The man who bottled the taste of Nova Scotia
Posted on June 27, 2022 | By Stephen Kimber | 0 Comments
It is the moment entrepreneurs imagine, the one they scheme and dream and hope to make reality.
It was February 2019. Ted Grant, the founder and CEO of Fundy Drinks Ltd., had driven three hours from the company’s home base in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley to New Glasgow with his fledgling venture’s first, freshly perfected product: Viveau, a fruit drink made from a combination of “lightly sparkling mineral water” and “only real fruit, never ‘natural flavours.’”
Grant had been invited to pitch the drink—which boasted locally grown pressed fruits mixed with mineral water from Middleton, N.S.’s Spa Springs Mineral Water Co.—to the Atlantic region merchandising team at Sobeys supermarkets.
“They actually tasted the product,” Grant marvels today, “and then they said, ‘Whoa, hold on, guys. You’ve got something great here. So, this is not a conversation for us to be having. You need to send us more. It needs to go to the national category team, and they’ll taste it and get back to you.’”
He did, they did, and the national category team soon got back to Grant.
“’We really like this,’” he was told. “There’s nothing like this on the market and we need to expand on the idea of listing it just in Atlantic Canada.”
“It is a moment in time where you think, ‘This is amazing,’” Grant recalls today. “Wow! What could be better? But what you’ve never even thought about is, ‘How do I get a [breakable] bottle of Viveau from the Annapolis Valley to British Columbia?’ We’ve presented a price for Atlantic Canada, but now we have to start shipping that to the Safeway warehouse in Calgary. Will our cost hold up?”
That was just the beginning of what Ted Grant describes today as three years “drinking from a fire hose all the time.”
There were so many lessons he had to learn. And learn yesterday. Grocery retail, he says now, is “a real bloodbath… You have no clue about the complexities of grocery retail. It’s hard enough to be an entrepreneur and put everything on the line for your passion. But it’s another massive marketing challenge to get a product on shelf. There are loads of charge backs and bill backs and penalties, and there’s a whole thing called a ‘promo trade spend’ that is very complex. It’s not just, ‘Hey, let’s put it on flyer or get it on special.’”
He laughs. It is a hard-won, three-years-in-the-trenches laugh.
Today, however … well, we’ll come back to that.
You should know that Ted Grant didn’t start out to be a start-up fruit drink entrepreneur. Now 45, he was born into a family of lawyers. Father, brother, aunt…. His grandfather, Donald, was a lawyer too, but he preferred life on the land. In fact, he abandoned the legal profession early, Ted says today, “because his interest was being in the fields.” It was an interest his grandson shared.
Growing up, Ted would spend summers with his grandfather on his farm, helping out, planting vegetables, raising livestock. “I had a connection to the earth and to food from the time I was growing up. I knew what it meant to harvest your own food, to taste the fruits of your labour.”
At Dalhousie University, Grant says, “I started cooking a lot more than an undergrad student typically would and developed a real passion for gastronomy.” Officially, he earned his degree in history, but he quickly shoved it to one side to enrol in Ontario’s Stratford Chefs School, “a not-for-profit career college focused on the innovative, hands-on training of high quality, aspiring chefs and culinary entrepreneurs.”
After earning his diploma in 2002, he played culinary career hopscotch, plying his chef’s trade across five continents with a variety of stops in Canada, as well as New York and at Michelin starred restaurants like Chez Bruce in London.
He finally returned to Nova Scotia in 2008 to become the executive chef at Geo, a four-diamond restaurant in Halifax’s Prince George Hotel that boasts its “divine and diverse menu shifts with season and product availability, combining the best in local and global ingredients.”
“Halifax was really still a fish and chips town,” Grant says today,” so we were pushing the envelope on ingredients and doing some neat things.”
But that also meant pushing “late hours and long days” so, when Holland College’s Culinary Institute of Canada came calling in 2011 with an offer to teach, he grabbed it. He used his time in Charlottetown wisely, completing his own food science degree and a master’s in education while teaching. He also dabbled in product development, helping bring “some products in the seafood space and other consumer packaged goods” to commercial life.
