A niche player “flies high” through strategic planning and adapting to change
It is the power to adapt and go outside your comfort zone to make the necessary changes that lead to success, even if it scares you. Mi and Stu are a prime example of how success comes from opportunities presented and how they respond to them.
It started out as a friendship based on a chance encounter. Mimi was out walking her dog. As her dog was doing his “business” on Stephanie’s lawn, Stephanie introduced herself. Soon after, their dogs became friends, their kids became friends and then they became friends. One night they went to see the movie, It’s Complicated; a story, whose main character, played by Meryl Streep, opens a successful bakery. Inspiration ensued and so began their journey into the food business.
In 2011, long before it was fashionable to do so, they opened a small baking business meeting the needs of those with allergies and sensitivities to dairy, nuts and gluten. If you suffered with food intolerances, you knew about Mi & Stu, a welcome addition at a time when options were extremely limited and tasteless. Their offerings include vegan and non-GMO options. The facility is fully MK (kosher) and they have Halal on various items.
So, why choose a fairly unknown niche market that had no cachet at the time? Mimi’s motivation was driven by 2 of her kid’s dietary requirements due to allergies and sensitivities. Her daughter’s IRA (rheumatoid arthritis) symptoms were relieved by following a gluten and dairy free diet, as it is anti-inflammatory in nature. Her son had suffered an anaphylactic attack from eating dairy. For people who suffer from these sensitivities and allergies, it is like navigating a mine field. Not all ingredients are straightforward, nor is the general public aware. The options were limited and the flavors and textures were unappealing. Mimi would toil in her own kitchen producing snacks, baked goods and meals that were void of the many ingredients the average person consumed daily. Honing her skills at home is what gave her the competitive edge to jump-start this business.
When Mi & Stu started out, the competition was insignificant. Today, the words gluten free and peanut free are huge marketing opportunities for many companies. Specialty retailers, chain restaurants and whole aisles at the supermarkets are dedicated to meeting the needs of this latest market trend. These strategically thinking women knew it was time to revisit their operations to figure out how to best address this niche market if they wanted to survive and grow.
And grow they did! They saw the retail market starting to get saturated. It was time to reinvent! Mi & Stu signed up three food service distributors as well as one selling to retailers (they still have a few independent retail customers as well). Their strategy shift enabled half of their business to now come from the Travel (flight and train) and Hospitality industry. Adapting to this new growth meant learning, evaluating and taking risks.
The requirements came from some of the biggest names in the industry. They needed a larger facility, HACCP and GF certification and a much bigger freezer. Mi & Stu knew that their quaint storefront on Park Avenue, with its small industrial kitchen, would not be up to the challenge. So, they packed up the store and moved to LaSalle.
From the outside, their LaSalle operation looks small. However, once inside your perspective quickly changes. Their 7500 square foot factory located on the main floor has a well thought out spotless floor plan for cooking, storing and packaging as well as a massive, walk-in, custom-built freezer to handle all their orders.
The upstairs resembles a tech loft: grey tiled floor and an open floor plan. It’s calm and Zen just like the two founding partners Mimi Bercovitch and Stephanie London. Now let’s briefly touch upon how they “scaled-up” their business:
In their kitchen, they use three Kilotech KPC 1000 scales. When I asked how and why they used the scales, their response was quick. “The advantage to weighing is that measuring is now much faster and more accurate. Gone are the days of using measuring cups and spoons. It is easier to track inventory and everything comes in measured as weight and leaves the facilities measured in weight.”
Prior to baking, they weigh raw ingredients and batters. They also weigh their products baked and frozen as they lose weight in both instances. All their products are shipped out frozen, including snacks as well as meals.
Mi & Stu is a company where everyone gets along and has a lot of fun. They are fully woman-owned. Mimi and Stephanie are proud of their staff and their tight and efficient operation. They are in sync with the direction of the company and they have a strong partnership.
What are their plans for the future? To expand into the Greater Toronto Area and Ontario markets. They just returned from two successful shows in Toronto. They are also contemplating entering the USA market, beginning with New Jersey.
Mi & Stu have been gaining media attention locally and have been featured in the Fall / Winter edition of Magazine Chef & Co and in The Baker’s Journal September 2017 issue. In addition, they won the 2016 People’s Choice Award for FoodPages.ca and they also landed in the SheEO 2017 Top 25 list of Woman-owned Ventures in Canada and the USA.
All this attention is warranted for a duo that started only six years ago and grew quickly and methodically. For some, gluten free is the next bandwagon to jump on, but make no mistake; Mi & Stu are in it for the long term. For them it is not a trend. Passion is not fashion, it is a commitment; one that will take them past the headlines and Facebook posts for gluten free diets, to being a real comfort for all those who suffer from these food allergies and sensitivities. Mi & Stu are making it a better world for them, one baked good at a time!