These food entrepreneurs went from their kitchen to national grocers while focusing on nutrition and sustainability.
Jamie Lee and Isabelle Lam, founders of Remix Snacks, share their story.
Remix Snacks began in a home kitchen with an idea for a recipe and a desire to make a change in the industry. And while co-founders Jamie Lee and Isabelle Lam were cooking up their idea for nutritious and sustainable treats, they were also students in McGill University’s Bachelor of Nutritional Sciences, Dietetics program.
“Through our education we recognized two gaps in the food and beverage industry. First was the lack of healthy snack options that contained protein and fiber, and the second was the amount of food waste being produced by this industry,” Jamie explains. “When Isabelle and I chatted about wanting to start a business, we agreed that anything we developed had to focus on nutrition and environmental sustainability.”
At the time, their idea was more of a project than a business plan. “We thought it would be fun to start a business, but we never imagined that it would take off in the way it has,” Isabelle says.
In 2018, Jamie and Isabelle, who were roommates at the time, started playing around with recipes for a trail mix product that would contain dehydrated beans, fruit, and chocolate. “Beans were new in snack foods at the time, but they had a great nutritional profile with protein, fiber, and iron,” Isabelle said.
In class, they learned that 58 percent of food produced in Canada is wasted and 45 percent of that comes from imperfect produce. Eager to solve this issue, Jamie and Isabelle decided that their product would use upcycled fruit – the stuff with bumps and bruises that often finds its way to the landfill. “In the early stages we’d go to farmer’s markets and ask to purchase the items they typically couldn’t sell, and then we’d take them home, cut them up, and dehydrate them ourselves,” Jamie recalls.
“In the early stages we’d go to farmer’s markets and ask to purchase the items they typically couldn’t sell, and then we’d take them home, cut them up, and dehydrate them ourselves.”
Being students at McGill helped Isabelle and Jamie access a few invaluable opportunities that propelled their project forward. They entered McGill’s start-up competition, Dobson Cup, and their snack idea won two innovation prizes which helped fund their first year of business.
They also followed a lead to audition for a student themed episode of CBC’s Dragons’ Den, and not only did they get onto the show, they even received an offer from two of the Dragons on air. They later decided not to go through with the offer because they were at such an early stage of their start-up, and had found other forms of funding that allowed them to keep full ownership of the company, rather than giving over 35 percent.
The early days of Remix were very hands-on, with Jamie and Isabelle doing everything themselves. They ordered packaging from amazon, designed a logo on Canva, printed stickers at a local print shop, and assembled snack bags one by one. Their friends were their taste-testers.
Since then, the product has had 10 to 12 iterations, taking it from a homemade bag of trail mix to where it is today – professionally prepared and packaged chocolate bark made with dark chocolate, a proprietary black bean recipe, and upcycled fruit.
Remix Snacks went from a home kitchen project to being produced in a commercial kitchen with a small production team to using a co-packer to do their manufacturing. The product was first sold in a few Montreal stores that the duo reached out to and managed directly and is now available across Quebec and Ontario in Loblaws, Metro, and some Sobeys stores. Despite their growth and plans to keep growing, they’ve stayed committed to their original values when it comes to sustainability.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of new challenges came up for Isabelle and Jamie, but overall, it has not deterred them. When the first lockdown hit, they were en route to a food expo. “We literally had to turn around after spending a night in the hotel, and forfeit the fee for that event,” they recall. “Everything changed after that.”
“Since COVID, we have shifted our focus to mindful snacking — encouraging people to pause and take a break, tune in to their bodies, and focus on what they’re eating.”
From there, the way they marketed their product began to shift. “Much of our sales came from interacting with buyers and customers and offering samples,” Isabelle says. “We had to pivot from in-person marketing to e-commerce, focusing on ads and social media – but we adapted.”
With more people working from home and snacking on the rise, having a healthier option for chocolate with nutritional benefits proved to be a very good thing. “Since COVID, we have shifted our focus to mindful snacking – encouraging people to pause and take a break, tune in to their bodies, and focus on what they’re eating,” they explain. “This is something we really believe in, and it’s become our third mission after nutrition and the environment.”
They’ve used the same practice of mindfulness to grow their business, one step at a time, focusing on small actions to achieve results. And while it hasn’t always been easy, they’ve remained committed to making it work.
“Within the food industry, many of the big players happen to be older, white men – and so coming in as young, Asian women was challenging in that we had to build a rapport and have the others believe that we were a business to be taken seriously, not just a student project,” Isabelle explains. “Thankfully, with COVID, there seems to be more support for women and BIPOC-led businesses like ours available. And we’ve been connected with some great grant programs willing to support us and give us that extra leverage.”
Most recently, Remix Snacks was chosen as a recipient of a $10,000 grant through the BMO Celebrating Women Grant Program — an initiative that gave $120,000 in grant funding to 18 Canadian, women-owned businesses that are contributing to social, environmental, or economic sustainability outcomes. “We are so thankful for programs like this that have helped us fund and grow our business.”
Another opportunity that came about during the pandemic was an accelerator led by York University’s YSpace to help Ontario business owners with products in the market to scale up rapidly during COVID. “Working with nine other companies all going through similar challenges as we were, helped us learn so much and answer so many questions as we continued to grow,” Jamie explains.
“You don’t want to worry about comparing yourself to other businesses — which can be hard in the age of social media — but rather, trust that it’s your own journey and you get to choose what’s best for your business.”
Jamie also credits her dad’s entrepreneurial journey with providing inspiration for Remix Snacks. “My dad moved to Canada from Hong Kong and started a food company, and in a way, I feel like I’m walking in his footsteps. He’s always been a big mentor to me, and we’ve asked him a lot of questions along the way.”
For other entrepreneurs looking to make a go of it, Jamie and Isabelle have lots of advice to share. “Don’t let fear get in the way, and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Isabelle says. Jamie agrees, “Something we’ve come to learn and practice is that when an opportunity presents itself, there’s no harm in going for it, even if you’re not sure what will come about as a result.”
And while they’re so thankful for all the advice they’ve been given along the way, they emphasize the importance of not getting too caught up with what others are doing. “You don’t want to worry about comparing yourself to other businesses – which can be hard in the age of social media – but rather, trust that it’s your own journey and you get to choose what’s best for your business.”