In 2013, Grant moved home to Nova Scotia once again, initially as the manager of hospitality programs and, later, as director for all the hospitality departments in the Nova Scotia Community College system.
Three years after that, he switched gears one more time, joining GoodLeaf Farms, a Truro, N.S.-based start-up whose vertical farming technology was developed to grow leafy greens indoors under LED lighting from seed to ready-for-the-table in 14 to 21 days. “We scaled that business,” he notes proudly. “We built a 65,000-sq. ft. farm in Guelph. McCain now is the largest shareholder of that business.”
But, he adds, “while I was there, I just realized I want to do something on my own.”
The question was what?
He soon teamed up with Hanspeter Stutz, a Swiss banker turned winemaker who’d purchased Nova Scotia’s down-at-the-heels Grand Pré Winery from its banker and made it a success again.
He and Grant became friends, then partners. It was Stutz, in fact, who told Grant about a popular European drink called Schorle that combined apple juice and mineral water.
“First comes the mother’s milk, then the Schorle and, after that, wine,” he told Grant.
Apples? What about blueberries? Or tart cherries? Mineral water? They could source locally too, and “with a very high calcium content.” With no added sugar, no added ingredients. Just pressed fruit and healthy water…
They agreed to team up to transform their idea into a marketable product.
What could go wrong?
Using his own background as a chef and product developer, Grant experimented. “The formulations were tabletop formulations and nothing like they are today, but it was fun just to taste.”
The problem was that Mother Nature made a habit of “messing with the product development. If the heat units are too hot,” he explains, “the sugar goes too quick on the apples, and then you have to start changing your varietals… It’s all a bit of a game.”
They finally got the formulation right. Smooth sailing after that?
Not so much. Even before they’d figured out the Canadian market, let alone their local one, Grant and Stutz set off on a “way too early” sales promotion venture to China. “We were just passionate entrepreneurs who thought we’ve got something that tastes great. It’s going to sell. And that couldn’t be further from the truth… We’re both almost too like-minded,” he says now, “very passionate people about food and beverage. And we both like to run before we walk…”
By the fall of 2019, they’d scaled back on their ambitions and were finally ready to launch, not only through Sobeys but also at Costco Wholesale, Loblaws, Safeway, Metro, Longos, the Overwaitea Group and more.
And then… along came the pandemic.
As awful as the pandemic was for so many businesses, it was a reset blessing for Viveau.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why now? Why us?” Grant says today. “But we didn’t hang our head for too long. We just realized that it was a moment in time that we were to get through. It gave us the time to really think about this brand. We had to be vulnerable, recognize all of our imperfections, all of our mistakes and then build something solid out of the taste, out of what we have. Just dig in, and then dig in some more.”
During COVID’s darkest days, in fact, Fundy Drinks raised much needed capital, conducted qualitative and quantitative research, revamped their “rough,” what-they-could afford branding into something more sophisticated, switched from breakable glass containers to durable cans and built up their team, adding key players like Newfoundland investor and entrepreneur Mark Dobbin, who became board chair, and Tammy Hazen, who’d previously helped build brands like Smartwater and KIND Healthy Snacks, as Viveau’s new vice president of marketing.
By the time the pandemic began to ease, and the world opened up again, Viveau “just started to feel less like a start-up,” Grant says, “less like you were running in one direction, and then, when it didn’t work, in the other. Everything started to have structure.”
Today, Viveau has 12 full-time staff and another 18 “brand ambassadors” who wander from festivals to charitable events to Costco tables handing out sample drinks as a way to build brand awareness.
This year, Viveau launched in New England and New York. “Once we build that market up, then we’ll expand hopefully down the eastern seaboard,” Grant says.
China is still in their marketing crosshairs, but over a more distant horizon now. One step at a time, as they’ve learned.
But when the time does come, this time Ted Grant will be ready.
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