Category Archives: Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre

Local pet food company an industry leader thanks to NC research partnership

Company owner and president Matt Bonanno with four canine friends in front of Iron Will Raw’s temperature- controlled delivery vehicle.

In just five years, Niagara Falls entrepreneur Matt Bonanno went from making raw pet food for his dog in his home to a 12,000-square-foot state-of-the-art production facility. With the help of Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division, Bonanno’s brand Iron Will Raw has become an industry leader in holistic pet food.

“It’s hard to believe how far Iron Will Raw has grown in such a short amount of time,” said Bonanno, company president and CEO. “I started the business believing 100 percent in the benefits and values of a species-appropriate, quality raw diet for pets, and I was committed to producing the safest, highest quality of raw pet food. One of the reasons for our success is because we had help from Niagara College to optimize our processes.”

Bonanno was working full-time as a carpenter and training dogs as a hobby, when he noticed a demand for raw pet food. The raw food diet for dogs and cats consists of recipes containing uncooked meat, organs, edible bones and vegetables, designed to mirror the animal’s ancestral diet. After launching his operations, he had help from NC’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre and the Canadian Food and Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre to scale up manufacturing and ensure quality control.

“This project is an example of the impact NC’s applied research is having on emerging industries. We always welcome opportunities to collaborate and help budding entrepreneurs like Matt succeed,” said Marc Nantel, associate vice-president, Research & Innovation. “By working with our industry partners, like Iron Will Raw, our students not only help businesses innovate but gain valuable real-world experience.”

Company owner Matt Bonanno (right) and NC’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program co-op student Nathan Knapp-Blezius inside the factory.


Bonanno noted that the HACCP process involves plans, documentation, education, training, protocols 
and traceability in order to receive certification, all of which are expensive. “It’s probably out of reach for a lot of companies cost-wise.”

From six employees to 15 and with revenues up by more than 300 percent, Iron Will Raw is an example of the many engagements and support that NC provides to industry partners on their journey to expansion. “I can say one of the reasons why we are the only raw pet food company in Ontario with a HACCP certification is because we had help from Niagara College,” said Bonanno.

Two of the three NC research projects Iron Will Raw qualified for were with the College’s CFWI Innovation Centre – in 2016, with federal funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and in 2018, with funding from the Niagara Region. Bonanno collaborated with world-class experts in food and beverage research at NC, while students received real-world knowledge guided by expert staff, including an industry HACCP specialist.

In total, Iron Will Raw worked with NC’s Research & Innovation division on three separate projects — the first was with NC’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) — which connected the company with funding from the Niagara Region. Student researchers at WAMIC conducted a productivity/improvement assessment utilizing their FARO 3D scanner to create a layout of Iron Will Raw’s production facility.

Researchers also analyzed the flow of materials and information to make the raw food product, and made recommendations to optimize the manufacturing process. Iron Will Raw is the first and only pet food facility in Ontario – and one of only three in Canada – to be Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) certified, a systematic and preventative approach to food safety which helps to find, correct and prevent hazards throughout the production process.

Nathan Knapp-Blezius, a third-year student in NC’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program, has worked with Iron Will Raw throughout his time at NC. In his first and second year, Knapp-Blezius was a part-time research assistant with NC’s Research & Innovation where he worked on the applied research project for Iron Will Raw. Following his time with Research & Innovation, he did his co-op placement with Iron Will Raw as part of his NC program. During his co-op, Knapp-Blezius ensured that all food safety programs were implemented properly and executed staff training. He was later hired by Iron Will Raw as a quality assurance coordinator working part-time while he’s still at NC.

“Co-op placements not only prepare you for industry challenges, they immerse you in the challenges,” said Knapp-Blezius. “Immersion is the best path to mastery, in my opinion.”

With strict manufacturing practices in place at his production facility, Bonanno is focused on moving his business forward. “We’re now leading in the food safety division – we’re putting out a great product for our customers and now it’s time to build on the volume and locations across Canada,” he said.

Iron Will Raw’s range of raw meat products are sold mainly through pet specialty retail stores in Central and Eastern Canada. Visit ironwillraw.com.

NC’s Research & Innovation division provides real-world solutions for business, key industry sectors and the community through applied research and knowledge transfer activities. This includes conducting projects that provide innovative solutions, such as producing and testing prototypes, evaluating new technologies, and developing new or improved products or processes for small- and medium-sized businesses. Visit ncinnovation.ca

Niagara College offers more than 130 diploma, bachelor degree and advanced level programs; as well as more than 600 credit, vocational and general interest Part-Time Studies courses. Areas of specialization include food and wine sciences, advanced technology, media, applied health and community safety, supported by unique learning enterprises in food, wine, beer, horticulture and esthetics. Visit niagaracollege.ca.

