Roasted red pepper hummus, aged cheddar and chipotle dip, spicy penne parmesan salad – success comes in a variety of forms and flavours. At least, it does for Susan Niczowski, President at Summer Fresh Salads Inc. With humble beginnings dating back to 1991 in her mother’s kitchen, Susan has grown her specialty food company into a thriving business with 350 employees and over $100M in annual revenue. It’s a true Canadian success story.
But how did she do it? How did she get to where she is today?
It all started 25 years ago when Susan identified an untapped market for healthy, all-natural, fresh prepared foods in Toronto. Equipped with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Toronto and a passion for gourmet cooking, she took a huge leap of faith, resigned from her job in the corporate world, and set up shop at home. She started with 18 recipes for ready-prepared salads – some of them family favorites, and others based on trends in the industry. She prepared samples of her recipes – all without preservatives, additives or MSG – and went door-to-door, canvassing specialty food stores in the Toronto area.
The response was incredibly positive and surpassed Susan’s expectations. The Summer Fresh products were a hit. The specialty food stores loved that they didn’t have to hire additional staff to prepare the salads themselves – they were ready-made, fresh, all-natural, and sold in environmentally friendly packaging.
Within a month, Susan moved into a 3,000 square foot facility and hired two employees. “At the time, I had no idea about market research. I just had an instinct, saw a need, and went for it,” Susan recalls. It was a gamble that has paid off, many times over. “My family and I really enjoyed eating gourmet, healthy food but it wasn’t readily available in stores back then. We basically created the market.”
Susan’s previous role with Shopsy’s served her well, as it taught her the value and importance of being a federally inspected facility. Under Susan’s leadership, Summer Fresh became the first salad manufacturer to become federally approved. She hired an on-site inspector for Summer Fresh, and maintained strict separation between the various salads. It was a high standard for quality control that none of her competitors were meeting at the time, and it helped her get a foot in the door with the larger grocery chains.
From there, the growth of Summer Fresh skyrocketed and the product line expanded to include hummus, dips, sauces and other appetizers. Susan quickly realized the need to lease additional space, but within five years, they had even outgrown the expansion. Summer Fresh moved into a state-of-the-art, custom-designed 18,000 square foot facility, loaded with leading edge equipment. Her father’s training as a mechanical engineer came in handy, as he advised on facility layout and process flow. The business became a true family affair, with Susan’s sister Mary joining the ranks as VP Operations, and her mother still involved in packaging and processing.
After two more expansions and still more growth, the Summer Fresh facility was bursting at the seams. In 2008, Susan purchased the building where her current facility is located – 80,000 square feet for the corporate head office, and an additional 80,000 for the manufacturing facility. Of course, she can’t do it all on her own anymore. “I have a 12-year old daughter and I enjoy being hands-on in her life. I knew that I needed a qualified team to support me and help grow the company,” explains Susan. “My time is best spent leading, not doing. So, today I oversee everything as President, and I rely heavily on my team to do what they do best. It’s a fast-paced and collaborative group, and we’re all hungry to grow.”
Needless to say, Susan is not one to rest on her laurels. Having won countless awards on behalf of Summer Fresh – including being named as one of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies for the past seven years running – Susan is quick to say “that was the past. What matters now, is the future.” Her objective is to keep the company growing in double digits, year over year. “As we grow larger and the competition becomes fiercer, it’s even more important to look at strategy and plan ahead,” she explains. “We conduct an intensive strategic planning exercise every year to look at what’s been successful, and brainstorm ideas for staying on top. We consider everything, from technology, production efficiencies, the competition, R&D, human resources, and so on.”
The U.S. market represents a huge, and widely untapped opportunity for Summer Fresh, because its market share is still relatively small south of the border. “Our focus is to grow the loyalty of our existing customers, reaching and developing new customers, and constantly adding innovative products,” explains Susan. “My team travels the world looking for innovative trends in food, flavours, and packaging. We’ve coined the phrase ‘Food is Fashion’ and we introduce new products with each new season, like our warm salads, this past Fall. But trust me, for every successful product, there are many failures. We’re constantly testing and experimenting.”
Reflecting back, Susan acknowledges that it’s been a long, and sometimes difficult road, particularly as a female in a male-dominated industry. “My advice to other entrepreneurs? Don’t give up. Research the marketplace, understand your offering inside and out, and really get to know your customers. Hit the road and be persistent. Find a mentor and ask questions. Just don’t stop.”
For the time being, Susan has found a good balance between family time and work obligations. A typical day for her begins at 5am with a 5km run, followed by breakfast with her daughter Stephanie, before dropping her off at school. Her work day usually begins by 9am and she makes an effort to be back at home each evening in time for dinner with her husband and daughter. “Family is a priority. We also get together once a week for dinner with the extended family – it keeps us close,” Susan explains.
So, what’s next for Susan and Summer Fresh? While her daughter is still too young to take an interest in joining the business any time soon, Susan insists that the idea won’t be forced on her. “I have no concrete plans to pass along the business – she can get involved if and when she’s ready and qualified. For now, I love what I do. The day I wake up and dread going into work is the day I get out of the business.” So, is a future sale in the cards? “I’ve been approached almost every week to sell my business. I’m not interested, but who knows what the future holds.”
Regardless of whether the business stays in the family or is sold down the road, one thing is for certain: Susan and the Summer Fresh team will leave behind a legacy of fresh, flavourful, and ready-to-go foods, snacks and appetizers that make healthy eating so much more enjoyable.