With a career spanning 20 years, that has taken her from Walt Disney World to cruise ships to convention centres, it was during a government contract that Allison Gibson decided to focus on something that would give back to the community. This brought her to PaintBox Bistro in Toronto’s Regent Park, where she began as a sales and event coordinator and ended up a part-owner.
Allison left PaintBox in 2020 and began working with Spring Activator, a global impact consulting firm, leading all food programming as their food innovation program manager. She designed and led the Ethnic Food Incubator (EFI) on their behalf.
We recently spoke with Allison about the EFI, developing the curriculum, how they adapted because of the pandemic, some of the incubator’s success stories and reclaiming the term “ethnic food.”
How did your background with PaintBox prepare you for working with the EFI?
PaintBox is a social enterprise with a mandate to provide opportunities and training experiences in hospitality, food and beverage to anyone who identifies as marginalized or has a barrier to employment. It’s a for-profit business that doesn’t rely on grants or funding. We also did training and incubation for marginalized people, people of colour and women to launch businesses or develop products. When COVID hit, we pivoted and launched an online grocery store. I was with PaintBox for almost nine years. At the end of 2020, I branched off as a consultant, which is how I stumbled upon the EFI.
What prompted the creation of the EFI, and what was your role in it?
The Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce wanted to do a food incubation program but needed someone who understood the food industry to develop and create the curriculum. They contacted Spring Activator… and then Spring found me. Initially, they called to ask a few questions and see if I wanted to be a guest speaker; after that call, they asked me to run it.
I had a few weeks to consult, design the curriculum and program, and choose the guest speakers. The idea was to create a space for people of colour to come together and learn how to launch a product or how to develop a product they were already working on. The goal was to develop products until they were ready for a grocery store or retail shelf. We ended up with 15 women from across Canada and formed a little sisterhood. We talked about everything, like safely creating a quality food product, funding and marketing. Based on my experience, I shared tips and tricks along with my failings and things I’d struggled to learn on my own. When I was starting out, I didn’t have anyone pull me aside and explain how the industry worked, how to manage my money and save when dealing with tips and what skills are required if you’re interested in a career in food. I had to learn it all on my own.
How did the program adapt and change due to the pandemic?
Before COVID, the EFI would’ve taken place in person and the idea was to provide participants with access to a commercial kitchen and a lab for product testing. We would’ve had a final showcase event. We ended up meeting weekly for 12 weeks on Zoom. At the start of the pandemic, I quickly learned virtual facilitation and learning styles, so by the time the EFI came along, I was ready for it. Most sessions featured a guest speaker or an opportunity to collaborate on something we were working on.
For sampling, we created a box with all the products that were being worked on or developed through the program and sent it to sponsors, program supporters and guest speakers. I collected everything, so I had packages arriving at my house constantly and it looked like a warehouse. I had to transport everything to a commercial kitchen, make sure it was cleaned and disinfected — and then hired a team of people to help package and ship the boxes. Product feedback cards were included or could be accessed via a web link.
What skills were the participants equipped with after completing the program?
We touched on the basics, like pitching for investment, access to capital, marketing and how to identify your customer segment or audience. We wanted to ensure their success after the program, so everyone was matched with an industry mentor. Also, we provided them with access to the overall ecosystem, including my network of mentors and guest speakers and directed them to other programs or sources of funding.
At the end of the program, we had a demo day with Chef Suzanne Barr from Wall of Chefs, who was our celebrity guest chef. She was absolutely amazing and super involved. We selected the top three products and pitches and those three people won a cash prize. The winner of the EFI went on to a national pitch challenge and made it to the top 20. A few participants were referred to other programs to work on refining their business plans. Others did more scientific product testing. Essentially, we connected them with what they needed to get to the next level. I still work with many of them and make myself available for one-on-one coaching and mentoring — and they definitely take me up on that.
What were some challenges that participants faced before taking part in the EFI?
Mainly, it was access to information and how the industry works. It was hard for them to figure out how to get a product into a grocery store because there’s no process for that. A lot of the program was connecting them to the right people or getting their foot in the door. The other issue was related to mental health. Everyone had other jobs, so we asked if they were prepared to be an entrepreneur. As we were going through the program, some participants felt overwhelmed. They had to ask themselves: “Am I ready for this? Do I have the skill set to do this?” Once they figured out what’s required to pitch to a grocery store or supplier, they were good to go.
Can you share success stories that came out of the incubator?
Eight50 Coffee’s Muna Mohammed took part in the EFI program to refine and further develop her line of coffee products. They’re available for sale online and at select Ottawa-area retailers. Street Food’s Anthonia Iveren Gom launched her product, Zobo, during the program. It’s a popular hibiscus beverage found in Nigeria and retails online and in select stores in Winnipeg. 116 Kitchen in Toronto makes the most delicious meal kits and sauces inspired by Chef Max’s Nigerian heritage and it was amazing watching the progression of this during the program.
Then there’s Afrotechture Market, a pop-up by participant Resa Solomon-St. Lewis, the chef and owner of Baccanalle Restaurant in Ottawa. She has a line of delicious sauces that are perfect for retail and I’m obsessed with the tamarind and rum Sauce! She partnered with another woman in the program and launched Afrotechture last holiday season, which is an artisan market that showcases products from Black entrepreneurs in Byward Market. I got to visit it in December and meet them and the market remained open beyond the holidays.
The term “ethnic food” has been perceived by some as being used for inferior or cheap food. Why was the program named the Ethnic Food Incubator when there’s hesitation within the food community to use that term?
I didn’t choose the name, but I asked why they called it the Ethnic Food Incubator. The idea was to encourage people to not associate an ethnic product with being inferior and that there’s nothing wrong with saying that you are creating an ethnic product. When you think about going grocery shopping or ordering food, almost everything we eat is ethnic or is from someone who has an immigrant background. The incubator wanted to highlight that we are already eating ethnic food, and we should highlight and champion it.
What plans do you have for the future of the EFI?
We’re currently discussing what’s next and planning version 2.0 of the program for this fall. Who it’s open to is up for debate. We’ve talked about a youth-focused or a family business-focused program. I’ve been working on supporting and uplifting Indigenous businesses, and working on an Ethnic Food Incubator that’s open to anyone, but looking for support from the Indigenous community so we can allocate a certain number of spots to Indigenous entrepreneurs. I would love to do an Indigenous-focused food incubator program separate from this.
Besides Indigenous entrepreneurs, I’d like to include some men. We always talk about how men get all the opportunities and make more money, but with food, there are never programs for men of colour, so that’s something we’re also discussing. The first incubator had 15 Black women, but we need to make space for other marginalized communities.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photos courtesy of Allison Gibson