Where are they now?: Ankita Mathkar

Where are they now?: Ankita Mathkar

Ankita Mathkar is a 2018 graduate of Niagara College’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program. After two years working as a Research Assistant for the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre, Ankita accepted a position as R&D Project Lead with Sol Cuisine, a natural vegan foods manufacturer with a growing community of restaurant and retail consumers.

Tell us what you do in your new job

I formulate new products that are completely plant-based with the use of soy, peas, lentils and vegetables. I then ensure that they are led to the production floor and that large-scale production is successful. I work a little on the regulatory side as well, so my job entails looking over the packaging and working closely with labelling software.

Proudest achievement since graduating:

Probably seeing one of my recipes going into production and patiently waiting for it to hit grocery stores.

How did your R&I experience help prepare you for your current job?

I was able to work on a plethora of projects and learn what research and development really entails when it comes down to the real world. R&I was a fast-paced place to work, with all the projects coming in and deadlines sneaking up daily. I quickly learned how to tackle problems in a short period of time and provide solutions to industry owners in a professional way. It also taught me how to deal with downfalls when something doesn’t work out, because in the research and development world, it’s OK to have downfalls. Matter of fact, its best to build up after something has gone wrong. Most importantly, I was able to make connections with various influential people and suppliers that still come in handy.

What first attracted you to Niagara College?

The Culinary Innovation and Food Tech program stood out to me. No other colleges or universities had a three-year coop program that would be able to teach me both culinary techniques as well as open up opportunities in the food industry. Plus, visually, the campus looked absolutely gorgeous! 

Favourite NC memory?

There are too many to count – I had an amazing time at NC! I was able to make long-lasting friendships. I had excellent professors and coworkers. If I could do it again, I most definitely would. 

A faculty member who influenced you?

It would be hard for me to pick one, so I would have to say the infamous trio that everyone in Culinary Innovation probably knows – Sabi, Sunan, and Amy. They were always there; we had either one of these ladies throughout our three years at Niagara and they never once stopped encouraging every individual. I couldn’t have made it without them.  And a special shout out to Chef Oz and Chef Keith, who made culinary classes a whole lot of fun.

Top 3 skills you obtained from your time at NC:

  1. I learned how to be patient. I remember making a chocolate cookie recipe over and over again with slight variations. Highly frustrating at first, but so worth it at the end of the semester.
  2. I learned how to work well in a team. Almost all classes had projects that needed to be done in teams. By the end of the year, we had become a close-knit classroom and we knew that if we had to all work together to pull off one big project, we could do it without any conflicts.
  3. I learned how to be time efficient. Everyone knows juggling theory classes, culinary classes and lab work is tedious. However, NC was able to make it fun for everyone in my year and everyone was able to complete every task on time.

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

I’ve learned that mistakes are a part of life, it is so important to overcome them and face your fears. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and make sure you always give 100 percent; it does get rewarded.

How does this job fit into your overall career plan?

It fits perfectly. It is exactly what I wanted to do after graduating and I am so glad Sol Cuisine was able to provide me with the opportunity. That being said, I am glad that R&I and Niagara college were able to open those doors for me. I love what I do as of now; what the future awaits is a mystery.

What are your interests outside of work?

I like to hike, swim and play tennis. At the end of a work day, I find that all three of them help me relax and ensure that I get a good night’s sleep.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

‘Courage doesn’t always roar.’ Sometimes all you need is the little voice inside saying “I’ll try again tomorrow” – said by someone else, but it definitely resonated with me.

Profile: Stephanie Skotidas

Profile: Stephanie Skotidas

There is a common biology experiment that involves extracting DNA from an onion. Why an onion? Given the low starch content of the vegetable, the DNA can be seen more clearly when isolated. Plus, anyone can do it in his or her own kitchen with a few household chemicals.

Stephanie Skotidas’ high school class had been learning about DNA, but as soon as she discovered the link between science and food, after spooling the onion DNA, she was “hooked.”

“It was amazing to see how the things we were learning in class could be applied in the real world and to have that tangible evidence of what we had only been learning the theoretical side of,” says the Research Lab Technician with Niagara College’s Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre.

From there, she started her education in chemistry, biology and analytical instrumentation. After receiving a diploma in Food and Drug Technology from Durham College, she continued her studies to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences from McMaster University.

“It was amazing to see how the things we were learning in class could be applied in the real world and to have that tangible evidence of what we had only been learning the theoretical side of.”

She was drawn to product development, working for Sensient Flavors Canada as a R&D Food Technologist for almost seven years. She also spent time as an Assistant Winemaker with Andrew Peller Ltd.

A highlight while at Sensient was creating the “Tubes” branded yoghurt and then seeing it on the shelves in the grocery store. It was the first of many items she developed that made their way into people’s homes.

“The first time I saw something I made on the shelf, I did a little dance in the grocery store and a lady who saw me said ‘Oh that must be really good!’ and I said ‘It is… you should buy it!’”

