How I Started A $10k/Month Business As A Vegan And Gourmet Food Distributor In Canada

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started May 2015
$10,000
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Milen Yordanov and my main business objective is to seek out and bring to the Northern American market the finest health-oriented products made in my country of origin - Bulgaria. My partners and suppliers are all passionate artisans always ready to go the extra mile for their (our clients). I know most of them personally, have visited their facilities and have seen with my eyes the care and attention they put in creating their products.

My main flagship is a brand of organic vegan chocolate with superfoods called Benjamissimo. It is Kosher as well and has No Trace of gluten, lactose, or soy. The main customers for this line are people who care about what they eat, do some research before they buy, and enjoy the unique taste of the wholesome ingredients in the chocolate.

We sold $120,000 worth of chocolate last year, expecting to surpass this number despite the global crisis.

how-i-started-a-10k-month-business-as-a-vegan-and-gourmet-food-distributor-in-canada

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I started in 2015 with another brand, energy, and protein bars - raw, organic, vegan, kosher, gluten-free, with superfoods. It is called Roobar and at the time it was one of the best selling energy bars in its category in Europe.

I was at the time an ESL (English as a second language) teacher with a French school board in Montreal. I was an occasional substitute and hated every second of it. But as an immigrant in Quebec, this was the only white-collar job I had access to.

So my life had turned into a countdown until the next Christmas break, then Spring break, then Summer break. And a daily struggle between them. I was doing a few courses at a local university to have my permit renewed. I read the professor’s CV one day, leaned back in my chair and thought, “If I continue down this path, I will never be like him”. So I decided that no matter what, I will find something else to do. Something I like.

I do not remember exactly when, but a few weeks later an old friend from Bulgaria (my country of origin) contacted me. It turned out he had become an entrepreneur and had co-founded Roobar. They were enjoying great success in Europe and wanted to try and penetrate the Northern American market. He was only asking me to help him have the trademark registered in Canada.

I felt that this was my ticket out of the teaching job. So I told him “I will not only help you register the trademark, I will help you build this brand in Canada”. I had zero experience in the field and all the fire in the belly one can have. I started reading and researching almost 24/7 - requirements, restrictions, the market situation in this category, distribution…. Then I went to Bulgaria for a visit with friends and family, met the guy, took some samples back to Montreal and started going from store to store.

The initial response was very enthusiastic. This was the first energy bar to cater to so many dietary restrictions - organic, vegan, Kosher, no sugar added (sweetened with only dates), with real superfoods inside. I brought in a small quantity of a product and started distributing it myself. The first batch sold out pretty quickly and I brought in a larger one. The brand came up with more flavors, launched a line of high-protein bars and we were off to the races.

I learned a lot about distribution, brokerage, trade shows, sales, working with stores, influencers, etc. Over time the energy and protein bar niche got very saturated in Canada so I added another brand, also founded by a friend - Benjamissimo.

I followed the same model but this time it was way easier - I already knew quite a few stores in and around Montreal and was able to list the chocolate with a local distributor. I helped the distributor take initial orders from local stores, did demos, trade shows, and events. With time the energy and protein bars’ sales started waning and I focused all my efforts on the chocolate brand. I have been working mainly with them since early 2019.

Describe the process of launching the business.

It was all blood, sweat, and tears - relentless search for new partners - local health-food stores, Yoga and wellness studios, juice bars, basically any place frequented by my potential clients.

I wanted to build an online addition to the brick-and-mortar part of the business back in 2015.

In the beginning, I created an online store on a platform created and maintained by a Bulgarian software company. But it did not work out so I switched to Shopify. Since moving to Shopify I teamed up with a Bulgarian specialist in digital marketing. He is working on creating and expanding the online clients’ base and at the same time, the brand is increasing its online presence. I funded the launch mainly with credit cards and a line of credit. It cost me approximately $10,000 to “turn the flywheel”.

how-i-started-a-10k-month-business-as-a-vegan-and-gourmet-food-distributor-in-canada

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today I am mainly focusing on helping the local distributor open more business in the province of Quebec. My main tasks are to make sure we follow all regulations in terms of packaging, labeling, etc. I facilitate the collaboration between the brand and the distributor, offer insights from visits at stores, help with customer service, act as a broker at times. I am also in charge of contacts with potential partners and distributors in other provinces (Ontario, BC) and am actively working on building momentum with the online store.

