Business in Vancouver’s “How I Did It” feature asks business leaders to explain in their own words how they achieved a business goal in the face of significant entrepreneurial challenges. In this week’s issue, Dionne Laslo-Baker, founder of DeeBee’s SpecialTea Foods Ltd., talks about the challenge she faced in developing a healthy frozen treat called TeaPops, made from frozen tea and natural flavourings.
“I never intended to start a company. I did a PhD at the University of Toronto in maternal fetal toxicology. I was working on my dissertation and I also helped my husband [Stephen Baker]. He’s a surgeon. We have a surgery centre and esthetic medical spa as well. Our practice has really been funding this startup.
“I was in the kitchen with my two children, one of whom doesn’t eat any refined sugar, any artificial flavouring or colouring. I would spend two hours in a grocery store trying to find products he could eat.
“Joshua was making tea, his brother [David] was making frozen novelties. They were debating over what mommy was going to do with which kid and Joshua said, ‘Mommy, let’s make tea-sicles.’ And I thought, ‘Geez, that’s a great idea. I wonder if anybody’s doing that?’
“When I did a MEDLINE search [on tea], it was absolutely astounding. I don’t think there’s anything else out there that can give you this many health benefits. Then we started researching rooibos, which has even more antioxidants than tea. Rooibos is in three of the five [TeaPops].
“When you freeze tea, it turns into an ice cube with no flavour – that’s a huge challenge. Unless you have some solids in there, it’s a rock and you’re going to break your teeth. We decided to bring on a food scientist, who really helped us to find a stabilizer – organic guar gum.
“We’re certified organic, non-GMO, we’re vegan, we’re kosher, we’re certified nut- and peanut-free, we have no refined sugar, no dairy, no soy and no gluten. We’re completely allergen-free.
“It took us a year and about five months before we sent our product off to the World Tea [Expo] in Las Vegas and we ended winning the Best New Product. Then we went to New York City with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in the Canadian pavilion just to see what the response was going to be. The first day we gave out 1,400 TeaPops. The next day we met with the head buyer from Whole Foods Market [who] told us he was interested in launching through Whole Foods.
“We sent out [samples] to every region of Whole Foods and at least half of them arrived melted because they got stopped at customs. We’ve now got it down to a science. We work with FedEx, they know us, the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] know us.
“We brought on the previous vice-president of sales, marketing and business development for Nestlé in Switzerland [in December 2013]. We manufacture in our facility in Victoria, and we also manufacture in a facility in Quebec. We’re launching in 15 or 16 states, we’ve launched in Whole Foods across British Columbia and we’re in discussion with Whole Foods for the rest of Canada.” •