It also gave her family more of an appreciation for what her job entailed, she says. “And it was a tangible measure of what I did all day and how it affected real people.”

Together with the applied research projects she’s called upon to help with, Stephanie focuses on the technical services offered through the CFWI Innovation Centre, such as microbiology and chemical analytical lab testing, shelf-life testing, food and beverage quality and product development.

Today, she has come full circle since high school and has returned to what hooked her in the first place: putting theoretical learning into real-world practice. In her role at the college, Stephanie is responsible for maintaining all the state-of-the-art equipment within the Research & Innovation labs. She also works collaboratively with students, faculty and industry partners.

She is also now proficient at hops and beer analysis, something she rather enjoys. This past summer, she helped with a major R&I project for the Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB), which saw her do the bulk of testing on some 1,000 cans of beer.

Even so, the most exciting endeavour is just ahead – the imminent opening of the College’s Marotta Family Innovation Complex, where an entire floor will directly support applied research and world-class training specifically for the wine, beer, spirits and non-alcoholic beverage sectors in Niagara.

“I can’t wait to get my hands on all the new and innovative equipment we will be getting and sharing that knowledge with our students and industry partners.”

And, thanks to provincial and federal grants, the R&I team is currently purchasing additional leading-edge equipment to handle even more research. Through the Beverage Innovation Excellence research program, the new technology will equip three distinct research labs, and extend Stephanie’s responsibilities further.

“I’m so excited for all the new things that are coming,” she says. “In particular I can’t wait to get my hands on all the new and innovative equipment we will be getting and sharing that knowledge with our students and industry partners. It will be such an asset to have that space to work in.”

Stephanie lives in Smithville with her husband, four children (ages 2, 6, 8 and 10), a dog, a cat, 11 chickens, some bunnies and a fish pond. In her spare time, she has returned to running after a short hiatus and is a volunteer with Girl Guides of Canada.

The family also grows their own vegetables … including onions.

Apple cider project gets even sweeter

After a successful season increasing distribution of Reinhart’s Red Apple Light Cider into LCBOs across the province, Reinhart’s Foods is looking forward to even more exciting ventures for the brand in the year ahead.

According to Scott Singer, general manager and third-generation family member of Reinhart Foods, the hard cider maintained a Top 5 Ontario sales performance for most of 2018 while sales were doubled from the launch year of 2017.

“We are continuing to grow the Reinhart’s brand with more news to come in the spring,” noted Singer.

It is the first light beverage of its kind in the Canadian hard cider category and is made using 100 per cent Ontario-grown apples. The product is the result of a close collaboration between the research team at Niagara College’s Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre and Reinhart Foods Ltd., well known and respected for its vinegars and baking ingredients.

While Reinhart had experience in liquid-based manufacturing and fermentation, the company did not have the necessary capabilities or equipment to develop a high-end commercially-marketable hard apple cider beverage, so they turned to the CFWI Innovation Centre for their expertise.

Thanks to funding by a College and Community Innovation Enhancement grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the team, which included students and faculty, handled everything from product development, competitive and sensory analysis, and quality control, to knowledge transfer in providing final recipe and process for making the cider at Reinhart’s production site in Stayner, Ont.

A key benefit to the lower alcohol is being able to better showcase the pure apple taste, with ripe, fresh red and golden apple flavours, explains NC’s Gavin Robertson, the faculty research lead for the Reinhart project, and instructor with the NC Teaching Winery. “It’s a satisfying achievement for the whole team and an example of the ways in which NC’s Research & Innovation department is able to contribute to Ontario enterprise.”

For more information on food and beverage innovation projects, click here.

Pet food company now an industry leader

With help from the research team at Niagara College, Iron Will Raw is now the first and only pet food facility in Ontario to be Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) certified and only one of three in all of Canada. Internationally recognized, HACCP is a systematic and preventative approach to food safety, which helps to find, correct, and prevent hazards throughout the production process.

With this internationally recognized certification, Iron Will Raw is on its way to becoming a national brand coast to coast, says its owner Matt Bonanno. He readily gives some of the credit for his company’s rapid growth to the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre for its help in the demanding process of ensuring food safety is their No. 1 priority in their products, along with high-quality natural ingredients.

Company owner and president Matt Bonanno with four canine friends in front of Iron Will Raw’s temperature- controlled delivery vehicle.

Iron Will Raw came on board with the CFWI Innovation Centre for two separate applied research projects, thanks to Niagara Region and federal funding (from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada), and involved students receiving real-world knowledge guided by expert staff, including an industry HACCP specialist.

The research team helped Iron Will Raw develop rigorous food safety protocols. The result is a pristine facility with 24/7 temperature monitoring, full traceability to slaughter and biological guarantees from suppliers for a number of pathogens. Now that the production facility is following strict adherence to good manufacturing practices, the company is focused on moving the business into more locations across Canada.

For more information on food and beverage innovation projects, click here.