From NAIT to Manitoba farmers’ markets to national distribution
Carly Minish’s mustard empire began as Christmas gifts. Near the end of 2013, she was apprenticing for her red seal certification and short on funds. But she had no shortage of creativity.
“I thought, ‘You know what? I'm going to make everyone a homemade gift,’” says Minish (Culinary Arts ’11).
She picked up fancy jars from a dollar store, butcher’s paper to wrap them and gathered ingredients: a local beer, horseradish and mustard seed. Minish had gotten curious about the latter, one of the Prairie’s most significant crops, for uses beyond burgers and hot dogs, and had been tinkering with recipes.
“Sure enough,” she says of that early foray into making mustard, “everyone loved it.”
The reaction emboldened Minish to leave the restaurant scene in Winnipeg, the home she’d returned to after NAIT, and take a chance on entrepreneurship, selling her creations at local farmers’ markets.
“It blossomed from there,” she says.
Eight years later, Minish, at 30 years old, is the owner of Smak Dab Gourmet Mustard, which supplies 300 stores across Canada and employs her and seven others. Here’s how she got her taste for business and set the table for her own success.
techlifetoday: How did you become interested in mustard?
Carly Minish: I started working at restaurants here in Winnipeg … and noticed that one of the chefs was using mustard in a lot of different dishes – marinades, salad dressings, sauces and so many things. I thought to myself, “I wonder if people know that mustard can be used in such a diverse way and can add so much flavour to foods.”
How did you learn how to make it?
I did a lot of Googling [and] got some books and just dove in. I [found] a few recipes and tweaked them to make them my own. It was a lot of trial and error.
What made you decide to take your chances at the farmers’ market?
Really, it was my parents [who are also entrepreneurs]. They were really encouraging. And I had thought of the name, Smack Dab, and had registered it. So I thought, “Just go for it.”
I feel so grateful that I've gone to NAIT and got a great education that allowed me to pursue a business.
Farmers’ markets are a great place to start. My first [at the end of August, 2014 at St. Norbert in Winnipeg] was a surreal experience. Everyone was so excited about seeing something different. I always recommend up-and-coming food businesses to get their feet wet at a farmers’ market … and get feedback, tweak price points. I owe a lot to those humble roots.
How did Smak Dab grow from there?
I spent the [following] winter building a business plan, thinking about if I wanted to launch in stores.
I started a social media page … and just started growing the business very organically. Eventually, I found a commercial kitchen.
In the spring or the following summer, I started selling to some grocery stores. I found a distribution partner in Manitoba to help grow us there.
Little by little, we grew into each province and found partners to distribute us.
How have you learned to compete with established brands in big stores?
You have to set yourself apart with your brand. You have to tell your customers what your purpose is.
For me, my purpose [with Smak Dab] was helping people find the power of home cooking again. We've become a very busy society – cooking a recipe and sitting around the table with your family, we've kind of lost a lot of that. So, we want to help people cook better at home [and] target those who appreciate food and sharing it with loved ones.
What’s your role with the company now?
I outsource our marketing and have a team that handles the production, but I'm still very much involved in a lot of areas. I’ve had to take a bit of a step back in the past year – [since my son was born a year ago] I have been trying to play my mother role more than my business role, but it’s a balance.
Business development is all me. I do all the recipe development myself. With my roots and my culinary training that's definitely still in my heart for sure.
Where would you like to see the company go?
I'd love to create more product lines, to create more food companies using the same philosophy of empowering people to cook at home and have more confidence to try new recipes.
I think that'll always be the purpose behind anything I do.
There's so many possibilities for food. I feel so grateful that I've gone to NAIT and got a great education that allowed me to pursue a business. I deviated a bit, but … a lot of the skills and the mindset that I have now, I learned in culinary school. I owe a lot of my success with Smak Dab to that program.
More than hot dogs
Smak Dab has no shortage of recipes for using mustard as an ingredient rather than just a condiment. “Anything that you think needs more flavour, a spoonful of mustard is going to really help,” says Minish. Here are a few of her favourite ideas.
- “Marinades are always great,” says Minish. “Throw in some steaks and [it will] help with meal prep.”
- “I love potatoes.” A good salad is among Minish’s go-tos.
- “Caesar is my husband’s number one drink,” says Minish. Try Josh’s Caesar, with a dash of Smak Dab Hot Honey Jalapeño.
- A good old hot dog is fine by Minish, too. Were she to pick a mustard of her making, it’s White Wine Herb. “But you know what? People laugh at me because I'm a gourmet mustard person but I love Heinz ketchup,” Minish says with a laugh. “I like Cheez Whiz too.”