Saturday, November 17, 2007

Susan Niczowski -- salads industry can make millions

Susan Niczowski is the right example. She made it big in the food industry with ... salads. I personally believe that in 21 century people will crave to live longer and to live healthier, then obviously the fuel for that is good food, fitness life, good medication, non stressful life. So, believe me, if you want to make money, healthy food is a go...od start. Now let's see how she made it.

Anyone can make a salad, but entrepreneur Susan Niczowski has parlayed that simple concept into a thriving, multimillion-dollar gourmet food business.And Summer Fresh Salads Inc. recently expanded its offerings of salads, dips and side dishes to include a new line of specialty soups.

Her strategy targets time-pressed consumers who want the convenience of natural, freshly prepared food. And the recipe for success calls for creating cutting-edge products each season in the same way that the clothing industry does.

"Food is fashion," the 41-year-old said in an interview at her base in the Toronto suburb of Woodbridge.

"We've actually got that trademarked," she added.

"The fashionistas have their runway of clothes each season, and we create excitement in the deli," said Ms. Niczowski, the chief executive officer who is also elegantly attired in a black outfit with a funky, pink broach.

Summer Fresh, which she started in 1991 by selling more refined versions of the ubiquitous potato, macaroni and coleslaw salads, saw its sales mushroom to $38-million last year with 20 per cent coming from the United States. Her main customers include major grocery chains, delis and restaurants.

Tammy Smitham, a spokeswoman for A&P Canada, said the food chain is a big fan of Summer Fresh and has been its customer for 14 years, buying its brand-name dips and salads. "It's the most successful dip we have," she said.

Summer Fresh is "an innovative company," Ms. Smitham said. "They continually come to us with new products and concepts, and they are continually refreshing their product with new labels or new recipes."

Its strength is also its ability to work with customers' ideas, and that is why it has more recently become a private-label maker for A&P's line of Fresh 2 Go soups and side dishes, she added. "They help us develop products that fit our strategy . . . Our tag line is 'We're fresh obsessed.' " The Summer Fresh salad collection today includes more exotic fare, ranging from the popular seven-grain salad and wild rice jubilee, to the latest offerings such as Thai pasta with shrimp and crab, orange pecan slaw, and chicken with cranberries, almonds and red pepper.

"I thought there was a need in the marketplace for fresh prepared foods -- things that you would find in a white-tablecloth restaurant," Ms. Niczowski said.

"Our specialty was salads," she said. "It's simple [to do], but to make them 365 days a year is very hard because you are not always dealing with the same raw materials."

Summer Fresh expanded its menu in 1992 to make ethnic dips such hummus, baba ghanouj and bruschetta. That niche has grown to include a wide range of delicacies from its top-selling artichoke and asiago appetizer to its award-winning roasted red pepper dip.

Her menu recently took on a new twist with a collection of soups with flavours such as Tuscan tomato, butternut squash and broccoli and cheddar that are packaged in plastic, Mason-styled jars.

A busy career woman with a first child who is now 13 months old, Ms. Niczowski identifies with the consumers she is targeting. "Honestly, I don't have the time to go home and peel those potatoes and make that stock from scratch."

Born in Toronto's Downsview suburb, she earned a degree in chemistry and mathematics from the University of Toronto. She worked as a microbiologist at Shopsy's Foods, now part of Maple Leaf Foods Inc., and was involved in quality control for products like wieners and salads.

But she struck out on her own after deciding there was a niche in selling foods to owners of delicatessens. They could reduce labour costs by buying salads from her instead of preparing the food themselves or hiring a chef to do it.

Ms. Niczowski and her mother came up with the first recipes, and they began chopping vegetables in her parents' kitchen. It was not long before she moved to a 3,000-square-foot federally inspected plant, and later expanded to her current 43,500-square-foot facility.

She bankrolled her startup with a $50,000 loan co-signed by her parents, and selling a 50-per-cent stake in her company to the owners of Summersweet Fine Foods Ltd., a pâté maker that was also responsible for delivering her salads.

But she won back total control of Summer Fresh in 1999 after buying the half she did not own "at a huge cost" from Sepp's Gourmet Foods Ltd. of Surrey, B.C., which in the meantime acquired Summersweet. "I didn't want a publicly traded company as a partner," Ms. Niczowski said.

Summer Fresh, which has 220 employees, has a library of more than 3,000 recipes for its products, and also sells prepared foods under private label to big grocery chains.

She acknowledged she has had her share of food "flops," such as a low-fat gelatin in fruit-shaped moulds. The stores snapped them up, but their customers didn't bite. "We had to pull it off the market in six months," she said. "I think it was too far ahead of its time."

But Ms. Niczowski, among 100 women honoured in 2003 and 2004 at the Canada's Most Powerful Women Summit organized by the Toronto-based Women's Executive Network, recalls having a tough time building her business in her salad days.

"It was extremely hard," she said, recalling that male buyers at food shows would often ask to deal with "her boss" instead of her.

"They still do it, even to this day -- especially in the United States," she said.

"I [now] make sure that I have a male sales rep beside me. If they want to think that he's the boss, then that's fine . . . We sell to anybody who pays the bills."

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