Blending Breakfast and Business

By / Photography By Tara Simpson | February 15, 2016
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A new line of muesli is hitting the streets of Ottawa — and breakfast will never be the same again.

The ingredients in Thirteen Muesli are organic, locally sourced and continuously evolving — much like the dedicated group of teenagers who make it — thanks to a new initiative at the Parkdale Food Centre.

“It’s the first food-based, youth social enterprise in Ottawa,” says Sarah Stewart, team leader for Thirteen Muesli. Launched last summer, the program’s mission is to provide 13 teens with a one year opportunity to start and run business selling muesli — with the support of a team of mentors and experts.

Thirteen Muesli’s unique approach to giving teens skills and experience was born from a grant given to the Parkdale Food Centre. The donor — who wanted to remain anonymous — approached Karen Secord, the centre’s manager, about the idea of developing a youth program.

Secord recruited Jo Ann Laverty, co-founder of The Red Apron, as a business advisor for Thirteen Muesli. Christine Earnshaw, a representative for the Parkdale Food Centre Board, was also added to the team. Stewart was hired because of her unique skill set as a teacher and a former small business owner.

“It kind of morphed,” says Stewart of the original project proposal. “At first, it was going to be a granola business.

“The problem with granola is that we didn’t have enough ovens for the level of production we wanted,” she laughs. “There are also a lot of granolas out there, but there are no other muesli companies in Ottawa.”

Stewart adds that they don’t need to worry about the kids burning themselves with muesli — since there’s no cooking involved. “People can eat it raw with yogurt or milk, or cook it like an oatmeal — it’s something versatile.”

A not-for-profit charity, the Parkdale Food Centre’s main focus is providing fresh, local foods to community neighbours in need. When selecting youth to participate in Thirteen Muesli, Stewart says the Parkdale Food Centre gave priority to kids that don’t have the same opportunities as others their age.

“The youth we selected for the program live in social housing or shelters, their families currently use or have used our food bank in the past and they are considered marginalized,” says Stewart. “Some of the youth have immigrated to Canada recently and some a while ago, but some were born and raised here.”

The program kicked off with a boot camp last summer and the teens were treated to a cavalcade of dynamic guest speakers, including Catherine McKenna, Canada’s new federal environment minister; Justin Holness, founder of UN1TY Entertainment, and Ion Aimers, founder of The Works restaurants. Each guest left an impact on the teens, who learned about the ingredients for success — in life and in business.

“Justin Holness was so inspired by some of these kids,” enthuses Stewart, adding that Holness came from a difficult background and fell into drugs in his youth. Today, he works at the Wabano Centre, where he produces and writes his own music. He also stages an indigenous art and youth fashion show every spring.

“He talked about his drug use and how he got out of it,” says Stewart. “Then he started singing and rapping with them — and the kids have recorded a song with him. “He was a great mentor to them; he talked to them one on one.”

Stewart emphasizes that from day one of Thirteen Muesli, there has been no spoon-feeding the kids on any aspect of the project.

“We look at ourselves as the mentor team,” she says of the adults involved. “We really involve the kids in every aspect of the business.”

To start with, the teens were responsible for developing different muesli blends. Sent home with various ingredients, they were tasked with creating different combinations and reporting back on what tasted best. The result was three distinctive varieties of muesli — the Classic Blend, the Seasonal Blend (which changes with the seasons) and the Thirteen Blend, which represents the teens’ favourite ingredients, including cashews, dried mango, banana chips, coconut and chocolate chips.

Next, they had to break down the cost of the ingredients they wanted to include. Stewart says the teens agreed on the importance of sourcing ingredients locally, whenever possible.

“The kids were the ones who wanted to support local farmers with the oats,” she says. As a result, all Thirteen Muesli blends use organic oats from Le Moulin des Cèdres (based in Les Cèdres, Québec) and Les Moissons Dorées — Golden Crops Eastern Organic Cereals (based in Compton, Québec). Those ingredients that are not available locally — such as dried mango and coconut — are ordered through Mountain Path, an organic and natural foods wholesaler and distributor in Eastern Ontario.

The youth had strong opinions on product packaging, too. Stewart says they watched videos about packaging and waste, and looked at different options for the muesli.

“They were so passionate about not putting it in plastic,” says Stewart. “Our packaging is bio — it’s a brown bag that they stamp themselves.”

She adds there have also been group sessions on marketing, logo design, social media, table displays and more.

The teens of Thirteen Muesli meet for 10 hours each week and  work in teams to tackle all angles of running a small business. An administrative team keeps track of accounting, emails and contacts, while the shipping team handles the ordering of ingredients and deliveries. The production and maintenance team works in the kitchen to produce and package the muesli, while the sales and marketing team heads up sales pitches and craft show appearances, while managing the group’s social media presence.

“It’s a huge circle — they all work together to make sure things are running smoothly,” says Stewart. “By switching teams, they get a feel for everything that happens in a business.”

The chance to taste test the life of a business owner has been a dream come true for many of the teens selected as participants in the Thirteen Muesli initiative.

“I was really interested because I wanted to learn how to start my own business,” explains 15-year-old David Bisimwa, who lived in Uganda before coming to Canada as a refugee in 2013. “Right now,I’m on the sales team I enjoy talking to people when selling and taking their feedback.”

Fifteen-year-old Ghita El Janaty was over the moon to be selected for the program, and seems to be loving every minute of it.

“It’s so cool to see how you don’t have to be a super well-known business like Apple — a little business like Thirteen Muesli can really change someone’s life,” says El Janaty, who was born in Morocco.

A student in the International Baccalaureate Program, El Janaty took the initiative to design the web site for Thirteen Muesli.

“Designing a website is like painting, you create something original, and let others experience it,” says El Janaty. “I added animations, shortcuts, and I'm currently working on a gallery that will contain pictures of us, the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff.

“I learned that a website says a lot about you, it's who you are, that's why I wanted to make it as fun as possible.”

El Janaty says while she has aspirations of becoming an ER doctor, her experience with Thirteen Muesli has her contemplating other avenues.

“The more I think about it, the more I want to open my own business,” says El Janaty. “Before the program, I used to think business people just wore suits and sat at their computers all day.

“Now I realize everything that goes into it; I love the atmosphere, and the ability to leave your mark on the world.”

Thirteen: A Social Enterprise
A program of the Parkdale Food Centre,
2-30 Rosemount Ave., Ottawa Ont., 613.722.8019

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