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The Next Big Thing: The Ancient Bakers – Donuts for the Win

January 24, 2018

By Charmian Christie, The Messy Baker

Boston, Massachusetts can’t get enough of The Ancient Bakers apple cider cinnamon donuts. Or their lemon pomegranate glazed. So why has Tonya Johnson, Boston-based The Ancient Bakers’ President and Founder, booked Accelerator space at Food Starter? “I knew I needed to scale my business or stay stuck in the chasm where businesses die,” she says.

As The Ancient Bakers grew, Tonya wanted to expand services to hospitals and corporations, as well as federal and state programs in the Boston area. When she was approached back-to-back by three large food services concessionaires, she realized the audit requests would be an ongoing issues. “I knew I had to scale the business to grow, no choice.” Tonya says. “I could see the niche. Minority, woman-owned business, free-from, healthy….” The one thing missing was passing the required audit. She scheduled the audit, which cost at least $3000, but soon realized she wouldn’t pass. Not easily deterred, Tonya turned the potential failure into a learning experience, knowing if she didn’t scale up she would miss opportunities to grow. She instead scheduled a training audit led by the American Institute of Baking.

The Good Manufacturing Practices training audit offered Tonya deeper insights into the 26 areas of correction, policy, and programs that she (and her team) would need to build within her own facility to be ready for big customers. With this training in hand, she set out to find her own dedicated facility, which was no easy task. She searched all over Boston and even considered venturing beyond her home state, when she discovered Food Starter. When she learned about the quality assurance she was convinced she’d found what she was looking for. “I’ve been looking since 2005, but kept hitting barriers,” she says. “When I heard about Food Starter’s quality assurance I thought ‘There is a way to do this!’” She applied, and to her delight was accepted into the 4-month commercialization program. In the process, The Ancient Bakers became Food Starter’s first International client.

To take part in the program, Tonya flew from Boston to Toronto every week for four months. “I know it looks like a monumental effort to come to Toronto,” she says. “But the barriers [in Boston] are stubborn and this has gone on too long.” She admits there were many times she wanted to give up, but when she looked at her product, the research, the formulas, she knew she couldn’t let it go. “Demand is so consistent. I can’t stay small. I keep turning big requests away, and just knew I had to grow.”

Tonya Johnson, Boston-based The Ancient Bakers’ President and Founder

 North of the Border

This month, The Ancient Bakers began renting Accelerator space at Food Starter. Production will start once all the layout is determined and the all permits are in place. While her Boston facility still produces cookies, cupcakes and muffins, Toronto will be home of the donut, a late product addition whose popularity caught Tonya by surprise. “Donuts have their own sort of magic,” Tonya says. Hers are baked, not fried, made with sprouted grains, and like all The Ancient Bakers products are free from deep-frying, eggs, corn, soy and dairy.

Her plans are to produce here and ship some of the product back to the US. With Food Starter’s help, she will register with both the FDA and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Although faced with twice the paperwork, Tonya remains unphased. “It’s being done already, so it’s not impossible,” she says. Long-term goals include a subsidiary here in Canada that does the baking, and the Boston-based parent company operating as a federal food service contractor.

In December, The Ancient Bakers was awarded a $10,000 IDEA Gap grant from Northeastern University, aimed at helping food ventures at the “Go” stage. With the barriers removed and some funding behind her, Tonya aims to have The Ancient Bakers producing donuts, cookies, and other treats in their own facility within a year.

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