Should you — and how do you — turn a hobby into a business?
Those questions dogged Julia Brown when she was at university. In her freshman year, she started roasting and blending almonds into nut butter for fun. By third year, as word spread about her sweet and savoury butter, she was whipping up batches of it regularly for family and friends.
So when Brown graduated in 2017, she decided to take the plunge and started Julia’s Best Ever Inc. The King City resident was keen to tap into consumers’ growing interest in plant-based protein and get into the marketplace before it became too saturated. Julia’s Best Ever Inc. produces three types of almond butter: smooth and chunky versions, each with ground chia and flax seeds, and a date almond butter with hemp hearts.
Brown’s degree (in media, information and techno-culture) had prepared her for the marketing aspects of running a business, but not “so much about business and putting together a business plan,” she says. For that reason, she emailed the York Small Business Enterprise Centre (YSBEC) to learn more about the Starter Company Plus program.
Starter Company Plus provides funding, training and other help to Ontario residents who want to start or expand a business in the province. Brown was accepted into the program, which YSBEC administers through funding from the Ministry of Economic Development and Growth.
“It was awesome,” she says of the program, which included a $5,000 grant and eight training sessions led by experienced entrepreneurs. The sessions covered topics such as setting goals and objectives, market research, marketing, and financial and risk management. By the end of the program, Brown had created a comprehensive business plan which included both two- and five-year sales projections.
“I would never have put together a business plan like that just because numbers aren’t my strength,” she says. “Every couple of days, I look at it to see how on track I am. I can see how much I need to be selling to reach my goals and how much I should be producing to maintain that.”
When she started the program, Brown had been making her nut butter herself in a commercial kitchen in Toronto. “But that was taking me away from sales,” she says, so she decided to hand over production to a private-label manufacturer.
It was a bold move for two reasons. First, paying the manufacturer is pricier than renting kitchen space by the hour. And second, she had to tinker with the ingredient amounts in her recipes since the manufacturer makes much larger batches of her butter than she used to make. “I like to be there for every production — for quality assurance and taste-testing,” she says.
It’s still early days, but the investment appears to be paying off. “Production is 1,000 jars a month and it’s been increasing pretty rapidly with the new stores I’m getting into,” says Brown. Julia’s Best Ever Inc. nut butters can be found in fine food and specialty grocery stores in York Region and across the GTA, as well as in Kingston and Muskoka. Says Brown: “I’m in 40 locations and I hope to triple that number in the next year.”
Based on her drive and conviction, she may just do that.