Dionne Laslo-Baker anticipated a challenge when she set out to get her all-natural frozen treats into major grocery store chains. That was confirmed when a buyer for Whole Foods answered her phone call with, “What do you want?”
Laslo-Baker, a medical scientist by trade who launched a company from her Victoria kitchen, had just found out that half a shipment of cold confections she was shipping to Whole Foods had melted in transit. She thought about hanging up the phone without saying a word.
“It was pretty humbling,” she told Yahoo Canada Finance. “You go in thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll make this product. It will be great. Everyone is going to want it.’”
Today, Laslo-Baker has scaled her name-sake company, DeeBee’s Organics, into a multi-million dollar business with a presence in grocery aisles across North America.
Her unlikely foray into frozen food started in 2012, prompted by her two children squabbling over their mother’s attention in the family kitchen.
“They started arguing over who was going to do what with Mommy. One of them said, ‘Mommy, lets make tea-sicles.’ From that, I had a lightbulb moment and went, ‘Oh my gosh. I’ve never heard of that. No one has ever done that before,’” Laslo-Baker said.
The company launched the following year, selling a tea-based product that Laslo-Baker admits could have tasted better. Then, in one of her first branding lessons as a entrepreneur, she found out parents were shying away from giving the treats to children because they thought they contained caffeine — they didn’t.
“We actually changed it to fruit pops. So a broader market, but still using the same healthy ingredients,” Laslo-Baker said. “About three years ago, we brought on a chef who is very, very talented. We worked with him, and now our products taste better than anything else on the market.”
Fine-tuning the flavour wasn’t the only challenge. Laslo-Baker knew she needed to whet the appetite of investors in order to bankroll her company’s growth targets. But having lenders probe the business she started with her children proved to be another challenging experience.
“Deebee’s is kind of like my third baby, and it’s hard getting it torn apart by somebody,” she said. “It was something that I had to force myself to do. Now, I’m really comfortable with it.”
With a commitment to non-chemical ingredients, ones without exposure to antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, preservatives and genetically modified material, DeeBee’s may be well-suited to capture consumers whose preferences are determined by more than just taste and price.
A 2015 study by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada cited “enhanced nutrition, ethical food choices (such as animal welfare and fair trade), [and] environmentally sustainable diets” are among the key trends in the food processing industry.
‘All in’ the family
Laslo-Baker has purposefully kept her kids, now 14 and 16 years old, involved with the family business. They accompany her to trade shows, help with pitches and demonstrations, and taste-test products.
“They’ve learned what it takes to be all in, and to launch something from a little idea,” Laslo-Baker said. “We were a few hundred of thousands of dollars in revenue. Now, we’re at multiple millions of dollars of revenue.”
For the kids, being “all in” and sharing in DeeBee’s success also came with a front row seat for the stress of starting a business and going head-to-head with food industry giants.
“There is a time when you are humbled. And finances were so tight that one of my kids actually paid for groceries,” Laslo-Baker said.
These days, the family is at the helm of a growing business, with ten employees overseeing broader North American expansion.
Selling the company for sight
With more parents looking to limit sugar and artificial ingredients in their child’s diet, Laslo-Baker now gets a decidedly warmer reception on the phone from retailers and interested investors, some of whom want to buy DeeBee’s outright.
“There have been offers to invest and offers to acquire, but it just hasn’t been right,” she said. “In the next few years, I would hope that is going to happen.”
After that, Laslo-Baker and her surgeon husband plan to commit themselves to restoring eyesight in regions where ocular treatments are not widely available. The hope is to work with a non-profit organization called Orbis, which operates a flying hospital inside a wide-body jet.
“He will be able to take the time to join Orbis and we can go on missions and restore vision,” Laslo-Baker said. “That’s kind of the dream. To be able to walk onto the Orbis plane and go on a journey to help people who may not be able to see in other parts of the world.”