Shelby Taylor, the founder of Chickapea, tells us about innovation in the food industry.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Shelby Taylor: We have been incredibly fortunate throughout this pandemic, and while we have certainly had our challenges, we are doing really well. I have been incredibly grateful not to have to travel so much, and because of that, I am closer to my kids and my husband.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Chickapea.
Shelby Taylor: I was born and raised in Collingwood, ON, where our company is located. It’s a beautiful town on Georgian Bay, a couple of hours north of Toronto, but when I was small, the majority of the jobs were in tourism and retail with some manufacturing. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to have a career and raise a family here, but the internet changed that. I studied journalism in university and eventually landed a job as a magazine editor where I found myself especially drawn to stories about food—how it’s grown and raised and its impact on the environment and our health. Fueled by my newfound interest, I began seriously studying nutrition but quickly realized this passion for healthy food was more than just a fleeting hobby. I left my corporate job, got married, and purchased a local health-food store when I was 6 months pregnant with my first child.
As a young mother and business owner, I recognized the challenge of putting a healthy meal on the table that everyone would enjoy, so I wanted to turn a family favorite (pasta) into a superfood. In 2016, Chickapea officially launched its line of organic pasta made with only chickpeas and lentils in the Canadian marketplace and expanded into the US less than a year later. In 2017, my husband and I welcomed our second child into the world — just two days before signing my first venture capital deal with District Ventures Capital, Arlene Dickinson’s fund for innovative food and health brands. Today, Chickapea is sold in more than 4,500 retail locations across North America and donates 2% of all sales to provide organic, regenerative produce and healthy meals to those in need.
How does Chickapea innovate?
Shelby Taylor: When it comes to our products, we always look to offer the most nutritious, cleanest, and delicious product on the market. Our goal is to ensure that our customers are not sacrificing taste or their health and that they can feel great about choosing our products every time. Without trade shows to attend in 2020 and travel at a standstill, we took advantage of the extra time on our plates to invest in product development. There were a number of products our customers had been requesting that we could finally bring to market, and we also wanted to find a way to take our organic, high-protein pasta to the next level—by boosting the veggie content and adding greens so customers could get their protein, fiber, and veggies in one easy dish. Earlier this year, we launched 5 new products in the US and Canada: Chickapea Lasagne, Elbows, and our new +Greens line.
The other way we innovate is in how we do business. Like many B Corps, we measure more than a single bottom line and take great care to ensure our impact on our people, our health, our planet, and our communities are all positive. We believe that businesses truly have the power to change the world for the better and that they can do it while still turning a profit. We’ve recently partnered with Community Food Centres Canada and the New Farm to provide organic, regenerative produce and healthy meals to those in need. We do this by donating 2% of our sales to CFCC, and they, in turn, use the funds to purchase the products from The New Farm, which is a leading regenerative farm in Canada. By doing this, we’re not only addressing food insecurity with the healthiest food available, but we’re helping to mitigate climate change by supporting regenerative farming – a method that pulls carbon from the atmosphere and sequesters it in the ground where it belongs. Our hope is that more brands will follow suit.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Shelby Taylor: We have been incredibly fortunate through the pandemic not to experience a decline in sales. As we offer shelf-stable, nutritious pasta and more people are eating at home, we have actually had more people try our pasta and become regular customers.
The biggest impact on our finances was having to invest in 9 months’ worth of inventory at once time as we didn’t know if we’d have to shut down manufacturing or if we would have trouble getting raw materials, or if shipping would be delayed. It was a huge investment and also scary because we didn’t know at the time if our sales would drop off or not and if we’d be left with too much inventory on hand.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Shelby Taylor: I didn’t have to let any of my employees go, thankfully. We all just needed to adjust to working from home and find new ways to connect as a team and stay motivated. I have offered a great deal of flexibility to those working at home with children or anyone with difficult circumstances. I am currently hiring quite a few positions to try to lighten the workload my small team is enduring with our growth. I’ve learned that I have an even more incredible team than I knew, and they are all incredibly hard-working, engaged staff members. And also how important it is to put your people first.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Shelby Taylor: The biggest impact on our customers was the increase in shipping times from our warehouses in Canada and the US—an issue that wasn’t exclusive to our business. We updated our site to reflect the delivery delays, and our customers were very understanding. We also did everything we could to get the pasta to our regular customers who count on our product to meet their allergen restrictions and health needs.
With more people shopping online, we invested in our e-comm strategy and made shopping on our website a smoother and more enjoyable experience. We also leaned on our brand advocates on social media. As everyone was at home cooking more for themselves and their families than before (and looking for shelf-stable proteins and easy meals to stock their pantries), we increased the amount of user-generated content we were sharing on Instagram with meal ideas, recipes, and food inspiration from Chickapea fans. We use Sprout Social for community management and content sharing. We also simplified the recipes we were sharing, knowing that it was challenging to get a lot of products in grocery stores as shelves were picked over for a time.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Shelby Taylor: We did not.