David Noël-Romas: Welcome to the Manitoba Business Podcast, featuring interviews with business leaders and entrepreneurs based right here in Manitoba. I’m David Noël-Romas.
This episode is brought to you by my small business, Black Chair Consulting. We use social media to help businesses sell more. To find out about Black Chair, visit www.blackchair.net.
Today’s guest must have no trouble making friends. She has a degree in ice cream production, and she knows how to use it! Our conversation gets into the nuts and bolts of how she’s built up her ice cream pipeline, from her family farm to the grocery stores to your table. I had a lot of fun, and I hope you do too.
If you do, please tell your friends about the show. The show is available on all your favourite podcast platforms, including iTunes, and a transcript of every episode is also available on our website at www.manitobabusinesspodcast.com
Now, without further ado, here is Lisa Dyck:
[to Lisa] All right, well, Lisa, thanks so much for taking the time.
Lisa Dyck: Thanks for having me.
David: How about we start by having you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Lisa: Okay. I am the owner Cornell Creme ice cream company, and I also co-own Cornell Daily Farms with my husband William and my two children, Olivia and Aaron.
David: Cool. What got you into the ice cream business?
Lisa: Just basically started as a hobby. My family bought me an ice cream maker for a birthday present one year, and started making it at home. And realized it was like the best thing we’d ever tasted. And I thought, you know, it would be a cool concept to make ice cream with our own milk from the farm. And met a friend who was a chef, and we invited him over to the farm to have a garden tour and tour the barns and have the ice cream. And then he said he would put it on the menu of his restaurant. So in October, he called and said I was on the menu of the restaurant. And from there, we just took off.
David: Fantastic, very cool. So when did you start the business?
Lisa: 2012, we were incorporated in December. And then by May of 2013, we were branded with containers and in stores. I think we got 14 stores word of mouth.
David: Very cool. And so where can you buy Cornell Creme now?
Lisa: Stores like Red River Co-ops, DeLuca’s, Vic’s Fruit Markets, the independent stores like that. And then we’re in Save-On-Foods, Vita Health, in rural areas like Beausejour, Steinbach, Lac Du Bonnet. Up in Clear Lake, we sell it through The Lakehouse, yeah.
David: Cool. And in terms of restaurants, is that still a pretty big part of the business as well?
Lisa: It is. Like the Fairmont carries our ice cream. Stella’s is now carrying our ice cream. So we’re really excited to be partnered up with Stella’s for that. They put it on their bread pudding, which is amazing, yeah, just so delicious, yeah.
David: Cool. Excuse me, I’m just gonna close the door here. [inaudible]. And so what’s your personal background?
Lisa: Well, I’ve done so many things in my lifetime. Oh, it depends how far you wanna go back. I actually thought when I was gonna start a career, it was gonna be in dentistry. I thought I would be like a dental assistant or a hygienist.
David: But, now, you’re actually making people’s teeth bad.
Lisa: Yeah, I make them go see the dentist [inaudible], yeah. No, that was really an area of interest. And I was fortunate enough to be hired by a local dentist who trained me. And actually being there for a while, I realized perhaps I jumped the gun a bit on this career and decided that I wanted to do a bit of traveling. So I left to go to Vancouver to school for a while, for the season. And then I came back and took some ag courses, got a certificate in agriculture. And then I worked for a few companies in Winnipeg, you know, different jobs, like in HR. So that gave me a really broad perspective of training Now that I see when I look back, it was kind of like training for my business today, you know? And business has always been…like, I always knew I wanted to own a business in my 20s, but I didn’t really know what that would be. And who knew that this kind of just fell into my lap at, you know, 40 years of age. So it’s really been an interesting life journey for me.
David: For sure. So you and your husband also has the farm? How long has that been going on?
Lisa: For our whole married life. Like, I got married, and then I did stay home for about 10 years to raise my children. And then I decided to go back to work, and that was in the health care field, part-time…or casual. But we’ve owned it since 2001. We purchased the farm from his mom and dad.
David: Oh, so it is a family farm.
Lisa: It is.
David: Is your family also in farming or…
Lisa: My family was, yeah. My mom and dad have since passed on, but my dad sort of had a small hobby farm. He had a construction and septic tank business. That was his business. So he was a business owner too.
