What food-company success looks like in Edmonton
EDMONTON ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
APRIL 3, 2018
When China’s Yantai Xiwang Foods Co. Ltd. was casting about in the early 2000s for a foreign home for its Asian-foods business, after much research it hit upon Edmonton.
When the Agrivalue Processing Business Incubator (APBI) — a facility next door to the FPDC built to lease space to food-processing companies looking for a toehold — threw open its doors in 2007, Siwin, with a staff of three, was its very first client. From the moment they moved in, Siwin began innovating and expanding its product line, so that by 2012 they were leasing two suites: one for sausages and another where they produced potstickers and dumplings.
Today, from the 3,250-square-metre facility they built in 2014 in southeast Edmonton, Siwin Foods employs more than 80 full-time staff and exports a variety of locally sourced, locally produced western and Asian foods across Canada and to Japan.
Incubator lessons learned
When the company began planning their move out of the APBI, Siwin first considered a short list of pre-existing facilities that it could possible convert, in Leduc, Strathcona County and within the city limits. But their time in the incubator had reinforced the importance of food safety, and none of the buildings it saw satisfied the company’s strict standards in that area. The team quickly realized they would have to start from scratch and create their own infrastructure.
“We knew we wanted the interstitial space, we wanted to eliminate any horizontal surfaces where dust can collect … we designed it bare bones,” DeJong says. “(Taking into account) product flow, people flow, air flow … ” and things like avoiding the flow of wastewater into raw cooking areas. “We learned a lot of that at the incubator. The government invested a lot into designing that facility, and whatever we were able to take from that, we incorporated into our building.”
Shortly after moving into its own facility, Siwin knew it would need more than just the kitchen/lunchroom they were using for culinary testing. So the team built their own lab for research and development, modelled closely on what they had experienced at the FPDC, with all the equipment necessary for testing and evaluating the foods they produce.
In building their own facility from the ground up, says DeJong, “We were able to incorporate a lot of energy efficiency,” something he says was not as much a focus at the APBI. “We use our waste refrigeration to heat the water, we use high-efficiency lighting, building materials that prevent heat infiltration.”
WHAT IS SIWIN FOODS?
Siwin Foods is a maker of processed meats and dumplings that meld western and Asian influences. The company proudly uses locally sourced ingredients for favourites that range from Filipino langosina sausages to Ukrainian kielbasa to kim chi dumplings.
“We buy as local as possible,” Siwin vice-president Gord DeJong says . “We’ve got three suppliers for our pork, all Alberta based; the vegetables that we use in our potstickers are processed right here in Edmonton from a co-op, where as much as they can they’re growing their own vegetables; our flour is milled in Calgary.”
As important as their focus on local ingredients was their desire to learn how to attract a Canadian palate with their products. Product development specialists at the FPDC and APBI were instrumental in helping the company adapt their offerings for Western tastes.
The company’s list of optional locations initially included Australia and a handful of other major centres in Canada. But while Australia was interested in investing in the startup, neither that country nor the other Canadian provinces on the shortlist had the facilities and support housed at the incubator. Says DeJong, “Here (at the APBI), it was the talent and the support in all different parts of the business that was attractive … from developing the product, to providing information on provincial and federal regulations, to sensory evaluation.”
The company’s experience has been so positive that DeJong has become somewhat of an ambassador for the incubator and for the local food-processing industry as a whole. Several years ago, he was asked by the federal and provincial governments to speak in Japan on attracting further agri-food investment into Canada.
“We experienced a growth rate of 60 per cent in 2016,” DeJong says. “And in 2017 we had a growth rate of 92 per cent.” The company is now looking at ways to expand its space to accommodate this massive growth. It’s also focused on moving further into the export market, after a successful start to a relationship with Costco Japan in 2016.
“China is at the top of our list,” DeJong says, a goal made easier by a recent Canada-China agreement to trade potstickers and dumplings. Meetings with a federal government representative have also sparked the company’s interest in the Philippines as a potential target for export. And it recently became licenced to export to the United States and Mexico.
Ten years after starting out in the Agrivalue Processing Business Incubator, Siwin is one of its biggest graduation success stories, and executive director Ken Gossen couldn’t be more pleased. “We want companies to grow to that point where they're taking Alberta products, adding value to them, and creating employment here, and where we get that added economic value and we're shipping out valuable products.
“That's a real exciting story.”