Growing up in India, Rajinder Bagga learned at an early age to keep a watchful eye on how the family’s food was handled—making sure that no one stripped out the best parts of the flour or added filler, a local version of the thumb on the scale.
As a young man living in the western state of Gujarat, Rajinder’s family eschewed highly processed foods in favour of healthier organic products.
“We would buy the wheat and take it to the local flour mill and have them grind it before our eyes. If you bought the ready-made flour, they would control the fibre, they would take the brown out. When we took our own wheat to the mill, I would tell them not to take out anything and give me the whole thing as is.”
“Keeping it pure” has served as a guiding principle for Rajinder as he and older brother Kulwant, have grown Burnaby, B.C.-based Everland Natural Foods into a thriving multimillion-dollar organic food business. After building a strong customer following across Canada for everything from muesli and granola to kosher-approved foods, the brothers decided last year to go international with their first exports—mainly nut butters and granola—to the U.S.
The brothers’ enterprise started back in 1974 with Kulwant, who came to Canada and began to learn about food by helping a relative with a natural food store and restaurant in Vancouver. Six years later, he decided to strike out on his own, trying his hand at his own restaurant as well as food manufacturing, buying a grinder to process nuts into nut butters at the rear of the store. Rajinder joined him in the business in 1982.
Local demand was strong for natural and organic products, says Rajinder. As well, consumers were becoming increasingly aware of food additives like stabilizers and hydrogenated oils. The entrepreneurial brothers found that with a little coaching customers were more than happy to avoid additives like these. For example, by including a simple instruction to stir back in the peanut oil that floated to the top of a jar, Everland enticed legions of consumers to try the brand’s natural peanut butter.
As demand for organic products grew, so did Everland, where Rajinder is now CEO and Kulwant is the company’s president. In 2005, with support of brothers Jawahar and Vinod Walia, the company traded a 5,000 square-foot warehouse for a manufacturing and distribution plant seven times that size in Burnaby B.C., where they now employ a total of 35 people. For the last three years, the firm has been included in the top 500 fastest growing firms in Canada by Profit magazine.
Entering the export market was no hasty decision. The huge U.S. market was new to them, yet they were wary of engaging food brokers. “So we followed that rule: if you want to get something done, do it yourself,” he said.
In 2015, the brothers signed up to exhibit at two food shows in the trend-setting California market, taking out booths in San Francisco and Anaheim. The products were a hit at the shows.
Everland had previously exhibited at two other trade shows – one in Europe and another in South Korea – but Rajinder says he doesn’t feel trade shows are necessarily the best way to enter a new market.
“We haven’t found the best way yet, but it’s where you start. It is like you open your shop and people get to know that you are in business. People also take your products more seriously if you go to them. They know you are not going to Korea or to Germany for fun because it costs money to show up there.”
This time, the California trade show paid dividends. Later that year, Everland was selling its products through a major food chain with a thousand stores. By the end of 2015, Everland’s export sales had grown to be 10 per cent of total company revenue. Rajinder now expects Everland to double that number this year.
While Rajinder considers the U.S. “the low hanging fruit” because of similar American tastes and an attractively discounted loonie, Everland does not take those sales for granted. “Customers are concerned about the high costs associated with freight and customs clearing, so they want to get it right the first time because importing can be an expensive experiment.”