Dipping into a pita chip conundrum

When Surria Fadel has a problem that needs solving, the pita chip and salad dressing maven calls on Niagara College’s Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre for help.

After all, there hasn’t been a time when the Research & Innovation centre hasn’t come through for Surria, vice-president of production and product development for Cedar Valley Selections. The food company was founded by her son Ameen near Windsor when he was just 16.

“We want to keep working with Niagara College as long as possible,” Surria says. “The team is fantastic.”

Surria and Cedar Valley Selections’ connection with the College happened by chance. Cedar Valley Selections is the maker of Canada’s first fattoush salad dressing. It’s an enterprise that came to be in 2015 when Ameen was in high school and learned of a competition for students to win $3,000 to start their own company.

After brainstorming with Surria, they decided to bottle her fattoush dressing, which Ameen sold out of his locker. He won the money and the business grew from there, with sales spreading to farmers markets and then local programs at Sobeys grocery stores.

While marketing the dressing at tradeshows, Surria would often run into Ana Cristina Vega Lugo, PhD, scientific manager with the CFWI Innovation Centre.

“I’d pick her brain from the dressing standpoint,” Surria recalls. “We were struggling with that and how to scale up.”

Eventually a co-packer was found for the dressing, but Cedar Valley Selections expanded its lineup to include that other fattoush – and snacking – essential: the pita chip.

“I couldn’t believe the results we got. The suggestions made by the team at Niagara were exactly what we needed. It made a huge difference in our product quality and output.”
– Surria Fadel, Cedar Valley Selections

Surria learned the college did grant work to help businesses scale up, and with funding from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program, she and Vega Lugo finally got to work together on a significant conundrum facing Cedar Valley Selections. Surria needed to know the optimal temperature for the coconut oil and cook time to avoid burning and oversaturation.

Vega Lugo and the research team, which include students, did an analysis and determined the best process for Cedar Valley pita chips.

“I couldn’t believe the results we got,” Surria says. “The suggestions made by the team at Niagara were exactly what we needed. It made a huge difference in our product quality and output.”

As with any burgeoning business, other issues arose and needed solving. Next on Cedar Valley Selections’ to-do list was finding a way to prevent clumping of the cinnamon-sugar seasoning used on one of their pita chip varieties. Vega Lugo and team started researching natural anti-caking agents.

They also tackled nutritional analysis of the pita chips, which are sold online and in national grocery chains.

“They’re so detail oriented on the projects,” Surria says. “The presentation at the end of it to show how they got the results, it’s so reassuring to me. To say I have a food science team to back this up is so reassuring and gives us so much more clout when we go to retailers.”

Now Surria is lining up a fourth project, pending grant approval. Meanwhile, she recommends the College to other newer small businesses, particularly the female entrepreneurs she mentors.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t try to do it on your own. Get back-up,’” Surria says. “Dr. Ana (Vega Lugo) is brilliant.”