Andrew Coppolino: 6 'food-preneuers' show trend in Waterloo region

More and more unique and highly-focused food businesses are popping up in the region. CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino lists six that illustrate a growing local, and national, trend.

More unique and highly-focused food businesses are popping up, eschewing traditional business models

Gabriela Vera of KW Empanadas says her food is "homemade food to go." (Andrew Coppolino)

Waterloo region food entrepreneurs are honing their targeting skills and increasingly aiming at more precise niche markets for their unique products as they try to avoid traditional advertising avenues and capitalize on word -of-mouth and social media. 

It's one part gumption, one part start-up fever and one part reaction to the difficulty of operating a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

Peering up over those obstacles are non-traditional food businesses – the inspiration of "food-preneurs," let's call them – that are becoming as much a part of Waterloo region's entrepreneurial energy as wearable technology, e-commerce software and chat apps.

In fact, the alliance between food and tech is pronounced. Relying on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (not to mention good ol' low-tech word-of-mouth and social networking), these food businesses have built or are building strong connections with, and are "service providers" to, companies we think of as being in the tech family.

Dumplings and donuts

Here are a half-dozen such food-preneurs currently selling their wares mostly online – the list is certainly not comprehensive, but it gives some shape to the changing food scene.

In 2012, Irene Divaris came up with Meal in a Jar – solid business platform she pitched on CBC's Dragon Den. Today, she functions with little overhead out of a commercial kitchen producing hundreds of jars of Midnight Chicken or Zucchini Beef Houdini, which stock the fridges of local tech companies.

Top Chef Canada finalist Terry Salmond and his wife Sarah were reluctant to buy into the precarious restaurant game and instead are making Chow Dumplings to order. They tested out the product at places like the Kitchener Market first and now they sell out.

Former restaurateur Gabriela Vera is the cook behind KW Empanadas, an Argentine street food consisting of a baked "half moon-shaped" pastry holding beef, chicken or vegetable filling. She calls it "homemade food to go," and prepares the morsels – served to satiate hunger while waiting for the low-and-slow Argentine open coals asado barbecue – in the commercial kitchen of a downtown Kitchener church.

Imagine popping into the sub shop around the corner and ordering a sandwich: It's basically what hungry Koreans do with kimbop. Jinah Allen's order-online Kimbop business – essentially Korean sushi – rolls together rice, crab, beef or vegetables. One key difference is that kimbops use cooked ingredients compared to raw sushi. The other important note is that Allen insists that burdock root, pickled radish and kimchi are primary ingredients.

The mother and son team of Nabil and Marlen Fahel have put together a very smart, almost guerrilla-marketed, food business called Black Market Hummus. They cheekily call themselves the world's first HaaS ("hummus as a service") company and deliver only to commercial businesses (more's the pity for those of us who work from home). The concept of mystery, scarcity and controlled distribution has created quite a following for the cunningly named business. They have expansion plans, too.

Like Debrodnik's Donuts in Kitchener, Malasada World has a retail presence at the corner of Ainslie and Dickson streets in Cambridge for its Portuguese donuts. Owner Steve Chaves said these "mal asada" (poorly roasted) donuts likely originated in the Portuguese Azores islands or on Madeira. In the 1800s, they interestingly made it to Hawaii where, Chaves said, they are still hugely popular.

Are small, social media-driven food businesses run out of rented space by one or two people about to boom? Perhaps, although the revenues generated are likely still quite modest and the logistics of increasing production and maintaining quality a challenge. It will be interesting to watch and see – delicious, too. 

Read more food columns from Andrew Coppolino here.

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.