Healthy natural foods are one of the fastest growing grocery retail sectors driven by increased consumer demand for snacking options with a high nutritional value. For over the past 30 years, Montreal-based Tootsi Impex Inc. has been one of the most dynamic healthy snack companies, thanks to a focus on delivering innovative products that have taken it across North America.
Beginning life as a small, family-run business with a single cash-and-carry store in 1986, Tootsi has achieved steady growth for its high-quality nuts, seeds, grains and specialty ingredients based on its ability to run a successful multi-channel distribution operation from Montreal.
A business that was developed through hard, dedicated work, Tootsi very much grew at its own pace, with no external partners or loan debt, says Farhad Shayesteh, VP sales and marketing.
“When my parents emigrated to Canada” he says, “they were well educated, had a good background academically and a nice previous work experience, but they needed to quickly adapt to the new environment and they had little knowledge of French. They decided to open a cash-and-carry operation to serve restaurants and retailers looking for dried ingredients at the Central Market in Montreal”.
After six years of running a small, healthy operation, Tootsi’s founders decided to focus on a different venture, but allowed Ali, the oldest of their three sons, to continue the business while he was attending university.
The family had good suppliers and good customers that kept coming back for their great products. Throughout the years, the people at the company have made all the difference. In 2003 Farhad, the second brother, joined the business. The company opened a larger distribution facility a year later and moved to expand again in 2013. “Now, our space of 70,000 sq feet is too small for our operation”, explains Farhad. Their youngest brother, Kayvan, has recently joined the team and the company which now has 100 employees is adding a new building to its operation, doubling in size. Tootsi works closely with their customers and there are often requests for specialty roasting, new blends and other items with added value. “Expanding will provide more space for product development,” said Farhad.
Increased demand for organic and gluten-free certified foods motivated the Shayesteh brothers to launch their first organic certified retail brand Elan in 2010. Additional certifications for the line included Kosher and non-GMO. “Some customers would not do the packaging themselves and prefer to have us do the job, while other clients may want to test the market with our brand first,” says Farhad. “We are also constantly bringing in new ingredients.” Tootsi imports products from all corners of the globe. They have suppliers in over 50 countries and frequently travel visiting growers and processors, and looking for new products.
In 2012, Tootsi introduced another retail brand, Yupik, for consumers looking for conventional and natural bulk and packaged nuts, dried fruits, snacks, chocolates and candies. The team also offers displays with bins for ingredients in bulk at natural health food stores and supermarkets.
Tootsi can serve a variety of customers with different formats, while end consumers can also buy Yupik online. Manufacturers, restaurants and retailers buy direct or via local and national distributors. “We are used to dealing with different countries, currencies and channels of distribution,” says Farhad.
Looking at its complete portfolio, Farhad sees the company’s biggest growth coming in the years ahead from the organic sector. “The market is still growing at over 8 percent, while the conventional is only growing by 2 percent,” he says. “Demand for healthy, natural food products, simple ingredients with minimum processing and high nutritional value continues to be an active driver.”
Tootsi relies on personal contact to build relationships with its customers. “We believe in word-of-mouth promotion,” explains Farhad. And even though its primary business is still mostly based in Canada and the US, Tootsi has gained an excellent reputation worldwide. “We have a dynamic network and keep up with what the market expects,” he adds.
Products that are having great response lately include tigernuts, baobab, ginger and carob powder. Tootsi will exhibit at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore from September 14-16 and at the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) annual trade show in Toronto on September 16-17.