After getting married four years ago, Eloise and Jamari Ambursley made the conscious decision to eat healthier by reducing their sugar consumption and implementing more plant-based foods into their diets. They soon discovered dairy alternatives.
Eloise, a Humber Graphic Design grad, has a nut allergy and her husband is lactose intolerant, so they couldn’t substitute regular milk for almond milk or some of the other drinks on the market.
“Because of our healthier habits, we became more aware of how we treated the planet. That introduced us to the oat milk market,” she said.
It was the perfect addition to their diet, except for one thing – one serving of oat milk has the same sugar content as half a can of Coke.
So, they made their own
“We found a way to create oat milk so it wasn’t so high in sugar and carbs. We were able to create our own product and surprisingly, it met other people’s needs too!”
Oat Canada was born.
To Costco we go
When the Ambursleys first thought of selling their product, they did some research and reached out to a few coffee shops to pitch them the idea. They were told that most people like the sweetness of oat milk in their coffee and didn’t really care about the sugar content.
“We thought that there must be other people like us who care about zero sugar,” said Eloise.
They took the risk and jumped feet-first into a gap in the market. Oat Canada incorporated in 2019, with plans to launch the product in early 2020 in coffee shops around Toronto. Through word of mouth and good reputation, the Ambursleys’ oat milk was poised to enter coffee shops across the city.
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed the shops down, the couple pivoted.
“We needed to get into retail stores like grocery chains because coffee shops had slowed down and weren’t willing to take on new products, which we totally understood,” said Eloise.
“We started emailing distributors and my husband thought to email Costco. He went on LinkedIn and looked for buyers who worked there, but you can’t really find their emails, so he sent about 50 emails to different addresses and luckily one of the buyers got back to us.”
Oat Canada was invited to pitch their product to the company in Ottawa. Within a month or two of the pitch presentation, the buyer called to tell them that their oat milk was going to be sold in 10 Costco locations across Ontario.
“We had no experience going into retail and now we had to fulfill this huge order. We had prepared for this, though, and we made sure our process could scale really quickly. They committed to 60,000 litres in the beginning,” said Eloise.
Into the Dragon’s Den
Oat Canada was featured on BlogTO after their Costco debut, and the oat milk’s popularity exploded.
They soon received a call from a producer on the hit CBC show, Dragon’s Den, where entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a group of the most successful businesspeople in Canada.
Usually, Dragon’s Den hopefuls go through an audition process, but not the Ambursleys. They had just two weeks to prepare for their television debut.
The day of filming, they came prepared, having planned every last detail of the pitch.
Under the bright lights, they gave their presentation, all the while wearing custom t-shirts they designed. On the back, Eloise, the graphic design expert, had printed: “Ask for item 1428374 at Costco,” which further propelled their sales after the episode aired.
As the Ambursleys presented their product, the Dragons nodded and smiled. They were hooked.
The beverage entrepreneurs were looking for a $100,000 investment for 10 per cent of the company.
Arlene Dickinson, Jim Treliving, Lane Merrifield, Manjit Minhas, Michele Romanow and Vincenzo Guzzo believed so much in Oat Canada that they were all prepared to invest in the Ambersleys.
They accepted Manjit Minhas’ offer in the end. The brewery entrepreneur was ready to invest $100,000 for 10 per cent, just what the Ambursleys were hoping for.
Before they exited the stage, Minhas sent the couple a pandemic-appropriate air hug. She contacted Oat Canada soon after to connect.
Throughout the experience, Eloise found her graphic design background to be invaluable.
“We had an entrepreneurship class at Humber and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could do with my design skills,” she said.
“Since taking that class, I always had a desire to start my own company. Because of my graphic design skills, the packaging and branding stood out. The Dragons even asked about it, and it helped us save a lot of money.”
Eloise learned in her first year at Humber that design is all about problem solving.
“It’s so much more than making things pretty,” she said.
“It helped our business gain a seat on the world stage of the oat milk industry – representing Canada.”
Learn more about Oat Canada here