Frostbites Syrup Co: A Family Vacation Turned Food Business Adventure
This is the third post in a series of interviews with successful food businesses. We’ll go over how they started, successes and failures, and general advice for other food entrepreneurs.
This week’s guest is Peggy Speir, owner of the Frostbites Syrup Co, which is based in British Columbia (BC). They make all natural fruit and botanical cordials and syrups – perfect for cocktails (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), homemade sodas and, of course, snow cones! Some flavors include Blueberry Lavender, Blackberry Ginger, Chai, and Pineapple Habanero. Sounds like a product that’s perfect for any season and all occasions.
It feels cliché at this point, but like a lot of our featured food entrepreneurs you have a unique background. Tell us about that and how Frostbites started.
I started my career in New York building now big-time grocer Fairway, helped open Eli Zabar’s Vinegar Factory, and through friends in the music industry ended up touring the world as a chef for bands like Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews, and Sarah McLachlan. I get a lot of my inspiration from those travels and I’m a little more on the creative side while my husband Martyn is the real workhorse. His background is in the hotel industry and he really started this all.
Martyn fell in love with shaved ice during a family vacation in Hawaii back in 2010. Afterwards, he found the ultimate souvenir on Craigslist in a fancy shaved ice machine. Friends would come over and I would make syrups from scratch because I never liked the artificially flavored alternatives. They were a hit and someone suggested we should make the syrups for a local wedding.
Sounds like how a lot of great things begin! What did you do next?
We really just wanted it to be a fun thing. I liked the idea because people wanted to use it for the Sodastream and cocktails, but the syrups they were using were filled with chemicals and other junk, and ours were just the opposite. So there was definitely an opportunity there. For that first summer, we didn’t think about manufacturing, we were just enjoying playing around with flavors and the shaved ice machine.
At the end of the summer though, a friend of ours who is a food manufacturer dropped of a case of bottles – I guess it was some sort of hint!
Now things get interesting, right?
It felt like an Etsy project for me. We bottled a few different flavors and sold out in less than an hour at the farmers market. That was eye opening and a great feeling. But we still weren’t convinced. We took a road trip through the States to look at food trucks and learn what was going on in the food world south of the border.
And then were you convinced?
We did the farmers markets the following summer to test the idea again. The difference was that while the first summer was really hot, BC weather can be quite unpredictable and that next summer it never got above 60 degrees. It was a little awkward selling snow cones in the rain and cold. We managed to break even for the summer, but we weren’t going to survive another one like that.
That’s a serious mental blow. How did you handle it?
After that we realized the snow cones couldn’t be the whole business. We started bottling and thinking about our packaging. It was tough to figure out the rules, with so much information out there, but no good way to wrap your head around it.
And how did you get around it?
The nutrition labels were really holding us back. We were selling in my sister-in-law’s bakery at the time, and the bottles were actually pulled from the shelves because they didn’t have nutritionals. So I went online, happened to find ReciPal, and it finally made sense. It took out a lot of the fear factor and technical speak involved with doing the labels. And it wasn’t going to cost a ton. We definitely couldn’t afford to send everything to a lab for analysis. We just got back our new packaging and should be on shelves very soon!
Wow, that’s great! We’ll try to get Canadian labels set up as well for you and your friends north of the border.
That would be fantastic. For now we’re staying on the smaller side and sticking to boutiques in our area in BC. If we want to expand we definitely need bilingual French and English labels. We’ve been talking to Whole Foods too, and they need bilingual labels as well.
Well, that gives us all the more reason to get that done soon.
Either way, ReciPal has been useful for us because it allowed us to experiment with this company of ours without spending thousands of dollars just to get our foot in the door in certain places. There are all these little bits of money we’re constantly paying as food manufacturers – barcodes, pH testing – it all adds up.
Speaking of saving money, have you been able to find an affordable production facility? That is another big challenge in starting a food business.
Right now we’re manufacturing in a shared kitchen space. It’s really hard to come by in a town like ours, so we’re lucky. We’re right at that in between stage where if the boutiques pick up we’ll have to look into getting our own space. It’ll be worth it if that means we can keep all our inventory in one place.
You had an interesting story that led you to start using the walk-in freezer. Can you share that?
We got caught a bit off guard last year. Someone placed a relatively big order – well, big for us at the time – I said I could handle it, but ended up not having enough fruit. We had to go to the local store and buy fruit to make the rest of the syrups. That proved quite expensive and we didn’t even end up making money on the order.
We learned from that mistake and started hoarding fruit. There’s a big farming community 45 minutes in either direction from the mountain here, so we buy up all the seconds we can, and now we have a giant wall of frozen fruit, probably about 500 pounds at any one time.
I want a 500 pound wall of fruit. It reminds me of The Wall in Game of Thrones. We’ve talked a lot about the process and production, but who are your main customers?
It’s really people who use it at home. We get the occasional chef who comes down and picks something up for a special, but we don’t do big bulk. We tried a couple of soda fountains, but we were a bit cost prohibitive. We can’t manufacture at scale yet, so it’s more expensive. Then again, you get what you pay for! So, most customers are regular folks who own a Sodastream and want delicious drinks.
Pregnant women are a surprisingly huge market for us. We allow them to have a fun, delicious, and special drink when all their friends are having cocktails, plus they don’t have to worry about artificial flavors or bad ingredients for the baby. So it’s a win-win. Canadians are also quite big into house parties – going out is fairly expensive, so having a well-stocked bar at home is important and mixers are a key element of a quality bar.
My kind of party. Have you tried selling online at all?
We actually did, but it was very expensive for a couple of reasons. First, the weight of the bottle made shipping expensive. Second, the breakage rate was incredibly high. There would always be one broken bottle and it didn’t matter what kind of packaging or how much bubble wrap we used. Something always broke. If anyone out there has good advice for shipping bottles, we’re all ears.
Ok, we’re running out of room (really, just attention spans) here in internet-land. Any parting words for your fellow food entrepreneurs?
The one thing I always find myself saying is that you don’t have to follow all the rules. There are guidelines, but people get freaked out by all the rules and jargon and paperwork. Do the smallest amount that will get you to the next step. We’ve been doing this for four years now and some people would say that’s too long, but it allowed us to tweak the product and business. We’ve learned and adapted from our experiences in that time.
Had we gone full-bore right from the start, we would be broke. We did so many things wrong to start that if we pretended we knew what we were doing from the beginning, it just wouldn’t have worked. So start small, learn about your customers and your business, and grow from there.