We started working on the online store more actively in the summer. We focused mainly on building a good looking website, creating a strategy for attracting clients, analyzing the market, and preparing to ramp up in the Autumn. We did not actively look to attract a lot of customers as the summer is not a good season to ship chocolate (and people, in general, do not buy a lot of chocolate in the summer). The bulk of the sales go through a Quebec-based distributor called Satau. They serve almost all of the independent health-food stores in Quebec and quite a few similar stores in Toronto and the GTA.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The biggest lesson for me personally was to “not put all eggs in the same basket”. If I could go back in time and do it differently, I would not have used personal savings and credit to launch a business. I know there are a lot of people who “burn their ships” and make it, but it cost me and my family a lot of stress to get through the initial struggles and lack of cash flow. Although our situation has stabilized now, it was a very bumpy road and I would not do it the same way if I had to do it all over now.

I would have still quit teaching but I would not have dedicated 100% of my time to building the energy bar brand - I would have instead found a part-time job at a local health food store/distributor/broker and would have built the private business more slowly on the side.

Some of the things and trends that blindsided me especially with the first brand that I launched was the keto/paleo madness - when we launched in Canada the trend was mainly for organic/vegan/with superfoods. So this helped build the brand relatively quickly. But then the market got flooded with “low-sugar” brands of bars made with soy and other low-quality ingredients. They were using a loophole in the Canadian regulations regarding labeling of carbs and sugar which let them quote a much lower “sugar” content compared to other carbs which were not classified as “sugar”. So they were able to quote “1 g of sugar” although the total carbohydrates in their product are 20-25g per portion.

One of the habits that I find most helpful is to meditate at least once a day. I have been meditating for over 15 years now (sometimes not very regularly). Meditation and Yoga help me keep my composure when a crisis hits (which is inevitable in business). For 15 years now I have been volunteering for an organization called “The Art of living” - we teach Yoga, meditation, breathing, and stress-management to kids, adults, business people, entire organizations. I also find it extremely important to have a more-or-less fixed schedule and find time for journaling, planning, reflection. A good daily routine helps to prevent burn out when things are tough and one has to put in 60-70 hour weeks. And if such a period is followed by a period of success and steady growth without too much effort, one might turn complacent and start wasting time. But a structured daily schedule with predetermined routines helps avoid fooling around.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I use mainly Shopify, Facebook, and Instagram. We are currently working on combining efforts with the brand’s digital marketing agency so we can use analytics, insights, and better targeting. For email, we are using Mailchimp. For CRM and ERP, I am using ERPnext and I find Trello quite useful for certain tasks and projects. Google calendar helps me keep track of my schedule and appointments - I have color codes for the different types of tasks (red if I have to physically go, orange if I can do it from my “home office”, yellow/pink if it is not urgent but needs to be done eventually, etc.) For shipping right now I mainly use Canada post.

At one point with the energy and protein bars (we had 600 POS at a certain point) I had the bars stored and shipped by a 3PL (third party logistics).

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Books

  • Never split the difference - a book by Chris Voss. Very useful for negotiations and helpful when one needs to extract everything out of even a seemingly hopeless situation.

  • The magic of thinking big offers a lot of tools for self-improvement and habits to install to improve mindset and self-control.

  • Mindset - it helped me see a lot of flaws in the way I was seeing myself and the world.

  • Anything by Robin Sharma is pure gold - The monk who sold his Ferrari, The leader who had no title, The 5 AM club...

  • Any courses, talks, videos with Tony Robbins - very motivating but at the same time competent when it comes to learning and applying specific business skills and self-improvement tools.

  • Anything by Seth Godin - a real marketing and culture Guru.

Podcasts

  • If I had to pick one podcast it would be Tim Ferriss - his ability to probe and poke and look for “nuggets” in his guests’ life, routines and mind is nothing short of sensational.

  • I also really enjoy Akimbo, a podcast by Seth Godin (insights into how the culture is built and how it changes and evolves), Robin Sharma’s mastery sessions(mainly for introverts who want to be benevolent leaders and race in their lane without crushing their competition), the Tony Robbins podcast.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

  • Do not stop learning
  • Always do the right thing, even if it would hurt you in the short term.
  • Look for people whom you can help with anything (it pays off in the long term)
  • Network, connect with like-minded entrepreneurs who offer complementary to your service/product to a similar clientele (example - if you sell cookies, team up with someone who makes tea/coffee/juice)
  • Always check the credentials of people who offer you their services.
  • Never give payment terms on the first sale. Always ask for payment in advance or COD.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Milen Yordanov,   Founder of Destinature

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