Ottawa man's avocado seed enterprise gives new meaning to 'green tea'

·3 min read
Jacob Sugarman shows off the AVO Initiative's line of loose teas, cold drinks and other accessories. Eventually, he hopes to generate enough revenue to reinvest in renewable energy projects. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
Jacob Sugarman shows off the AVO Initiative's line of loose teas, cold drinks and other accessories. Eventually, he hopes to generate enough revenue to reinvest in renewable energy projects. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

An Ottawa entrepreneur is setting out to change the world using a resource most of us toss away in the kitchen compost: the humble avocado seed.

Jacob Sugarman's business venture, called the AVO Initiative, began about four years ago at a hostel in Victoria, B.C., when he noticed a man sipping a cup of tea with a deep ochre hue.

"I asked him what was in the cup of tea because I'd never seen a tea that colour before, and he said it was avocado seed, and I said, 'what?'"

Big things have small beginnings. - Jacob Sugarman, AVO Initiative

Sugarman tried a sip. It was bitter-tasting, but something about the concept of "upcycling" unwanted avocado pits to make another marketable product captured his imagination.

"It is a wasted economic resource in my opinion, and it also has a lot of potential health benefits," said Sugarman, 30, citing research he's found online.

When he returned home to Dunrobin, just on the rural western outskirts of Ottawa, Sugarman immediately began experimenting with different processes until he found a way to remove the natural bitterness from the shredded seeds. It didn't take long to come up with the product he calls "avo." (Because he's seeking to patent his process, Sugarman is keeping the details to himself.)

"It's like green tea's cooler cousin. It is less bitter, slightly less sweet and there is no caffeine in it," Sugarman said.

Through his contacts in the local restaurant industry, Sugarman soon formed a network of willing seed providers, including Mario Garcia, co-owner of Mercadito at Queen St. Fare.

"When Jacob asked us if he could use the seeds we said, 'That's cool if you can reuse them," Garcia said.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

'No cost' to restaurants

Like most other restaurants, Mercadito, which specializes in authentic Mexican street food, used to throw their avocado seeds away. Now Garcia keeps them in the fridge for Sugarman, who drops by regularly to pick them up.

"There was no cost to us, we're already processing the avocado," said Garcia, who estimates his restaurant goes through a couple cases of avocados in a typical week — fewer than before the pandemic, but enough to provide Sugarman with a steady supply of the raw material he needs to fuel his business.

Sugarman said none of the 23 contributing restaurants including Mercadito, its Queen St. Fare neighbour Green Rebel, vegetarian favourite Pure Kitchen and ByWard Market eatery Corazon de Maiz, have asked for anything in return.

"Without them we would be nothing," said Sugarman, who also credited a handful of investors and other "very awesome people" for helping him get started.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

Since coming up with his original avo blend, Sugarman has added seven flavoured blends, as well as three flavours of chilled tea. The loose tea comes in 100-gram bags that can be purchased for $15-$19.99 at local markets or through the AVO Initiative website.

The company also sells customized steepers made locally from reclaimed wood — shaped like an avocado, of course. And yes, they do deliver.

Growing from the seeds

But for Sugarman, who has no formal business training ("I tried university a few times," he said) making and selling tea and accessories is only part of the plan.

His ultimate goal is to use the sales revenue to invest in renewable energy infrastructure, and thereby play a role in what he sees as the inevitable shift toward a greener economy. Any dividends would then be reinvested in other renewable energy projects.

"There's huge potential for investment there," he said. "Big things have small beginnings."

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

For now, any revenue goes toward financing the company's day-to-day operations including production, packaging and salaries. But once the summer sales season is done, Sugarman hopes to make his first investment through the Ontario Renewable Energy Co-op.

From there, the sky's the limit for Sugarman and his team.

"We could go global with this. That's the goal," he said. "We're ready."