Long before she was the powerhouse foodie entrepreneur she is today, Susan Niczowski was, of all things, a microbiologist. But to her, the roles are not as different at they might seem. “I still take more of a scientist’s approach than a chef’s,” she says. “Food’s very intricate, and you have to understand chemicals and pH and sanitation and hygiene.” Most importantly, though, you have to love food. A lot.
Niczowski loves food so much that, 29 years ago, she quit her job—and not because she hated it, or craved work-life balance, or wanted to be her own boss. She left her job in favour of flavour. “I just really loved food,” she laughs, and her busy job had her reaching for grab-and-go options that weren’t satisfying. “You could buy macaroni salad and coleslaw, maybe, but they’d be full of preservatives, and they didn’t taste great either. I wanted something my mom or aunt would make—something fresh, good, natural, and made with care.”
So Niczowski started Summer Fresh Salads in her mother’s Toronto kitchen in 1991, tinkering with old Macedonian family recipes for hummus, baba ghanouj and tzatziki. These foods are common in 2020, but that wasn’t the case three decades ago. “At the time, most Torontonians had no idea what hummus was, if you can believe that,” says Niczowski. So she sought to change that, by knocking on doors of small specialty food shops and convincing people to taste her products.
Naturally, they loved them. Maybe too much, as within just a few weeks, her mom’s kitchen couldn’t keep up with the demand for Summer Fresh products. “So we moved into a 3,000-sq.-foot, federally inspected facility in Woodbridge, [Ont.],” she says. There, in order to create and perfect 18 original recipes that met her standards, they first had to invent machines to make it happen, including technology to preserve vegetables without chemical preservatives. (Here’s where that microbiology background came in very handy, Niczowski adds.)
“Susan’s really bootstrapped the company at every step,” says Lorrie King, Summer Fresh’s coach at Deloitte. Small businesses often emerge from family recipes, but this common trope more often caps out or gets bought out. Summer Fresh hasn’t gone down either road. “I’m sure private equity knocks at her door every day,” says King, “but Susan’s perfectly happy keeping the business all hers.”
The secret to massive expansion that somehow stays manageable, says Niczowski, is to go slow and steady. “I always had the philosophy that you have to crawl before you walk. [At Summer Fresh,] we always make sure we’re busting at the seams before we expand.” In 1996, five years in, Summer Fresh upgraded to a new 18,000-sq.-foot, custom-designed facility. In 2008, they moved again, into an 80,000-sq.-foot corporate head office with 80,000 more feet for manufacturing; this move came with an expanded head count of more than 300 employees. Summer Fresh now employs over 400 staff.
Niczowski shoots for 10 per cent growth in sales each year, which is more difficult as the company becomes larger. To meet this goal, Niczowski must constantly discover and perfect new additions to the Canadian marketplace, and gamble on what the consumer might crave next. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” she says. In fact, for every home run, Niczowski guesses she strikes out 10 times.
On the flip side, sometimes what seems like a harder sell can bring a pleasant surprise. Last spring, a risky chocolate “dessert hummus” proved a hit. When the limited seasonal batch flew off store shelves, Summer Fresh quickly bumped up its availability to year-round. (Summer Fresh always stocks the staples, but Niczowski also subscribes to the notion of food as fashion: “Just like they have seasonal clothes, people want different foods in different seasons, too,” she says. Pumpkin pie hummus, for example, hits the spot in October but makes no sense on your plate in June.)
Guiding Canadian consumers—foodies or otherwise—through the Summer Fresh experience is the specific task of Marliese Paulozza, media and digital marketing manager. When foodies began flocking to Instagram and Pinterest as their preferred social media spots, Paulozza was given the tall task of making dips and hummus—delicious, yes, but not particularly photogenic—look sufficiently salivating in users’ feeds. This takes professional photography, lighting, food and prop stylists, patience and meticulous attention to detail. “We’ll take 30 shots to make sure that hummus is perfect,” she says. What’s overkill for a regular social media user is non-negotiable in the competitive world of food porn content creation.
But even the perfect shot sometimes gets scrolled by, so Paulozza is constantly looking for hooks to encourage user engagement. Summer Fresh’s “Hummus All Day” campaign in October crowd-sourced recipes for creative ways to use hummus, for example. They were overwhelmed with feedback. “As a marinade, a salad dressing, a pasta sauce, a cream substitute in soups or potatoes . . . ” she lists.
“We joke here that next will be hummus as a bedtime facial,” says Paulozza, and if anyone is open to the idea, it’s Niczowski. “No idea is a crazy idea, and I’m a great listener,” she says. Epic Summer Fresh potlucks encourage her diverse staff to bring in anything and everything to sample and discuss.
Thirty years might leave others in a food rut, but “Susan’s as passionate now as she was at the beginning,” says Deloitte’s King. Food inspiration is everywhere—even on an ordinary morning in the car on the way to school, where Niczowski noticed her teenage daughter gobbling a new snack. “She’d made oats the night before for the next morning,” she recalls. While other moms might not have noticed, Niczowski saw a business opportunity: last month, the Up & Oat breakfast bowl became the newest addition to the always-expanding Summer Fresh menu. This just in: it’s delicious.
This article appears in print in the March 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Keeping it Fresh.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.