Made with Local does real good

With the average granola bar about as healthy for you as a candy bar and often having the consistency of a mouthful of wood chips, it’s no surprise there has been a gap in the market for healthy-to-go foods you actually feel good about eating. But these days Dartmouth-based Made with Local is changing the game—becoming a massive success that has ventured far beyond its humble beginnings at a stall in the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market in the spring of 2012.

 The first granola bars Sheena Russell and her friend Kathy MacDonald sold at the market were wrapped in Saran wrap and sealed with Avery printer labels. They did, however, have cool branding and a recognizable name—having cleverly created a social presence before launching. The pair had come up with the idea for the bars while working “soul-sucking” government jobs, says Russell. 

“We just wanted to do something nourishing and fun outside of the nine-to-five lives we found ourselves in.” The pair spit-balled ideas and made samples in their home kitchens, concentrating on local ingredients to make quality bars. “We thought, we’ll make some healthy snacks, take them to the market and see if people like them,” she says, “luckily they did.”

 Those first bars originated in the kitchens at Lake Banook Canoe Club, where Russell says they didn’t even have bowls big enough to mix the batter. “The earliest batches were mixed in lobster pots, which is the most Nova Scotian thing ever,” Sheena says. The bars were a hit, and later that spring they started selling wholesale to a couple of spots before more and more places asked to stock them. Seven years later, Made with Local is about to have their granola bars in more than 1000 retailers across Canada.

 The company looks a little different these days. Russell is now heading the company solo (MacDonald stepped back in 2013 when she had her first child), doesn’t handle production, and has a small team of two who back her up at their Portland Street offices.

 Made with Local is a huge Nova Scotian success story. And on top of their success they’ve helped pave  the way for the growth of other small businesses that provide ingredients for the Made with Local product lines—Real Food Bar granola bars, Loaded Oats, and Real Food Bar mixes—and for two social enterprise groups that handle the production of Made with Local treats. 

Good business sense and social good

Russell was still working her government job and producing the bars herself when she became pregnant with her daughter (now age four) and figured something had to give. She’d thought that would mean giving up on Made with Local, because how could she manage a side-business, a fulltime job, and a baby? While on maternity leave she changed her mind, left the government, and threw herself “whole hog” into the business instead. However, she knew that with a baby she couldn’t make the bars herself and needed to outsource production. That’s when a friend suggested the Flower Cart Group in New Minas might make ideal partners.

 “The Flower Cart Group provide work opportunities to those with barriers to joining the mainstream Workforce out in the valley,” explains Russell. “They started making our bars for us, and now they’ve been doing it for five years.” Initially, Russell says she didn’t look into the partnership because she wanted to become a social enterprise, it was purely a practical choice because she needed to outsource production and the Flower Cart Group was already providing a similar service for other local makers at a per unit price.

 “Our whole thing was based on the locavore movement, but I soon realized the impact our company could have on these organizations and their communities,” Russell says. “The more we grow, the more they grow, that was a light bulb moment for me, and I realized, “Holy shit, this is what my business was meant to do.”

At the start of their partnership, the Flower Cart Group was making Russell 600 – 800 bars a week in their tiny kitchen with one employee helping three or four clients to manage production and the packaging of the bars and other products. “Since then the business has really exploded, and now they are doing 6000 – 8000 bars a week. The kitchen is triple the size it was, and we have moved distribution down the road to a second center. Our total footprint with them has at least quadrupled.”

 Business is so good Russell chose to partner with another group doing similar work, the Dartmouth Adult Services Center, which is based in Burnside and handles production of the Loaded Oats and Food Bar mixes. “They’re another stellar organization,” says Russell. Because these production partners are so good at what they do, Russell has been able to grow her company with her tiny team (in fact, she only recently hired a second staff member because she is about to have her second child and will need backup).

Sheena Russell

 Partnering with these organizations isn’t just good for Made with Local’s story, it has been a sound business decision that enabled the company to grow in a very clever way. “There are a million business reasons why it makes sense to partner with social Enterprises—we only ever have to make what we need. I don’t have to carry the cost of a full-time production staff or production facility; I just pay a per unit cost.”

 Partnering with these social enterprises meant Russell could begin to take the baby steps needed to grow it without having to make huge investments. “The number one thing every single entrepreneur runs into is, “how do I get out of working in my business and work on my business?” It’s a tale as old as time. You’re stuck in the weeds. You need to work out a process where you aren’t getting in over your head, and having an on-demand relationship like this allows you to take those incremental baby steps you need to take in the beginning.”

 Being recognized as a social do-gooder is a pretty sweet accolade, and Made with Local just became a Certified B Corporation, which means its practices “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability.” This internationally recognized certification is only held by a handful of businesses in Atlantic Canada and Made with Local is the first product-based business here to be granted the honour. 

Going national

By the time this story goes to print, you’ll be able to pick up Made with Local bars at Loblaws, Bulk Barn, and Sobeys stores across the country (they’ve been stocked in those chains’ stores in Atlantic Canada, as well as in many independent retailers for several years). Made with Local will have gone from appearing on the shelves in 175 stores to more than 1000, a substantial jump for a company with a corporate staff of three to make.

The Sobeys contracts have been especially sweet. “My dad ran the bakery at Sobeys in Charlottetown, and he would take me in after hours when he was finishing up for the day. I’d sit there eating cookies and colouring when I was about the same age as my daughter is now. I pretty much grew up in a Sobeys,” she says, “it feels like I’ve come full circle.” Sobeys first started carrying Made with Local’s oatmeal in 2015, and the bars in 2016. “To this day our bars are the top-performing bars they have in the category. It has been such a powerful relationship for us, and Sobeys really walks the walk when it comes to supporting local.”

 Russell has big plans for further expansion—with the next logical step being to get her brand into the US—but wants to ensure all those new Canadian retailers to know her compelling company story. “I’m working from a heart and gut space. I want them to know why we do things in these ways, I want to reach out to that buyer at a Loblaws store in Winnipeg and tell them our story, nourishing that relationship,” she says. “I just want to do a really good job with those partners. Qualitatively, I know how I want those relationships to go.”

As the business continues growing, it will always be about local Nova Scotia ingredients, and mostly from the same producers as when the company began. Russell still gets her honey from Cosman and Whiddon, who used to set up across the aisle at the farmers’ market. “We’d work for the day, grab a bucket of their honey, take it home, make the bars,” says Russell, “but now instead of us taking two buckets a month from them, they deliver eight buckets a week.” There’s a great deal of satisfaction in seeing Made with Local help other businesses to grow too. More bars need more ingredients, of course.

 Being based in Nova Scotia has offered several advantages for Russell. Support from the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and a loan from the Farmworks Community Development Fund helped Made with Local invest in new packaging equipment that will be used by the Flower Cart Group. Russell says she has found this province a hugely supportive environment for producers of local products. But how could anyone not be supportive of a business run like this?

 As Russell says, “It’s pretty hard to be grumpy about locally-sourced handmade granola bars. I feel like we’re filling a niche that didn’t really have many players—just really good snacks made with local ingredients.”