In ten words or less, what’s so special about your products?
We’re brewing the first-ever drinks crafted with functional mushrooms.
Intriguing. Tell us more.
Many mushrooms have beneficial properties that have been used for care and wellness for millennia by many different civilizations. We call these “functional mushrooms” to set them apart from their culinary cousins, which we fry up for breakfast or add to risotto.
In the northern hemisphere, energizing Chaga tea, which tastes a little bit like coffee or stout, has been long valued by the populations of Scandinavia, Siberia and, of course, right here in Canada by the indigenous people living in the Canadian north.
Reishi has been used in Chinese medicine for over 1000 years. It is so revered that it is called “the mushroom of immortality,” and Lion’s Mane is currently being studied at Queens University for its brain-protecting and enhancing properties.
We’re using these mushrooms, together with botanicals that are at home right here in our Canadian forests, to brew incredible drinks that taste amazing and are designed to be good for you. Nobody else has ever done this, so we’re launching a world-first and super-innovative drinks business right here from Frontenac.
Do your drinks taste like mushrooms?
We get this question a lot, and no, they don’t. Functional mushrooms don’t taste like culinary mushrooms. Our drinks taste of blueberry and spruce, elderberry, sumac, birch and juniper, the fresh flavours of the boreal forest. Apart from the chaga, which has this lovely earthy, tea-like flavour, the mushrooms we use are so neutral in flavour that they cannot be tasted.
Many people dream about starting a food or drinks business. How did you launch yours, and what were the hardest things to overcome.
Boreal was founded by two friends. Chef Mike McKenzie, who also founded the multi-award-winning food business Seed to Sausage from Frontenac and Andreas Düss. Andreas is also a founder of Nourish Food Marketing, a marketing agency that specializes in working with clients in the food and drinks industries.
Andreas had just stopped drinking alcohol because he found that even small amounts were affecting his sleep and with three young kids in his family, that was unsustainable. Mike was exploring the health benefits of functional mushrooms and so the two came together to create
adult beverages that are free from alcohol, sugar, sweeteners colours and any other nasties. As Boreal’s tagline says, Drink Something Better.
How expensive was it to start your drinks business? How did you fund it?
We put in a lot of sweat equity to get things off the ground, and that still has not changed. Andreas created the brand and the packaging, and Mike formulated the recipes for our drinks.
All in all, we spent close to two years getting those two items right, with over 100 taste tests and many different design explorations for our packaging. Any costs we incurred we paid for from our own money.
It’s important to us not to dilute our ownership of the company, so we have chosen not to take in any outside investment at this stage and instead grow perhaps slower but at a sustainable ratio.
Did you receive any help from Frontenac Business Services?
Anne made several invaluable introductions for us that really helped us get started, and in the future, we will definitely talk to her about funding for expansion. Anne is a great cheerleader for Frontenac businesses and has been hugely supportive every step of the way.
Did you launch this business from home, or from a production facility?
We started our drinks business in our kitchens at home, formulating and testing until we had a product that we were confident we could produce and scale. We tested the flavours and formulations with friends and family for over a year.
We have a picture of Mike making a chaga extract over an open fire because he wanted to explore how much of a smoky flavour that would add – before you ask, that option didn’t make it into production.
The branding and early marketing for the business were also done on a home laptop. We really counted the pennies for the longest time, and we still do to protect our profit margins.
Once we had the formula all worked out and were ready to scale up, we secured a contract with a co-packing partner who works with us to produce our drinks. That was a big step because it required us to write our first big cheques.
Where are you now with your drinks? Where is business going?
Our drinks are currently available in about 300 stores across Canada, from St. Johns Nfl to Victoria, BC and Whitehorse in the Yukon. And of course, we ship directly from our website, from walmart.ca, well.ca and Amazon. We’re aiming to be in 500 stores by the end of the year.
We have partnered with two distribution partners that deliver our products to retailers.
What are the next steps for Boreal Botanical?
We’ve received a lot of attention from the US. We have just received our FDA approval and we’re beginning to explore partnership options to help us sell to our friends down south.
What’s so special about doing business in Frontenac?
We love that we’re within 1-3 hours from several major centres, from Montreal to Kingston to Ottawa to Toronto. Frontenac is incredibly well connected and easily accessible from almost anywhere. And Frontenac Business Services have always been exceptionally positive and supportive. Anne and her team are always just a call away, whether we need an introduction to somebody or just want a second opinion on a financing option.
Finally, do you have a checklist that you could share, your top three tips to keep in mind when starting a food business?
- Everything takes three times longer and costs more than you think it will. Become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
- It’s absolutely possible to start small and cheap. You don’t need to be perfect from day one. Enjoy the process and the journey.
- Trust your instincts. If you have a gut feeling about something, act on it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.