Serving Sol Cuisine to the US and CANADA

CanadianSME Small Business Magazine Small Business

John Flanagan, CEO, Sol Cuisine

John has over 25 years of experience in the field of consumer-packaged goods industry. He has worked at senior levels in some of the biggest FMCG giants like Coca-Cola, Nabisco, Unico, and Sun Rich. Prior to being the CEO of Sol Cuisine, John was the CEO of NuStef, a Canadian commercial baking organization. In July 2019, John joined Sol Cuisine as the CEO and has played an instrumental role in professionalizing the company, building the team, securing further equity financing, and growing the overall performance of the business.

What is the mission and vision of Sol Cuisine?

Our vision is to be the leading provider of plant-based alternatives with a wide variety of great-tasting vegan gourmet items. The demand from consumers is exploding and Sol Cuisine’s goal is to be part of the solution for people seeking products that deliver in terms of flavor, texture, and nutrition. We have been making alternative proteins since 1980 and our passion for great tasting products continues to drive us every day. Ultimately, we want to create more Sol Mates – people who love our products and tell others about them.

How did you come up with the idea for Sol Cuisine? Also, tell us how are you different from your competitors and why should people choose you instead?

Sol Cuisine’s Founder Dror Balshine worked in the construction industry and was constantly on the road traveling throughout Canada. As a vegan, he couldn’t find any options when eating out. He has always been passionate about food and recognized an opportunity to introduce more plant-based products for people like himself, so he started Sol Cuisine.

There’s a lot that separates Sol Cuisine from competitors. We’re vertically integrated so we own and control our manufacturing facility with the capacity to grow and lots of domain expertise on how to manufacture superior products. From a business perspective, having the capacity to take our business to $100 million without any additional growth capital is a big advantage. Many companies out there are co-packing or trying to fund expansions. Vertical integration enables us to control quality, and having the capacity fully paid for and built out, enables us to focus on growth.

Also, the breadth of our product portfolio – we’re not just into one segment (like beef analogs) but rather we produce a wide range of gourmet items that focus on the center of plate segments: burgers, appetizers, and entrees, which are consistently chosen by consumers in blind taste tests and for their superior nutrition profile with the fewest calories, fat, and sodium while being number one in fiber and market equivalent in protein.

Plus, we’ve gone a step further by achieving a number of different certifications that are foundational to the business such as HACCP and GMP and our facility is GFSI and SQF certified. On the product side, we have very strong brand credentials because our products are non-GMO, GFI, Kosher, Halal, Canadian, and the USA organic as well as Vegan certified.

Achieving these levels of certification takes a lot of time, effort, and focus.

Why do you think SMEs need to prioritize investment in machinery and equipment?

Quality control. It’s impossible to deliver best-in-class products without having the highest standards. Owning and controlling our manufacturing facility, and the machinery and equipment in it, allows us to do that and increases productivity which frees up resources that get re-invested into strategic areas of the business.

Fraser Institute’s Aug. 10, 2021, report claims – corporate Canada’s investment in these areas (plus software) is at a 50-year low. Where, in your option, do you think we are lagging?

Generally, it requires large investments which can be intimidating for SMEs. However, when you have a clear vision for the future, then investing in your business makes sense because the benefits far outweigh the risks and you can evolve capabilities, expertise and unlock growth.

Sol Cuisine has invested and built a state-of-the-art 35,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Mississauga. Does this present challenges? If yes, can you elaborate a bit on them?

They aren’t challenges as much as they are the realities of operating a sophisticated manufacturing facility that uses automation and other technologies to produce a wide range of products. But having the right equipment is just one side of the coin. Having the right people and processes are also critical success factors. As an example, you need employees with high-level skills in manufacturing, quality assurance, research and development, as well as mechanical and engineering, maintenance, and supply chain skills.

There are also the logistical elements of managing his while minimizing disruption to the production schedule.

Where do you see Sol cuisine five years from now?

We currently have 41,000 points of distribution with a vast array of distribution partners in grocery retail and foodservice across North America and we want to expand that network to capitalize on the growing demand for plant-based food alternatives. We have already generated traction through 2021 with many significant announcements for new and expanded distribution both here and in the U.S. Most recently, we announced we were going national with Walmart Canada and added all the Costco Mexico stores to our roster.

We also want to invest in our brands because we’ve got a great story to tell, and more people should be aware of our superior products.

Do you have any advice for small business owners that are finding it difficult to pull through during these tough times? How do you think they can future-proof their businesses and build resilience?

Truly focus on consumers’ needs and work backward from there. Then invest to bring that vision to life and remain committed to fulfilling creating innovative products and/or services that deliver great results every time. It’s a grind but when executed flawlessly it can lead to tremendous consumer loyalty which is an excellent position to build a business from. 

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