What’s the secret sauce for growing Alberta’s food sector?

The province says Made in Alberta labels can drive sales but business owners say that’s not enough

Ray Ma and Chris Lerohl of Honest Dumplings, pictured with their child. Lerohl would like to see a big campaign to support local products, rather than just a sticker attached to a package.
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It’s not surprising that cookies and cupcakes were a hit for housebound Albertans during the pandemic.

But it wasn’t just the real butter and chocolate chunks that fuelled both delivery orders and e-commerce sales for Confetti Sweets. It was also the fact that the company is located in Sherwood Park.

“When they placed an order, they just said something as simple as, ‘We want to support local or we’re happy we got something from a local business,’” said operations manager Danielle Power.

Like Confetti Sweets, Edmonton’s Honest Dumplings began at a farmers’ market where Chris Lerohl and wife Ray Ma found their creative twist on Chinese dumplings was a hit.

They, too, found the pandemic magnified demand for food made close to home.

“The pandemic has galvanized people to support local more than they ever have,” said Lerohl. “Ironically, it’s been good for local food business.”

That buy-local sentiment is something the provincial government wants to tap into. Last month, it announced it would work with the food sector to develop a “Made in Alberta by Albertans” label in hopes of boosting sales of provincial food makers.

“The label will help shoppers quickly identify food made in our province when choosing an item at their local farmers’ market or grocery store,” the province said in a news release.

That’s something Confetti Sweets already does, and it helps, said Power.

“We’ve definitely branded our products so that people know they’re made locally in Alberta, and locally in Sherwood Park,” she said.

But a label alone doesn’t do a lot, said Lerohl.

“For it to be really effective, there needs to be additional support for a sticker like that,” he said. “Just putting a sticker on a package doesn’t do very much in itself.”

Lerohl has been part of previous consultations on a Made in Alberta label, with the discussion getting complicated when it came to ingredients and if a certain percentage had to be from Alberta.

“I really pushed back to say it just needs to be produced in Alberta,” he said. “For us to go and calculate where all our ingredients are coming from — it could change from one day to the next. I think trying to create a real granular level of data doesn’t add value to food companies.

“But more exposure and making people aware of Alberta-made products is a good thing.”

That depends on where you’re selling, said Johwanna ‘Jojo’ Alleyne, founder of Mojo Jojo Pickles, a pickling and preserve company in Edmonton.

To sell food products at a farmers’ market, they must be made, baked or grown in Alberta, Alleyne noted. So she said she wasn’t impressed by the province’s news release featuring the agriculture minister, wearing a Made in Alberta by Albertans T-shirt, at the Millarville Farmers’ Market.

Johwanna Alleyne, founder of Mojo Jojo Pickles, doesn’t see how a Made in Alberta sticker could support local food makers. Instead, she’d like that money to go to grants or training. photo: Supplied

“I looked at it, at the minister for agriculture standing in a farmers’ market competing with all the other farmers with a Made in Alberta sticker,” she said. “I don’t know how that is supposed to help us. I have no idea how it increases our sales.”

But, on the other hand, government programs have really made a difference to her business, she said.

“They don’t ask me to identify that or put a sticker on, but those programs really are game changers.”

Federal programs that help food makers get into new markets were particularly helpful for her, she said.

An awareness campaign needs to be more than “just a sticker on a bag,” agreed Lerohl.

“The biggest challenge food companies face is raising capital, developing distribution and developing infrastructure to be able to produce, sell and promote their products,” he said.

Those factors prompted Lerohl and Ma to join forces with some other companies to form the Uproot Food Collective.

“With the idea of bringing the businesses together, we could grow faster and leverage shared infrastructure and so we developed a facility two years ago,” said Lerohl. “Now we sell our products in 150 stores, and we developed — last year during the pandemic — our e-commerce platform.

“We now distribute 70 brands and have reached 80 per cent of Alberta. We went from ‘just a producer’ to an industry aggregator. Our goal is to promote and expand the reach of local food within the region.”

One of those brands is Mojo Jojo Pickles, which Alleyne started in 2011 after participating in a Slow Food Edmonton Canning Bee project. She now has an extensive range of products, which are available at a large number of stores in Alberta and B.C. (with her own store opening shortly on Edmonton’s Whyte Ave.).

Like Confetti Sweets and Honest Dumplings, she’s seen how many people are keen to buy local if given the chance, noting her website “went crazy” during the pandemic.

“We are busier than we have ever been,” she said. “Last month was the busiest month I’ve ever had.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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