… AND HOW THE FOOD PROCESSING DEVELOPMENT CENTRE HELPED THEM DO IT
Edmonton Economic Development
April 13, 2018
Smoked meats are a rich tradition in Brandon Markiw’s family.
A proud member of a long line of Eastern Europeans who have made their home in Alberta, the founder and CEO of Range Road Meat Co. brings a deep respect for his culture’s food history to his company’s ever-expanding line of smoked-meat products.
Range Road Meat is a family affair. Markiw’s stepmother is, as he affectionately calls her, the company’s “CFO — or Chief Flavour Officer” in charge of recipe development for their growing line of gourmet sausages. His father is in charge of sales and his stepbrother works alongside him in operations. A master butcher who immigrated to Canada from Germany 10 years ago rounds out their core team.
Early in 2016, Markiw and his team approached the Food Processing Development Centre (FPDC) — a world-renowned provincial government facility about 20 minutes south of Edmonton — with the beginnings of a business plan. “We quickly discovered that they could be a really meaningful jumping-off point for us,” he recalls.
In January of 2016, Range Road moved into a space at the FPDC, where they began working on product research and development with the help of the expert in-house team of food scientists, engineers and technologists. By April of the same year, they were already sending out a sales team to large-chain grocers, despite the well-meaning advice — “Why not start with farmers markets?” — of some friends. Sure, it was a risk to go big instead, but retail specialists with Alberta Agriculture backed up Markiw’s instincts Range Road could better serve the large gap in the market through a less-exclusive, more-accessible avenue. Save-On-Foods turned out to be the perfect partner in filling that gap, he says. The grocer has a mandate to offer “higher-quality, interesting, locally produced products,” and Range Road’s sausages fit the bill.
Over the last century, says Markiw, the need to extend the shelf life of smoked meats led to an incremental decrease in quality and flavour. Bucking this trend, “we only use natural ingredients,” he says, “and we do as much local sourcing as we can.” Range Road gets the pork for its sausages from Sunterra Farms, and has worked to develop relationships with other nearby sources. They’re in the process of developing a relationship with an Alberta garlic farmer, in hopes of sourcing their garlic there in the near future. Not only is this interdependence beneficial for producers like him, says Markiw, but “it’s important to evolving consumer preferences.”
By November of 2016, with a deal in place with Save-On across the Prairies, it became clear that Markiw’s family business would need to move on from the FPDC and find space large enough to accommodate the company’s planned increase in output. The solution? In early 2017, Range Road Meat Co. began to make plans to shift operations to the facility’s Agrivalue Processing Business Incubator, just down the hall.
Whereas companies using the FPDC can take advantage both of the human resources there and the state-of-the-art machinery, once they move into the Incubator they must bring their own equipment. “It was a massive jump to get in there,” says Markiw. Range Road had to invest about $1.4 million and several months to set up, prepare and test their equipment before moving in and commencing operations in August of 2017.
The leap was made much less of a burden by the continued support of the FPDC staff and the significantly lower-than-market monthly lease rates for their space. “They have a great open-door policy,” he says, “and there’s a team of six quality-assurance people, whose services are a part of our lease fees” and whose HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) knowledge has proven invaluable. Asked if what he’s learned about food safety has been the best thing to come out of his time in the Incubator, Markiw hesitates. “It’s hard to rank them,” he admits, “and the physical space itself is spectacular. But yes, having that expertise in quality control is a massive value-added component.”
Today, Range Road Meat Co. has expanded its family. The company employs up to 12 people on its sales team and, during peak production, up to 10 employees work the line. It’s expanding in other ways, as well.
“We have a line of summer products for the grill coming out,” says Markiw, “and we want to get into convenience, on-the-go snacks.” They’re exploring working with bison, poultry and beef, too. And they’re hoping to expand their retail partnerships. They're now in Save On Foods across the Prairies, Sobeys and Safeway across Western Canada, Thrifty Foods in B.C. and Freson Bros. in Alberta. They’d like to move into Superstore, No Frills and, ultimately, Costco as well across the nation.
As for plans to move out of the Incubator, that’s currently the furthest thing from Markiw’s mind. “We signed a three-year lease,” he says, “and there’s an option to extend for a fourth and fifth year.” He’s taken one big lesson — to try to take things one day at a time — from the whirlwind of growth Range Road has experienced over the past two years. “I’ve tried to adapt a ‘just in time’ attitude, instead of ‘just in case,’ ” he laughs.
Markiw has nothing but praise for the level of talent in the FPDC and the Incubator. “They are definitely there to provide whatever needs the individual project requires.”
And he’s clearly having a great time there. He sums up, with a laugh, “I call the place ‘Disneyland for food makers.’ ”