Ari Powell started working at his father’s Toronto-based fountain drink concentrate distribution company during his first summer break from law school. His father, a restaurateur for most of Powell’s childhood, imported flavoured syrups from the United States to resell to independent Canadian and American restaurants looking for affordable alternatives to Coke and Pepsi.
Powell saw an opportunity for him and his father to make the concentrates themselves. They were inexpensive to produce, so why not cut a step out of the supply chain? The father-son team opened a manufacturing plant during his second law school summer vacation.
While Powell finished his degree and earned his law licence, his father grew the business and bought other concentrate manufacturers. “I realized I didn’t want to kill trees for a living,” Powell says of his choice not to become a lawyer. “Sauces were really always my passion.”
Powell followed that passion when he rejoined the family business in 2000. By then, Giraffe Foods Inc. had shifted completely from distribution to manufacturing. His first product was an aged cayenne pepper wing-dipping sauce.
Before long, Powell’s customers demanded blue cheese, barbecue and ranch sauces. “Through the early 2000s, I was basically walking into meetings all the time and the customer would ask, ‘Can you do this?’ and I’d say sure. Of course, I had no idea, because going to law school doesn’t prepare you for making massive amounts of blue cheese dressing.”
The early demand for new products convinced Powell, now CEO, that R&D would be essential to the company’s future. “Innovation is expensive, but it really drives growth and customer retention,” he says. “When your customers start to look to you to execute on their innovation, then you know you’ve got a steady stream of projects coming in and you become their go-to person.”
While he can’t name any of his customers due to non-disclosure agreements, he can say that he has no doubt you’ve tasted one of his products. Giraffe Foods makes 1,500 different sauces, dips, dressings and soft drink concentrates for restaurants, retailers and frozen entree manufacturers. The company established an export business from the start, with its very first sauce. Today, its customers are spread evenly between Canada and the U.S., with a smattering of clients across 20 other countries.
Making inroads with American customers as a fledgling company turned out to be easier than with Canadians, says Powell—but having U.S. clients makes it easier to close sales at home. “In Canada at the time—but the same is true today—people were more comfortable with their two or three vendors,” he says. “In the U.S., companies look out into the marketplace and there are 50 potential vendors. They’re more in tune with getting called on by new companies they’ve never heard of and are more willing to give them a chance.”