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The Next Big Thing: SwitchGrocery – A Direct Link to Innovation

August 14, 2017

By Charmian Christie, The Messy Baker

Four years ago, Neha Charnalia set out to commercialize a cauliflower pizza crust. Pre-diabetic and diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), Neha struggled to find a way to maintain her weight while working full-time. She thought creating her own product line would be the solution. When she realized being a small food manufacturer wasn’t for her, she didn’t quit. Instead, she switched tactics and began curating other companies’ innovative products. SwitchGrocery, an online store selling an array of carefully vetted products for diabetics and people following the Paleo or Keto diets, was born.

Health food is ubiquitous, but Neha’s vision is unique. While a handful of Canadian companies provide a similar service, their products are low-carb only, not focused specifically on Paleo, Keto and diabetes. Neha seeks low net carbs and high fibre in all her products, while ensuring they are as organic and non-GMO as possible. There is never any added refined sugar, but Neha allows for Paleo-friendly honey and maple syrup. “There are conflicts between the diets, but we try to make sure we cover all three,” she says. To help her customers easily find products that match their dietary criteria, SwitchGrocery is fine-tuning their website labels.

Trimming the Middle

Neha breaks the standard supplier-broker-distributer-retailer chain and sources products herself. “So many food manufacturers are passionate about their product,” Neha says. “But they are out of money by the time they get to marketing and sales.” More than a simple distributer, Neha expedites the process for small- to medium-sized suppliers by helping them navigate the system and avoid the costly and time-consuming middle steps. As a result, these manufacturers get to customers “faster, easier and better”, while the items themselves are more cost-effective for the consumer.

Realizing the US and UK had more product options than Canada, Neha started her product hunt by travelling south of the border and across the pond. She contacted suppliers face-to-face. “I had a simple 10-deck PowerPoint slideshow,” Neha says. “I told them, ‘Give me a year and I’ll help get your brand into Canada.’” During this time, Neha provides suppliers with feedback on their product and educates them on the Canadian consumer. With the help of a customs broker and lawyer, she ensures each product meets all legal requirements for exporting and complies with our complex, bilingual labelling system. Switch now has Canadian suppliers on board, but her partnership model still applies.

How Does She Do It?

Besides scouring trade shows, Neha finds products from Paleo, Keto and diabetes online communities, including Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook groups. If the product sounds innovative, Neha calls the supplier to see if the product is a fit, vetting them for nutritional information, organic certifications, and labelling. With less regulated Farmers’ Markets, she uses a targeted checklist that includes added items such as insurance. In some cases, Neha visits the production facility herself. Having fine-tuned her system, getting a food supplier onboard takes anywhere from less than a month to up to a year.

Before launching in June, Switch Grocery performed two test launches with potential customers through Food Starter. “We could see their reactions, their faces. This sort of feedback is invaluable,” Neha says. But would a focus on Paleo, Keto, and diabetic diets resonate with shoppers no longer safe behind a computer screen? Neha got her answer. “People showed me their insulin kits. They talked to me about their health struggles, what they would want me to carry. You can’t get that sort of feedback online.” The final test is Neha herself. “I won’t stock anything I won’t eat myself or feed my family. And that’s a high bar.”

Ahead of Amazon

Despite Amazon’s new focus on food, SwitchGrocery doesn’t see them as competition. “We find products before Amazon because we go with innovative over popular,” Neha says. Every item Switch stocks brings something new to the grocery cart. It’s not there because it’s already popular. It’s there because it fills an unattended need. Neha points to a recent find of flash-frozen nutmilks that ticks all Switch’s boxes. Fresh nutmilk has a shelf-life of 2 to 5 days. Extending this time frame usually requires fillers and a nut content as low as 2%. Flash-freezing delivers the purity and longevity Neha and her customers want. But it’s new and no one is searching for it — yet.

While customers are eager for Neha’s latest finds, her curation is also catching on with suppliers. One is working on a grain-free, sugar-free, gluten-free product for Switch. Others are looking to modify existing products to fit Switch’s requirements. Locally, Bald Baker is working with Neha to develop Switch-friendly sweet treats. Future launches may include innovative cricket protein products such as Gryllies sauces.

In June, SwitchGrocery launched in Toronto with pick-up at their office and just recently, Canada-wide shipping! Future plans include an expanded product line and home delivery. If you want to meet Switch Grocery in person, you can find them at the Food Starter booth at the St. Lawrence Market on August 19th and September 23rd. They would be more than happy to answer any and all questions related to products and/or paleo and keto diets!