Neal Brothers Foods Grows From One Product to Many
While sitting at my desk working on this story, I started to think about the Neal Brothers products in my pantry. We always have an assortment of the company's tortilla chips to dip into their organic salsa; although I am partial to the multigrain tortillas, we usually have organic blue tortillas on hand, as well, and one of my daughters is addicted to the organic cheese puffs. A friend cannot get enough of Neal Brothers' organic kettle corn. And yet another close friend, who has been known to lug containers of mayonnaise home from France, is really enjoying their new lines of mayonnaise and barbecue sauce. It's easy to write about foods you love to nosh on, and even easier when you meet the people who developed and nurtured a hugely popular product line.
I was excited to speak with Peter and Chris Neal, the brothers behind the company's name, and I couldn't help but notice the big hug they greeted each other with when we met. Considering Chris was twenty-two and Peter twenty when they began making food together, it's obvious that the years— and the accompanying shared struggles—haven't diminished their strong relationship. Family is extremely important to them.
I have a keen interest in the stories people share with me about how they started their businesses and this one is captivating. It all began with croutons.
In the late '80s people were becoming more conscious about making healthier food choices, including consuming more vegetables and salads. We saw the rise of gourmet foods, which in those days included croutons as a complement for those salads everyone had started to devour. In 1988 Chris and Peter, familiar with the tiny, sawdusty options then available, decided they could do better. Armed with a passion for good food and cooking, they tackled the crouton in their parents' Aurora kitchen and brought it to life with delicious flavour and big crunch. Croutons Croûtons were a hit with consumers.
To keep up with the demand for their croutons, the brothers had to move from their home kitchen to an industrial space. As Peter tells it, "Our local baker, Pat Loughnane, charged us a whopping $5 an hour; [he] had never met us [before] and did it on a handshake as he handed us the keys to his building, The Bun Factory, in Aurora. Incredible!"
It was apparent that the public's passion for good food was growing. With this in mind, Peter and Chris stopped manufacturing croutons themselves and became product developers, marketers, and distributors.
The "Neal Brothers Foods" brand name was officially introduced in 1990 with a line of tortilla chips (packaged in a clear bag with stickers) and mild and medium salsas. A short time later, the Neals met a new Canadian family from Mexico who were producing 100 percent stone-ground tortilla chips and were also experimenting with blue corn. With encouragement from the Neal brothers, they perfected Neal Brothers' Extremely Tasty Organic Blue Tortillas. An interesting tidbit is that only stores in downtown Toronto, such as The Big Carrot and Noah's, would stock them. Others thought the chips were burnt, not blue.
Perusing their website you'll see many products under the Neal Brothers Foods label. The company does not manufacture these products themselves; rather, they use co-producers. "Our salsas, pasta sauces, mayonnaises are made in Toronto. The pasta sauces [and] salsas [contain] approximately 70 percent local ingredients." Of all the products with the Neal Brothers name, over 70 percent are non-GMO and 50 percent are organic. The Neals do their best to source local ingredients but if they cannot find them, they look for producers with similar values around sustainability, chemical-free environments and a commitment to healthy eating.
When deciding what products to take on under the Neal Brothers label, "We look to create products for NB that we like first and foremost—often we create items that we feel we could not find in local stores," Peter explains. "We also try to create items that we think make sense as part of our brand; we don't see [the] Neal Brothers label on canned soup or ice cream."
One of Neal Brothers' slogans is "Dare to be Different," which certainly applies to the many brands the two partners thoughtfully hand pick for brand management and distribution by the company. Peter and Chris travel extensively, keeping current with food trends. Neal Brothers is one of only about ten independent companies that distribute healthy foods in eastern Ontario.
Among the products not under the Neal Brothers banner which are distributed by the company are Three Farmers camelina oil, a Saskatchewan-grown and -produced oil that rivals olive oil in terms of health benefits yet, unlike olive oil, has a very high smoke point. Other product lines distributed by the company are organic Kicking Horse Coffee, roasted in B.C., Toronto-based ShaSha Co. Organic Artisan Bakery's sprouted grains, breads, crackers and snacks, and Gaga for Gluten-Free cookies, which are also made in Ontario. At least 50 percent of the items sold by Neal Brothers Foods are Canadian-made. And the company has actually invested in some of the brands under distribution, which says a lot about the pride the brothers take in their company, as well as its integrity.
