There is a particular irony that when local eateries and bistros talk about migrating back to a method of food preparation as nature intended that the story can’t take place without visiting Eden. Only we’re not talking about the Garden of Eden in this instance, instead the efforts of Avion Harvest which is based in the community just a few minutes north of Neepawa.
Avion Harvest opened its doors earlier this year when Eden resident Tim Wiebe received a call from a colleague in the starch industry in Carberry, identifying that a former yellow pea producer was looking to get out of the production business and had some equipment for sale. After some preliminary negotiations on the purchase, Wiebe says that the seller unfortunately passed away before there could be any formal succession of the business – leaving Wiebe and his business partner Lewis Pohl to start from scratch both in sourcing the raw ingredients as well as marketing their finished product.
Pohl, who came into the venture from the financial services realm, saw the potential for the business and came in as a partner, officially taking the title of marketing manager for the company. Both Wiebe and Pohl looked at the timing of coming into the industry during in 2016, recognized as the International Year of Pulses as advantageous and the company was incorporated in March.
“We’ve certainly had a great deal of help from the industry and related agencies,” says Pohl. “We have reached out to M.A.F.R.D. (now Growth, Enterprise and Trade), Entrepreneurship Manitoba and Marilyn Crewe at the Town of Neepawa and they have all offered lots of advice that has been helpful for us to get things rolling.”
With a grass roots marketing strategy, Wiebe and Pohl hit the road with their product in hand to market their wares to various grocery chains and restaurateurs. Now expanded from simply yellow peas to a line of seven products including lentils, flax, pot barley, pinto beans and white beans, they have seen an encouraging response from retailers. In their first eight months of operation, they have their product in 27 stores across the Province including Co-op Marketplace, Save On Foods, and a few Bigway locations around the region. Their goal is to expand their market radius even wider into the neighboring provinces.
This past October, Wiebe scored a big win for his fledgling enterprise as a featured competitor at the “What’s the Big Idea?” entrepreneurship event held in Neepawa, securing awards in three categories and reaping $4,300 of the $6,900 in prize money issued that afternoon. The partners have an eye on growth with their prize win, specifically looking at the process to become industry certified in their production methods and food security practices. The H.A.A.S.P. certification opens the door to opportunities for international export. Other elements of future growth could present opportunities to work with local producers.
“We would be interested in establishing a relationship with local producers,” says Wiebe. “The most important factor in that is ensuring a consistent quality and quantity of the raw product to allow us to fulfill our obligations.”
Aside from expanding their product line, other innovations that they have started to implement as part of their business growth is a migration from the traditional packaging which might lay on a cupboard shelf to a standing, re-sealable pouch which offers more convenience and a greater shelf life for the customers who have the products at hand in their own kitchens.
For now, they continue to spread the word about Avion Harvest organically – placing cold calls to retailers, setting up shop in grocery stores to demonstrate and sample their wares, and drawing attention to their website for more details and healthy recipes that food-conscious consumers can create with their natural ingredients.
“What we are seeing more and more is that people are becoming more aware of what it is that they are eating,” says Pohl. “People want to reduce the amount of processed and refined foods in their diet and consume healthy, natural alternatives.”
The trend has started to gain momentum in western Manitoba, with a number of bistros including Boissevain’s Sawmill, Souris’ Woodfire Deli, and Minnedosa’s Corner Stone Grill adopting a mantra of “real food, the way it was intended” as part of their staple menus. In addition, culinary tourism is also gaining popularity and this year a guide entitled “From Scratch” was produced jointly with a number of regional tourism associations in Manitoba to highlight dining experiences that offer this type of non-processed fare for their patrons.
For more information on Avion Harvest and where you can get your hands on their product line, you can visit their website at www.avionharvest.com or find them on Facebook.