the bar for Sobeys for things like food safety.
New containers are tamper-proof and made of recyclable plastic.
"We got a lot of flack" for the change, Molnar said, which she expected.
She said she does hope in future to change back to a more bespoke-looking paper box, with the cheese in a sustainable wrapper inside.
They've changed to a bolder, more colourful logo and created government-approved ingredients labels. They've also been required to develop an internationally-recognized HACCP plan to show the product meets food safety standards.
The company still manufactures in a shared production facility at BioFoodTech in Charlottetown, but Molnar expects they'll outgrow that space within the next year.
When Molnar launched, there was no other fauxmage available in the Atlantic provinces.
The last few years has brought competition from Quebec and Ontario, Molnar said, but she thinks Fresh Start just tastes better.
"The challenge is to, now that we're in Sobeys, is to get to the stores, meet the managers and the category managers, so they can taste the product and see why it is a premium price and a premium product," she said.
"We just keep the faith and we just have to get out there and get people to try it."
Fresh Start's price has risen slightly from $10 three years ago, to about $12 now for 180 grams of fauxmage.
Future of Fresh Start
What does Molnar see in the future for her company?
Just being on the shelf at Sobeys doesn't ensure Fresh Start Fauxmage will sell.
"It's going to take a lot of going out there and just making sure people taste it and realize it's really a wonderful product — that's my job now," she said.
She would like to eventually see her products sold in Sobeys across Canada, and is already planning trade missions to sell in the U.S.
Stewart said Sobeys will monitor Fresh Start's sales in Atlantic Canada and if they are consistent and growing, she would suggest the chain carry it in other provinces — the kind of process that has worked successfully for Nova Scotia-based Peace by Chocolate, for example, which is now carried nationally.
Molnar said Sobeys has also approached her to make fauxmage for one of its private labels — something she said she's considering. It would mean a lot of changes, including a different kitchen certification.
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