Martin's Marvelous makes gluten-free you want to eat
By Kealy Doyle
Looking for a little more excitement in your workaday snacks? Kalpna Solanki and Martin Mroz of Burnaby-based Martin's Marvelous have the answer: Fig salami, chocolate molé crisps, pumpkin seed cranberry granola. And that’s just to start. What's more, it’s all gluten-free, nut-free and now made with Fair Trade sugar, cocoa and chocolate chips.
Clean food, clean business
Going ethical is great, but it isn't always best for a company's bottom line. The all-important social premium attached to Fair Trade ingredients means they cost a little more, and for smaller businesses that don't make a huge profit on each sale, it can be a dealbreaker. But for Kalpna and Martin, it was a cross worth bearing.
“We decided: you know what, we're just going to do it,” Kalpna says. “We were using conventional sugar, cocoa and chocolate chips which was always a bit irksome because at home we were using organic and Fair Trade products. So as of April this year, that's all we're going to use. It mirrors what we do at home: very clean, we don't use additives, and we use Fair Trade and organic.”
Besides clean ingredients, Kalpna and Martin try to run a clean business too. They pay a living wage, hire locally, and source locally as much as they can. “Our buttermilk comes from a 15-minute drive away, gluten-free oat ingredients come from Saskatchewan, sunflower seeds from Manitoba. I know all of our suppliers. It’s a really clean, ethical product.”
Gluten-free without the taste
Wholesome, clean and natural is all well and good, but Kalpna and Martin recognized one big problem with a lot of gluten-free foods on the market. “They taste horrendous,” says Kalpna.
Kalpna had worked in the food industry since 2005 and knew the demand was out there. But market research showed that when it came to tasty, gluten-free snacks, there was just no competition. So, in April 2011, after a hard year of research and development, the first batch of Martin’s Marvelous crisps and granola hit Vancouver shelves.
The weird and wonderful flavours of Kalpna and Martin’s kitchen are clearly a hit. (Ever tried rosemary lavender crisps? They’re one of their bestsellers.). “A lot of them are based on our own eating habits,” Kalpna says. “We tend to make quite a few international foods: dates, olives, cumin. We make a molé sauce at home that we have with chicken or seafood. We make all our spice mixes.”
You can find Martin’s Marvelous in over 260 stores across Canada, the Northwest US, but guess where else? As of June this year, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.
Pretty ambitious for a small Burnaby operation, but it turns out there’s a big market for high-end snack foods in the United Arab Emirates. Unfavourable agricultural conditions and a growing population mean the country imports around 85 per cent of its food.
“They’ve got a lot of people making a pretty decent income and a lot of expats too,” Kalpna says. “They’re not too concerned about spending money for good products.”
Thanks to some “fabulous distributors” and a little help from the Canadian Trade Commissioner in Dubai, Martin’s Marvelous was on the shelves within weeks. Kalpna’s already looking ahead: “Vancouver is a very good market for a high-end niche product. But one of our main things is looking at the international markets. We’d like to build on that and look at some other countries as well.”
Business in the 21st century
Besides overseeing the expanding Martin’s Marvelous empire, Kalpna finds time to post daily on the company’s Twitter and Facebook to an audience of foodies, food experts, dieticians and fellow natural food companies.
“It was a conscious business strategy,” Kalpna says. “We were looking at getting out to as many people as we can. We have some fabulous bloggers that have written about our products.”
It’s not the typical corporate megaphone, either: there are links to news items, countless @replies and plenty of iPhone shots of the couple’s menagerie of animals. And, like every good Vancouverite, remarks on the weather. “We really enjoy it,” Kalpna says. “It’s not a hard slog; it’s fun. It’s a great platform to get to know and interact with people.”
Check them out: www.martinsmarvelous.com and @MartinsGFree