David: So the farming side of it, you know, has been going on for a long time and then…
David: So you’ve got all the supplies you need for the ice cream?
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. When I started, you know, I approached Dairy Farmers of Manitoba and asking them if I could actually use our milk from our farm. And they said, “Yeah, actually.” Sometimes, it’s just, you know, just timing in your life. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do this 10 years prior.
David: Oh, really?
Lisa: Yeah. Because I contacted Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, and they said, “Well, actually, we’re opening it up.” And they’re sort of modernizing supply management system and allowing farmers to use their own milk to make it the end products, which…
David: Okay. So in the past, you would have had to buy it from the co-op and then…
Lisa: Yeah, exactly, yeah, because I’ve known farmers in the past that have been wanting to make cheese and yogurt, and they were never allowed to. So they deemed me a processor. So I became Manitoba’s first processor/producer.
David: I see, interesting, so it’s because of change of the rules basically that enabled that, very cool.
Lisa: Yeah. And I did decide to take an ice cream course. I went to the University of Guelph and took their ice cream course.
Lisa: Yeah, I did, yeah. It’s fun. It’s a fun course to take.
David: An ice cream course?
Lisa: An ice cream course. There’s only two in the…
David: Tell me more about that. That sounds fascinating.
Lisa: Yeah, I know. There’s only two in the world. There’s one in Pennsylvania, of course, where the Ben and Jerry’s fame people had attended. And if you look back, there’s lots of people that own ice cream companies that do take the ice cream course. So it was Dr. Golf out in Guelph University, yeah. So…
David: Wow, and so what are they doing?
Lisa: …basically, you learn about the science behind ice cream…
Lisa: …because there is science, and then you just get to taste different ice cream [inaudible]
David: That sounds…wow! I’m sure you wouldn’t have any trouble getting kids to sign up for that course, eh?
Lisa: Yeah, I know. It’s a lot of fun.
David: They should actually teach that in elementary school. It’d be a good way to get some engagement.
Lisa: Yeah, they should, they should. So, yeah, you can actually learn how to make ice cream. It’s really kinda interesting.
David: Wow, very cool. So you decided you wanna start a business. Did you go right away to the course, or what was sort of the process that…
Lisa: Yeah, pretty much, pretty quick. Yeah, I would say that year in 2000 and… I can’t remember which year I took it now. Was it 2012 or 2013? I jumped on it right away as soon as… I was doing this. I decided to learn all about it.
David: And what else was involved in sort of getting your first customers and getting past that initial hurdle of getting the business to a point where it was sort of sustaining something.
Lisa: Yeah, it’s not for the faint of heart, I say, and it’s certainly not easy. I know lots of people in food processing, and we just know how difficult it is, you know, because we were kinda breaking trail here, because most of the ice cream runs into two big parent companies. And then Chapman’s is on their own, and they do a phenomenal job at what they do. But I know why you wanted to be in their realm. And I still don’t. I like staying small as a small processor. But it was like exactly that, where do you go?
But there’s a plethora of help here in Manitoba, our government and our industry people. So I immediately joined organizations like Food & Beverage Manitoba. And they in turn asked me to sit on their board. I joined the Winnipeg chamber. Again, in turn, they asked me to sit on their board. The Food Development Center I approached, but, unfortunately, they couldn’t help me because they’re not permitted to do dairy. So then I got turned over to the University of Manitoba. And they’re still helping me today. So they’re really integral to help me grow my business.
David: Really? How did the U of M help you?
Lisa: They formulate it for me. So I had to come to them with my recipes, and then they helped me upscale. And we did lots of recipe testing there. And then we went from making it in a liter batches to, like, 200-liter batches over there.
David: So how does that work? Do they have, like, essentially a giant kitchen that you can…
Lisa: They have [inaudible] to processing plants. And they actually are under CFIA. So it’s a perfect environment for anything that you wanna test in dairy [inaudible]
David: Cool. So the ice cream that you sell is actually like processed at the U of M.
Lisa: Part of it is, still today, yeah, part of it is.
David: Oh, interesting. But you also have now some processing on your own site?
