Like so many entrepreneurs, our niche is extremely competitive. We sell gluten-free, organic, vegan cereals. Our turf is the cereal aisle of grocery stores, hallowed retail territory dominated by major manufacturers battling it out for "stomach share."
That we've managed to become the No. 1 player in Canada in our category is no small accomplishment. In Canada, it actually hasn't been too difficult to get our Holy Crap cereal on store shelves because here, store managers listen to their customers and have major input on what products they stock. It's not like that in the U.S. Every new product must be approved by grocers' head offices and their approved distributors. It's a top-down process that can take up to a year and a half to navigate. We've been able to cut that time down and get on the shelves of a number of key independent retailers in the U.S. And it's largely been due to an advocate located 350 km above the earth.
THE BACK STORY
In 2011, just a few months after we appeared on Dragons' Den, a nine-year-old fan of our cereal named Riley noticed a contest on the Canadian Space Agency's website. The contest invited Canadians to submit ideas for Commander Chris Hadfield's diet for his then-upcoming five-month mission to the International Space Station, which is scheduled to end next week.
To be eligible, the snacks had to be made in Canada, boast a long shelf life and be easy to prepare and nutritious. Riley, a huge space fan, nominated our Holy Crap cereal because his sister loved it. We knew it had a lot of advantages going in: it's made right here in B.C., it's space-friendly (meaning: no crumbs, no powder, no need to refrigerate) and, most importantly, it's tasty—not something astronauts in zero gravity situations are used to.
A year before launch, Cmdr. Hadfield met with CSA and NASA nutritionists to review the submissions. After measuring nutritional requirements and his own personal preferences, our cereal made the cut. Holy Crap would be one of 12 Canadian foods to accompany Cmdr. Hadfield on his mission. But the job wasn't done then. Both the CSA and NASA had to evaluate and test the product, and then package it into specialized single serving pouches that hook up to the ISS's water system. It took 14 months to get the "all-clear" from both agencies.
A BIG WIN
Getting aboard the ISS is a big win for us. Cmdr. Hadfield has become a Canadian superstar. While NASA and CSA rules prevent formal endorsements, Cmdr. Hadfield has been vocal in his appreciation for our cereal. A few weeks ago, he sent a note to his family stating that "Despite the name, [Holy Crap] is delicious."
For clients in the U.S., China and Europe, it's proving to be a very big deal that we are on the ISS, and that a high-profile astronaut loves our product. In recent food industry trade shows in Anaheim, Calif., San Francisco and Chicago, foreign buyers were lining up to talk to us about how our cereal has "the right stuff" to get on their shelves.
It's early still, but we estimate that this high-profile product placement will be worth tens of millions in export and military sales. In fact, the exposure is already helping us shorten the get-on-the-shelves process by about six months.
As soon as Cmdr. Hadfield gets back to earth safely we will all breathe a sigh of relief. Space travel is dangerous with a capital "D," and the ISS is humankind's furthest manned outpost in space. It's not for the faint of heart. But neither is the cereal business. And getting our product on the ISS is proving to be our biggest competitive advantage ever.
Corin Mullins is the co-founder of Sechelt, B.C.-based HapiFoods Group Inc., which manufactures gluten-free, organic and vegan breakfast cereals, including Holy Crap, Skinny B and Mary Jane. Founded in 2009 with a booth at the Sechelt Farmers Market, the company saw its business explode after appearing on Dragons' Den in November 2010. Today, HapiFoods cereals are carried in more than 2,000 stores in Canada and sold to customers in 24 countries internationally.