Shortly after the birth of her son in 2018, Toronto bakery owner Lisa Sanguedolce crossed the Canada-US border to buy lactation cookies from US retail giant Target.
She couldn’t find a local Canadian supplier of the snack, which is made with ingredients like oats and flaxseeds that are believed to naturally promote breast milk production.
“You know, you’re sleep deprived and you really need those cookies,” Ms. Sanguedolce recalls with a laugh. “And I own a bakery!”
When the owner of Le Dolci Bakery & Culinary Classroom told his staff about the cross-border cookie jaunt, they offered to bake him a few batches – a move that spawned another business later that same year, The Lactation Cookie Company.
“I wanted to help others on their own breastfeeding journey by making these cookies more readily available,” she says. A portion of cookie sales are also donated to La Leche League, a global non-governmental organization that provides breastfeeding education and support.
While there was a clear opportunity to get the product on shelves in other markets, there were also challenges, including the pandemic which put its plans in limbo for two years.
Ms. Sanguedolce was inspired to export after participating in the Toronto Chamber of Commerce’s Trade Accelerator program, designed to help small and medium-sized businesses gain skills to access international markets.
She credits the education, guidance and mentorship she gained through the program for giving her the confidence and know-how to bring her product to American shelves.
“I’ve owned a bakery for over 10 years and never had such an education, which has helped me grow things domestically,” she says. “I thought, ‘That’s great, we’re going to get all kinds of help.'”
Ms. Sanguedolce and her team members have been able to attend trade shows and meet nutritionists and other consultants, which she says has really helped them prepare for an international launch. The expectation was supposed to be on US store shelves last year, but the pandemic stalled plans.
At the same time, its Toronto bakery was suffering the lingering effects of multiple closures and ingredient shortages due to supply chain disruptions.
The cookie company has been able to sell its products through its website for the past two years. By going the e-commerce route, he was able to test products nationwide and gather customer feedback without worrying about a storefront.
“We received very positive feedback from customers during this period,” says Ms. Sanguedolce. “People seemed to like the taste and like the look.”
The current plan is to team up with a major retailer in Texas (one she’s not ready to reveal) and be in up to 400 stores in the near future.
“We’re just thrilled that this is something we can export to the United States,” she says, adding that this is just the start of the business. Its long-term goal is to reach the UK, German and Chinese markets.
Eric Janssen, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario, says a good strategy for exporting food businesses is to “be local everywhere,” meaning that a business must adapt its product to a specific area and focus its marketing and distribution on this region.
“Don’t just say ‘we’re going to expand into Europe,’ because Europe is a lot of countries and a lot of mini-markets in those countries,” says Janssen, whose ‘Hustle and Grit’ course is specializing in sales education. to contractors. “[It’s the] same thing with the United States; you want to be really focused. So instead of “let’s go to the United States”, think “let’s go to New Jersey, let’s go to California”.
He suggests creating a business plan for each market, gaining success, and then growing from there.
Still, he cautions business owners against expanding beyond their capacity. For example, a small business might jump at the chance to be on the shelves at Costco or Walmart, but if it doesn’t have the people or the products to fill those orders, it could turn against it.
“If they walk into Walmart, but they can’t sell at Walmart, you’re not invited back,” Janssen says.
It’s been a few years and a global pandemic since Mrs Sanguedolce’s inspiring cookie quest. She is optimistic that her export business is ready to take off and she hopes this new source of income will offset the difficulties her Toronto bakery is still facing.
“Our co-packer plans to turn on the machines in the next few weeks.”