Lisa: As the business started to grow, it was really a whirlwind that first year, and then I realized I could do this legitimately as a business and get into more stores and sort of carve my way into that niche market, because we’re kind of ahead of the curve as far as producing a natural ice cream with no artificial ingredients and farm-to-freezer, which is kind of a new concept. So it was really popular when it hit the stores. Literally, we grew word of mouth, social media.
David: Yeah. So just from a sort of logistics operations perspective, what’s all in a processing plant, and what’s involved in standing one up? Like, you’ve now gone from the U of M to starting to do your own, it sounds like, so…
Lisa: Yeah, yeah, we’re co-packing at a plant right now. We went and purchased…we achieved funding through the government’s…through the last Growing Forward, which was fantastic. So we were able to achieve some funding money. And I got a loan from our bank who support the idea, and help from our farm too. So we were able to set up this business because we had help backing from our farm. And being in the business, I already had things in place, like an accountant, a lawyer, you know, bookkeeper eventually. So that was kind of the easy part for me. But the processing part, yeah, I was like, “Now, I’m looking at investing in capital equipment, you know, capital expenses in equipment.” So co-packing was a way to kind of minimize my expenses right off the hop, because they had part of the bigger equipment that I needed…
David: So what does that mean? What’s co-packing?
Lisa: It just means you find a facility that will make a product for you. And you pay processing fees as opposed to leasing your own [inaudible]
David: Okay, I see. So there’s a company that does processing for a bunch of other producers?
David: I see, okay.
Lisa: Yeah, and it’s hard here in Manitoba because we didn’t have a lot of available space for co-packing, which, you know, as the industry is growing and food and the governor is very much behind agri-food now and processing, I think that’s gonna change, which is great all around.
David: So with the co-packing set up, you’re paying for a space and then setting up your own processing? Or is this the same processors that they use with other foods or…
Lisa: No, it would be the same processors, yeah. Like the university kind of does it on a mini level, so if you wanna start your product off on a miniature way, in a small scale, because the problem with some of the bigger processing plants is that they make batches in 1,000 liters, you know? And that was a little bit daunting when you’re starting, because, first of all, the expense of buying all the ingredients to upscale that big, and then where do you put your product if you don’t have market to sell it. And I’m all about kind of, really, snail’s pace slow growth. Even though we’ve had a huge amount of growth, from December to now, I think we’ve had 40% increase.
David: Oh, fantastic.
Lisa: Yeah, but I’m really about not…like, I’ve watched other processors kind of invest. Honestly, it’s a really tough gig. It’s like you really have to know what you’re doing. You have to have a solid business plan. And you have to have it behind you. You can set up and have investors behind you. You can get all your funding. But if you don’t have the sales to back it up real quickly, you’re gonna go down really fast, because a plant is expensive to run. It costs thousands of dollars to run per day a plant. So you wanna make sure that you have a plan and place for your sales.
David: Right. So the process then in terms of, you know, from farm-to-freezer, you’ve got cows, there’s milk coming out of the cows. It gets brought to the plant, and then they turn that into ice cream. Is that…
Lisa: Yeah, that’s how it works, yeah.
David: And then they pack it up? And then you’ve got people that distribute it all over place? Is that right?
Lisa: Yeah, we have a distributor now that’s helping us grow a little bit and get into more stores. They help us get into Saskatoon. So we’re over there at Dad’s Organic, so, yeah. Yeah, it’s really boots to the ground. I made one-to-one relationships. And the whole concept of it is you have to get your product out, and then that entails a lot of sampling. You know, you have to go to stores when they carry your product. And it’s not just about getting into the stores. It’s also about keeping your product there. Freezer space is very valuable. It’s a hot commodity. And sometimes you have pay for that space to be there.
David: Oh, interesting.
Lisa: Yeah. And once you’re in there, you have to make sure that your customers know that you’re there, first of all, and that they come back and keep buying your product, so, you know? We’ve had a very successful run in our marketing. You know, I have a girl on our team who’s a great marketer, and she’s been doing a great job for us. So that’s helped on that front.
David: Cool. So tell me a bit about that, and in terms of when you started out, you mentioned a team. So what was the order of things that you did once you decided you wanted to get the business going in terms of spinning up a team and getting marketing going and whatnot?