Peter and Chris have come a long way since they each had their own cube van, delivering products themselves to stores such as Longo's.
In 1999 the Metro supermarket chain (then Dominion) requested delivery of Kettle Brand potato chips, one of the brands distributed by Neal Brothers, for its health food sections. Just a few years earlier, no large chain would even consider doing business with Chris and Peter's food distribution company. As Chris relates, he and Peter hung in until they could prove themselves to be viable, until potential retailers were convinced they were "separating wheat from chaff," he notes.
Because of the success they've achieved with their own food business, and knowing how difficult it is to enter into and thrive in the marketplace, the Neals have chosen to help small local producers grow their companies. Peter has to date mentored over a hundred people.
Grainstorm, a company that makes and packages baking mixes using freshly milled heritage and ancient grains, is one of them. Co-owner David Zivot explains that Grainstorm was a small artisan business which, with the help of Peter and Chris, has became successful. David likened Peter to the Wizard of Oz, explaining that when he first approached him, Peter gave him a list of stores to get his product into and advised him that, if he did, he should contact the Neals again.
Fast-forward a year and Grainstorm was in many stores, including Whole Foods. This got Peter and Chris's attention; they helped repackage the product and showed David and his partner how to navigate retail processes. David emphasizes that we need champions like the Neal brothers and their company in the mainstream market; they have the willingness and the ability to challenge the larger food economy by creating spaces for local artisan producers and healthful products.
Zane Caplansky, owner of Caplansky's Deli, has a similar story. Peter and Chris mentored Zane through the process of retail merchandising, introducing him to product developers to get his eponymous line of mustards ready for commercial distribution. Zane refers to the Neals as mensches (good, honourable people, in Yiddish) who are there to help but expect little in return. They create warm bonds with their customers, storekeepers and the larger industry while helping to incubate small businesses, adding a great deal to the local economy through product diversity.
Joshna Maharaj, Executive Chef and Assistant Director, Food Services at Ryerson University, speaks enthusiastically about Chris and Peter. Joshna is a champion food activist who was hired by Ryerson to revamp their food services, and she connected with Neal Brothers to stock their lines in Ryerson's residences and retail shops and to use their products in catering. Joshna enthuses that the Neals hit on the "magical formula by knowing that good food makes people feel good," and added that they are always available to help and have "unwavering consistency, kindness and generosity."
This spirit of helping comes in part from Peter and Chris's parents, who are philanthropists themselves. Neal Brothers Foods supports numerous local charities and initiatives. Six years ago the company committed to helping The Stop Community Food Centre by donating a percentage of sales from their organic salsa. The company also strongly supports Community Food Centres Canada and donates truckloads of gift baskets to smaller charities and local events. When a young girl named Sarah started a food drive for Daily Bread Food Bank, Neal Brothers, with the help of other food suppliers, donated 15,000 pounds of food. Their list of giving is endless. They don't seek applause but it comes, nonetheless.
Last July, Ernst & Young contacted Peter and Chris to advise them that they had been nominated along with three other finalists for 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year (Food and Hospitality sector) for the Ontario region. Although they did not win, it was an extremely proud moment for the founders of this first-generation business and "affirmation that we were doing something right." Indeed, they are.
As for the future of Neal Brothers, they are now partners in Hanna Neal Wine Merchants Inc. and hope to have a private label beer and wine available sometime down the road. There will be more flavours of existing products like potato chips, and likely new types of tortillas, as well. And, not surprisingly, the proceeds from more products will go towards supporting local organizations.
Peter and Chris Neal's journey began with one item and little money, and they struggled to make ends meet. What advice do Chris and Peter Neal have for those wanting to start a food business? The gist of it is to stick with it no matter what because you never want to end up saying "What if?"
Neal Brothers Foods