The Taste of Success
You’ve likely grabbed a bite with Susan Niczowski and not even known it. That’s because she is the woman behind Summer Fresh Salads, the healthy food empire and mega-successful Canadian brand. Here, the entrepreneurial powerhouse dishes on her experience, 25 years and counting.
Peruse the prepared-salads and dips section of any grocery store and you can’t help but notice two things: plenty of options, and plenty of Summer Fresh products. And for that, we can thank Susan Niczowski. “In the early ’90s, I felt that there was a need in the marketplace for fresh prepared foods that were all-natural with no additives, preservatives or MSG,” says Niczowski, president of Summer Fresh Salads. So, the former microbiologist decided to do something about it.
“I left the corporate world and started with my mother in her kitchen, chopping and creating,” she says, “Food has always been a part of our family. My grandparents and uncle owned restaurants, and my father is a mechanical engineer who specializes in food equipment. As a four-year-old child, I was barbecuing green tomatoes.” Niczowski then took her finished dips and salad products to various independent food retailers and the rest is history for the highly profitable Canadian company.
“One thing led to another and, a few weeks later, we moved into a federally inspected 3,000-square-foot facility,” says Niczowski, who is celebrating 25 years in the business. “I would go sell in the morning, come back after lunch and make the products until the wee hours of the next day. That was done seven days a week for many, many years.”
Hungry For More
Along with the tech and fashion industries, the world of cuisine prides itself on constant evolution. While Niczowski is very proud to have created top-selling products – her Artichoke & Asiago Dip and Roasted Garlic Hummus rank as the number one sellers in the country – she is always on the lookout for the next big hit.
“The food industry has really changed since I started, and I think it’s all for the better,” she says. “Years ago, gourmet food was extremely specialized and you could only find it at certain retailers. Very few people knew about it. People didn’t know what pesto was, and now we’re talking about Korean gochujang and so many exciting, different flavours.”
She notes that digital and social media, along with the vast array of TV cooking shows and the rise of celebrity chefs, have helped push food forward as a hot topic while expanding consumers’ palates. “The way people are eating is very different,” she says. “If you look at the generations of people in North America, we have so many groups: baby boomers, Gen-Xers, millennials. And everyone has needs and wants, so we’re constantly changing. We just kicked off a new hummus with chimichurri sauce that is very different than what we were used to 18 years ago or even 18 months ago.”
The Fruits of Labour
Niczowski’s eye for opportunity led her to create an in-demand category, but it’s her perseverance that has allowed her to dominate it. “Nothing has come easy,” she says. “There’s been a lot of begging and pleading to both buyers and consumers and a lot of tasting and sampling, and it’s been an evolution of great growth.” Her success is evident, but she cautions against it skewering the reality of being an entrepreneur. “For every success, I’ve had many flops, and people don’t see that,” she says. “Years ago, we brought out a fantastic product and it was the biggest flop. It was easy to sell to retailers and we got the product into stores, but then consumers just didn’t accept it and it died. You live and learn – it’s trial and error.”
With many elements being beyond control, any aspiring entrepreneur is advised to learn how to go with the flow. Niczowski recalls her darkest day yet, on which she was unexpectedly called into a meeting and told that a large-chain store was delisting – that is, dumping – another brand they did not own but made. “We were told that it was for no apparent reason, not because sales were down or lack of quality. That delisting was going to mean a difference of 10 million dollars for my bottom line in sales,” she says, “We had just purchased a new building that was being gutted and renovated into a state-of-the-art facility. For the first time in my life, I was fuzzy. I had to catch my breath.”
Getting Back On Track
Niczowski’s solution? Get all hands – and heads – on deck. “We all sat down and came up with a strategy as a team. We were able to survive, didn’t lay off a single employee and were able to grow sales,” she says. The retail chain eventually picked up the brand again, while Niczowski learned valuable lessons from the experience. “You can’t take anything for granted,” she says, “and no doesn’t mean no forever. You have to keep trying, be extremely creative and get back in there one way or another. You have to show your partners why they need your brand.”
After dedicating over two decades to providing high-quality, healthy food to the masses, Niczowski’s career is peppered with high points, and she laughs at the suggestion of an early retirement. “Health, wellness and food are extremely important to me because they’re part of our daily lives,” she says. “Every day I see a Summer Fresh product at a store or a fan talking about or tasting the product is definitely a highlight of mine. I believe that you have to get up in the morning and love what you do, and I truly do that. The day I get up and that doesn’t happen is the day I’m out.”
Her Best Advice
“My dad sat me down when I started and told me ‘Remember, you’re only as good as the people you’re surrounded by.’ That has definitely stuck with me. You need talent on your team because you can’t be everything to everybody. Also, the glass is always half-full as opposed to half-empty to me. There’s always a solution – a way to make things work.”
What She Wishes She Knew Back Then
“Maybe not to trust people as much as I do. I believe in the old-fashioned handshake agreement. But I really don’t have any regrets or wish I’d done something differently. I’m very open-minded, not afraid to ask questions and not afraid to go back in there if someone has said no to me.”
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