Lisa: Yeah, it all happened really fast. It was like, when I was making it for the restaurant, I was making it, like, 20 liters at a time, so small [inaudible]
David: It’s like in your kitchen at home kind of thing.
Lisa: Yeah, like literally cracking eggs to do it, literally, and squeezing lemons by hand.
David: Oh boy.
Lisa: Oh yeah, we went through a lot, you know? And then just finding your suppliers and knowing how everything works, even with the help that I did have. And I still laugh today because there were days we’d go to the grocery store and buy tons of eggs, and then people would be like, “Are you baking? Like, what are you doing?” you know? “Are you making jam? Like, what are you doing?” you know? And I still laugh at those comments because you look, you know, ridiculous, but you do what you have to do, right?
David: Clean the grocery store out of their eggs.
Lisa: Yeah. Then I realized, like, this is actually legit, and people are liking it. So then it was like, “Boom! What are you gonna call your company?” I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m gonna call my company. What do you mean I have a company?” right? So then I start thinking about it, and I decided to take it back to our farm, because our farm is Cornell Dairy, and it’s derived from my father-in-law’s name Cornelius.
And Cornelius and my mother-in-law Louise started our farm. They came from the city. She was an RN with St. Boniface, and he was farming and construction. And they just decided to drive to the country and buy a dairy farm. So, yeah, and they’re still with us today and still farming. They’re still very active in their late ’80s.
David: Cool, good for them.
Lisa: Yeah. So I wanted to honor their name. And then I wanted the concept to keep it simple and pure and bring it back to the farm, so that’s why I wanted a cow.
So through the chef, I met his relative, and she happened to be a marketer and designer and everything. So that just all fell into place really nicely. She interviewed me and wanted my opinions on what I wanted for our logo and our branding. And I remember when she sent me our logo, I knew right then and there at that moment that we actually had a legit company, and this was real, so, yeah. Yeah, she captured the essence of everything that I wanted for the company.
David: Very cool. Is she an employee or a contractor? Any employees in the company right now besides yourself?
Lisa: We hire casual and part-timers. We have a part-time person with us who’s a University of Manitoba dairy science student, but she’s leaving us this year because she’s going away overseas on a exchange. But we’d definitely welcome her back. And I like to pull from there because they’re excellent people. They have the skills and the education behind them to do what I need them to do. And our marketer is contract. She works on her own. I said, you know, this way, it allows her to have her own company and grow her own company while working for us.
David: Absolutely, yeah. How much ice cream do you guys sell now, like, volume wise in a week or a month?
Lisa: I have to think of my numbers. We’re going through a couple of thousand liters now. We’re probably up around…maybe topping out 3,500, you know, approaching that area, a month [inaudible] yeah.
David: Wow, that’s fantastic.
Lisa: Our runs have increased. Like, now, I do, you know, 2,000-liter runs instead of the 20-liter.
David: Right, right, right. Yeah, that’s a big scale up.
Lisa: But it’s so funny because on a big processing scale, that’s still so very, very tiny, you know? But that just seems huge to me, so, you know?
David: Yeah, yeah. When you talk about growth, obviously, there’s a little bit of you want to grow the brand. You want to grow that demand. But you’re also, I assume, looking for new places to distribute the product. How do you approach that processing to…like, what are you kind of doing day to day? I guess not just [inaudible] growth in general. What are you doing day to day? What’s the…
Lisa: Yeah, it’s just…again, programs and organizations, like Food & Beverage Manitoba, will help food processors get into stores. So they are very integral in helping us get into food stores, like Save-On-Foods.
David: Oh, awesome.
Lisa: Yeah, so that’s great, because then it kinda works through the one person there in the company, instead of having 10 food processors approach Save-On-Foods. And while coming at them, you know, approaching them, wanting to get our food into the store, it goes through the one person there. She represents us. So then we get a chance to have a meeting with their managers and present our food products to them, and then they make their decision from there. So that really streamlines everything in a very efficient manner, which is appreciative.
But, honestly, for us, it’s been word of mouth. And a lot of my stores contact us. So it kind of comes to us. We haven’t done aggressive sales to the state. And I was always pulling back a little bit on the reins, because I didn’t have the production to back it up. So, you know, I’m very cautious with that. I wanna make sure that we’re meeting the demands of our stores and our customers first.
