Thinking outside the cereal box
The moment that Marvin Nakonechny knew Quick Cooking Barley was a success was after chefs at the Banff Centre had served it to a large group of diners—and none of the barley dishes were left.
“The chefs had prepared it in a pilaf dish and some barley salads,” said Nakonechny. “There was enough food for about 500 people and, in the end, it was all gone.”
This moment of satisfaction arrived six years after Progressive Foods Inc. of Edmonton, AB, had looked at barley from a new angle—an angle of adding more value to a grain being used mainly as feed for the livestock industry.
“This is the perfect human food,” Nokonechny said. “The challenge was that it took a long time to cook, so we started looking at ways to reduce that time. We wanted to develop barley that would cook in the same time as rice and maintain the whole properties.”
After much research, testing and development, the company is now producing a high-quality barley that only requires 15 minutes (or less) of cooking time, as opposed to the normal 40 minutes. The result is a quick-cooking, versatile grain that can be used in a number of dishes including salads, pilafs and risottos.
This type of innovative thinking is what has led Progressive Foods Inc., as well as a number of other companies in Western Canada, to develop new uses and new products out of traditional agricultural commodities.
Cold-pressed canola oilAnother group looking forward is FBC Foods of Calgary, AB. This company is producing Vibrant Cold Pressed Canola Oil, an unrefined oil made from Alberta canola seed that has a unique flavour, as well as half the saturated fat content and 10 times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids as olive oil.
“We originally were looking at making biodiesel and industrial biosolvents from canola,” said FBC Foods President Keith Jones. “As we were doing the development work, we discovered that one of the other things we could make with the same technology was a really high-end, food-grade canola oil that could compete directly with extra-virgin olive oil.
“The great thing is that this valueadded product came out of the pursuit of another value-added opportunity,” he said. “We realized that there was a much better opportunity, in the near-term, in the food market with our cold-pressed canola oil.”
FBC Foods was established by a group of Alberta farmers and entrepreneurs focused on producing healthy, high-quality food products using local canola. The company also produces a high-quality protein feed supplement for the livestock industry.
Unlike the newcomers to the industry, Sunny Boy Foods has been adding value to locally grown wheat, rye and flax for more than 80 years. Since 1929, Sunny Boy has maintained its focus on highquality, healthy food products, including its famous healthy cereal, as well as flour and pancake and waffle mix. Its Complete Buttermilk Pancake Mix uses locally grown barley.
“At Sunny Boy, we are committed to doing the right thing in terms of nutrition, sustainability, helping the environment and supporting the local economy,” said owner Brad Shapka. “It’s important to maintain those traditions.”
Shapka said the company is currently developing a new cereal made with
Alberta barley, which is expected to be on retail shelves this summer. He added that they are working with marketing and sales groups to explore more valueadded products using barley.
“It’s always been a healthy, natural product—and in the cereal category, that’s a rarity,” he said.
Patience, perseverance and people
Nakonechny said that it was patience that got his barley from an idea to a stove-top.
“It definitely took a lot of patience and trying new things—many hours in the lab,” he said with a laugh. “It was also a concerted effort by producers, researchers, Alberta Barley and the health industry to develop this product and create awareness of it. Most people didn’t see barley as a food option.”
Likewise, Jones said it was sheer determination that got Vibrant Cold Pressed Canola Oil onto retail shelves.
“We definitely needed perseverance and taking a long-term view,” he said. “It always takes twice as much money and twice as much time as originally thought—and that’s if you’re really conservative,” he said, chuckling.
In addition to building their name and demand for their product, Jones said the challenges facing processing companies like FBC are complex.
“The way it is right now—the agriculture system is really focused on large volumes of product for export and not on smaller, food products,” said Jones. “There’s a bias in the system, in the infrastructure, that started years ago, for exporting in the Prairies. There wasn’t much of a domestic market, but there is now.”
He said that a major challenge was also finding a growth path to follow—a resource to guide them from initial product research to market development entry.
“It was difficult finding the connections in retail and health, and to find buy-in for our product,” he said. “The product was so new that it was difficult to be introduced—a big challenge was to market the product and show the public the cooking possibilities and menu options of our barley.”
Close to home
While market development is ongoing, Nakonechny said he has not had to look farther than local restaurants, hotels, hospitals, senior-care centres and school cafeterias to find a demand for a regional grain option that is healthy and convenient.
“We’ve seen some really great interest so far,” he said. “I see that interest continuing to build as we go along.”
Jones and FBC Foods also found that they did not need to look far for their customers who currently include more than 30 retail outlets in Alberta, as well a number of high-end southern Alberta restaurants.
“Now’s the time for the farmer to start looking at other opportunities to get connected with the domestic consumer market,” said Jones. “The domestic market has huge opportunity for valueadded food products made in Canada—Canadians want that.”