Closer to the frozen food aisle

Mambella’s Market owner Tina Brisbin is no stranger to adapting to change in her 14 years of serving fresh Italian cuisine in the Waterloo area. However, it doesn’t make it any easier.

This past June, Brisbin was forced to close her café/catering company due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She pivoted, decided to wade into the frozen retail market for her popular products and looked to the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre for their expertise in navigating the frozen waters.

Mambella’s has several authentic Italian dishes, including traditional lasagna, cannelloni and mac and cheese. But their unique signature dish and the one for which Brisbin requested help from the CFWI Innovation Centre is her popular gluten-free, vegetarian sweet potato lasagna. It’s also a product not found in the grocery store freezers, she points out.

During the applied research project, the CFWI Innovation Centre food science team conducted experimentation to enhance the taste, aroma and appearance of the sweet potato lasagna. Analysis was completed on the lasagna’s vegan marinara sauce, and recommendations were offered to provide a more precise scale-up for a fresher and more predictable flavour.

The research team also conducted trials on the tricky sweet potato process that mimics the pasta noodle in the traditional product. Improvement recommendations were made for the overall manufacturing process of the lasagna as well.

“They made changes to the sauce in a way that enhanced the potato and lasagna taste overall – really boosting the flavour,” says Brisbin. “As well as making the product more flavourful, they also made the cooking of the product so much better, especially the sweet potato.”

The CFWI Innovation Centre experts also guided the business owner through the complicated waters of securing a co-packer to get her product to the retail shelf during the project.

“If it weren’t for programs like the one at Niagara College, I would not even have been able to get the information about how the industry works. I would be behind a year’s worth of knowledge.

Brisbin says she now realizes the complexities and challenges that smaller food companies face when there’s a high volume minimum that most co-packers require, but that most smaller companies can’t afford. She says there are also ingredient and packaging compromises that need to be made.

“If it weren’t for programs like the one at Niagara College, I would not even have been able to get the information about how the industry works. I would be behind a year’s worth of knowledge.”

Brisbin continues to lean on her entrepreneurial spirit and resilient nature.

More than a decade ago, Mambella’s was a thriving café across the street from BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) and close to the University of Waterloo. Enjoying a constant line-up, the small iconic lunch favourite served more than 200 people a day. But then RIM laid off most of its employees, and customer numbers dropped to about 20 per day.

Brisbin pivoted then, expanded her thriving catering business, opened three more cafe locations in two cities, and hired 26 employees.

In the fall of 2019, she also invested in an entrepreneur accelerator course run by Dragon’s Den investor Arlene Dickinson, where she worked with food mentors and business leaders. While there, Brisbin says global culinary expert and chef Christine Couvelier strongly suggested she take her frozen food to the major retail market. The idea stayed in the background.

Before the pandemic, Mambella’s was gearing up to do the “best year ever.”

But business diminished as the pandemic carried on, and with serving only take-out and frozen foods on a small scale, Brisbin had to make a difficult business decision once she realized that the flow of customers was not soon coming back. She had to let all her staff go.

“There was the catering side of things with some funerals, but since there were no ‘events’ happening, hard decisions had to be made,” she recalls about the decision to close her last main bricks and mortar location earlier this summer.

Brisbin is now navigating the retail market to get her frozen sweet potato lasagna to the public. “I still believe that I have a phenomenal product; experts tell me I do… I just have to figure out how to get it out there,” she adds.

This project was made possible through the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), which provides up to 20 hours of access to the equipment, facilities, and expertise of a Technology Access Centre (TAC) to solve a specific business or technical challenge.

To discover the resources and capabilities visit the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre website.