David: Right. So day to day then, are you more on the production side of things or…
Lisa: I’m kind of everywhere, you know? We just came back from a trip to France, and someone asked my son, “What does your mom do?” And he rolled his eyes, he’s 16, and he said, “She does everything.” But I guess from their perspective, it looks like I do, you know, yeah.
You know, I know people are telling me, you know, you need to be more of a CEO. But I’m not gonna lie. I enjoy driving that delivery van and going to my stores and [inaudible] people. That’s the fun part for me.
David: Oh, so you’re driving a truck…
Lisa: I will drive the delivery van and deliver ice cream, yeah. If you see it on the road, often, it’s me driving it, yeah. And I don’t mind at all. But I’m trying to, because I do know that I have to…you know, my time I have to place it elsewhere in the company. So I do know that part of it too.
David: The first time I got to try Cornell Creme was at Folk Festival last year or the year before. Do you guys do a lot of festivals? And what’s the logistics behind that?
Lisa: We’ve tried them. Folk Fest is amazing. I’ve always gone every year because it’s kinda on my backdoor step. I like to go visit my friends, but it’s pretty daunting. It’s a wild time. Like, three, four days you’re in there, and it’s like heavy duty.
It’s really an amazing experience, but we were kind of overwhelmed. So I don’t know if we’ll…you know, I keep the door open. Maybe [inaudible] once I have a better idea how to run that part of it, because it does take a lot. I really, really now…like, now, when I go to Folk Fest, I make sure that I actually go for sure, legit, go eat the food, because I wanna just give that honor back to the people that are running those vendors, because they work really hard.
David: They do work hard, yeah.
Lisa: They work really hard, so yeah, yeah.
David: What do you kind of see as the next challenges for the business or the next opportunities? What’s your focus in the next little while?
Lisa: Finding my own space would probably be number one, because right now I’m so disjointed because everything is everywhere for me. And it’s really hard to manage that way efficiently and grow the company. So at first, I thought I didn’t want to, I’d stay co-packing. But now I’m thinking maybe we should pursue a location of our own and have our own little place, because we have so much opportunity out there. And I am turning away some projects because I just can’t do it where we’re at and the way the way we’re doing it. So it’ll be nice to have our own place.
But then, again, it takes more investment money and more money put into the company, because, again, like, running a processing plant is expensive. And then it’ll be me running staff as opposed to me just having it made by someone else’s staff and me paying those fees.
David: Right, right, right. And, potentially, savings opportunities there as well, but you have to get really on top of it if it’s gonna work out that way.
David: Interesting. Are there any people that you looked up to or that mentored you as you were kind of getting started?
Lisa: Yeah, there’s a few people. I can’t say off the top. I don’t really make the distinction. I know a lot of people do because I’m female, like, woman in business, but I’ve never looked at myself that way. I just see myself as a person. And I think I can do this, you know?
My dad was pretty big behind me. And he had four daughters. He liked to hunt and fish, and he ran a construction business. So, you know, basically, he was like, “Yeah, you can do it,” you know? He was the type of guy that never baited our hook for us. He said, “No, you’ve gotta bait your own hook and catch fish.”
David: Yup, gotta get your fingers slimy.
Lisa: Yeah, you [inaudible] fish yourself. And he did a lot of things, like he flew a plane, bush plane. And when I asked him if I could try learning to fly, he was always behind whatever I wanted, you know? Yeah, so that was a big, big inspiration for me.
Watching my in-laws work, you know, is big too. They essentially farm, but they are now running…it’s like running a business. And my family supports me so, yeah.
David: Cool. Are you a reader? Are there any books that you would recommend to anyone listening?
Lisa: I do. I generally don’t pick on one particular author, because there’s so many out there. But I just encourage people… I used to read a lot more when I had time. Now, I’m finding, of course, like, everybody’s going to your computer or phone and reading articles. And I do miss hardcover books, you know? But any of the great ones, like Arlene Dickinson is probably a good mentor for me. I really look up to her and think she’s a wise lady, and I do respect her a lot. So any of her books I have, for sure.
David: Cool. Well, Lisa, thanks so much for your time.
Lisa: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.