NAIT student-alum couple churns up a new Edmonton "craft" business
John and Jessica Steblyk’s business was nurtured right where their relationship was: in the kitchen. “We love making new things, and John loves to cook,” says Jessica.
The Edmonton couple began a habit of finding a recipe, picking up ingredients and then trying them out. Along the way came love, marriage, a passion for interesting flavours, and a business idea that taps into the rapidly growing “craft” approach to food production.
Using the wedding present of a gift certificate to buy a small ice-cream maker, they started once again experimenting in the kitchen. Their frozen dessert flavour explosions – from Vietnamese coffee to a beet and blood-orange ice cream – were a hit with foodie friends.
But could they turn a frozen-food idea into a year-round business – especially in Edmonton, a city that sees winter a good six months a year?
Starting a revolution
Last year, using Jessica’s business savvy and John’s skills in the kitchen, they cooked up Revolution Ice Cream to, as she puts it, “disrupt the food industry.”
Out with 20-ingredient “frozen desserts” on the shelves of big-box grocers and in with a product that has no more than five or six ingredients: cream, milk, sugar, eggs and a few natural flavourings. Their tagline: “Seasonally inspired. Crafted with care.”
In a year, they’ve gone from whipping up ice cream in their kitchen for sale at a few summer markets to hiring commercial kitchen space and expanding their number of clients. They sell at 124 Grand Market in Edmonton and have 10 business customers, including Amaranth Whole Foods in St. Albert and online grocery store Spud.ca.
“Last summer I did 14-hour days churning, taking breaks to deliver ice cream.”
Gone is that wedding present that made a litre at a time. “Last summer I did 14-hour days churning, taking breaks to deliver ice cream,” says John. He’s since upgraded to an industrial model than can produce 2.5 litres every 10 minutes. What once took eight hours now takes one.
Jessica, meanwhile, pitched in last summer at markets and making the odd batch, but has focused on the marketing and social media side of the business – and the paperwork – while finishing her studies at NAIT.
Cracking the craft market
Though their expectations for the company have changed, their core values haven’t. “It’s a product that comes with a story,” says John. “People really connect with that.”
Craft food is, in part, about transparency: who made the product and why, along with what ingredients it contains – and what it doesn’t. Revolution avoids the pre-mixes found in many so-called artisan ice creams and scorns the stabilizers and preservatives in many grocery store versions.
“If ice cream is good, it should not be lasting a year!”
“If ice cream is good, it should not be lasting a year!” says John. “We’re thinking of putting that on our packaging: best consumed within six weeks.” (In addition to the required best-before dates, of course.)
Despite a downturn in Alberta, the time may be right for artisan food – even if it tends to cost more. The number of craft breweries in the province has tripled since 2014, tapping into a market thirsty for carefully made local beer. It’s only natural that other bootstrapping food startups should follow, says Twyla Campbell, CBC Radio’s restaurant reviewer in Edmonton.
“There is so much mass-produced everything out there,” she says. “People have been groomed for 15 years by groups such as Make It Edmonton, Eat Alberta and the Local Good that supporting local, independent businesses of artists and artisans makes a strong, vibrant and healthy community.”
She believes they’re willing to pay someone to do one thing if it’s done very, very well.
“There’s more opportunities for success in craft food than there might have been before,” she says. Hoang sees social media platforms such as Instagram as a way to market and develop a customer base for artisan food in particular. In cases like Revolution’s, that following can help achieve the goal of establishing a storefront.
“The food and restaurant industry is one of the most challenging to find success in, but luckily Edmontonians love to eat – and are eager to spend their money supporting local businesses,” she says.
This has certainly proved true for the Steblyks, who have witnessed the city’s community spirit first-hand: Revolution was voted best independent ice cream at Vue Weekly’s Golden Fork Awards in 2017 and 2018.
Future of the revolution
With one year and, notably, one winter behind them, the Steblyks are looking to the future. They belong to a group of small food-business owners who meet monthly to swap contacts, advice and, as they say, “give each other the guts to keep going.”
Crucially, the Steblyks have learned not only what works but what doesn’t work. There might not, John admits, be quite the market to operate an ice cream company year-round, at least not as a sole source of household income. Market revenue dwindles in winter and, now that spring is here, they’re facing thousands of dollars in upfront costs to rent space at summer markets.
“We didn’t know how the winter would be,” he says, reflecting on the last few months. “Unless something changes, we’ll either have to scale it back next winter or get separate jobs part of the year.”
This is all part of a learning curve, especially in a competitive food market. But their vision is strong and they want to scale up without scaling back their original concept. That includes developing more partnerships with local restaurants and cafes, investing in pop-up food shops and finding novel ways to market a niche product – essentially building on the business plan Jessica workshopped in classes at NAIT.
Such creative thinking is what drew them to the kitchen in the first place so, while Revolution will evolve, the concept is as enduring as their relationship. As John puts it: “The way to grow with integrity is to stick with your original vision and mission.”