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Handfuel, a Toronto-based snack company, is run by Cole Richman - who happens to be second-cousin to Saul Good’s founder, Saul Brown. Both businesses carry on in their family’s tradition of entrepreneurship. Today, we’re telling Handfuel’s story.

Buckle up - it takes a few generations of bold entrepreneurs to explain just how special Handfuel, and their family recipes, really are.

The story starts with Saul’s uncle Morris, who came to Canada with his father from Ukraine (Morris was also Cole’s great uncle). Morris started Morris Brown & Son’s - a fruit and vegetable import business in Toronto. Cole and Saul’s families were involved with the business for generations - including Saul’s brother Nathan. It was through this involvement that Nathan managed a nut and snack distribution business near Toronto’s Queensway and Ontario Food Terminal.

The recipe for Handfuel’s lemon almonds comes from Saul’s cousin / Cole’s aunt, Annabelle. Annabelle had this recipe for roasted almonds with freshly squeezed lemon juice. She’d purchase nuts from Nathan’s business, season and roast the nuts herself, and then sell to family, friends, and the odd holiday sale or small retailer. 

 

Annabelle and Cole (from the family archive)


As Saul remembers, the almonds were tangy, addictive, and had a unique flavour. It wasn’t something you could typically find.

Eventually, the family’s entrepreneurial spirit came full circle. Annabelle’s recipe would go on to become the founding recipe of Handfuel. Cole went from one recipe to four and has been working hard to build Handfuel into a national snack brand.

And now, you can find Handfuel coconut cashews and lemon almonds in Saul Good gifts. Saul couldn’t be prouder to work with Cole and help him grow his business.

We recently sat down with Cole to find out how he turned his aunt Annabelle’s recipe into a thriving and disruptive snack brand. Read on to find out more.

 

 

How did Handfuel get started?

One afternoon after I graduated school, Annabelle asked if I could help her pick up some almonds (the cases were understandably heavy and hard for one person to move). I went with her to pick up a couple of cases of almonds and helped her to bring them up to her apartment. I just sat there watching her work her magic and thought “this is pretty cool.” A part of me wondered if there was potential for Annabelle’s side project to become something bigger. She wasn’t able to or interested in growing this hobby into a business. So I took it on.

Four months after I was in her apartment roasting almonds, I had created a makeshift brand and went door to door testing it out in the marketplace. I put it in 25-30 stores and then reached a crossroads. I thought, “is this a hobby, or can I make something of this?”

 

Photo Credit: Handfuel

 

How did you take it from hobby to business venture?

I took on a partner who helped me finance a portion of the business. We set up a very small manufacturing/production facility and went through the wringer of food safety to all the aspects of building a food brand. The initial feedback was great. We got into 600 retailers and we were in the process of launching more products.

Then, I saw funky young brands emerging and disrupting traditional consumer industries. These brands were built on story and personal connection to their consumer, I knew that was a direction we should go in. In the middle of our launch, I put things on hold for 6 months to redo the brand and launch new products.

April 2019 we relaunched the brand with the products Saul Good now carries. In July 2019 we moved out of our small manufacturing plant into a space that was 5x larger. Now, we are in the process of finalizing large national deals with nationwide grocery chains. It’s a great time for us. We came a long way from the ups and downs of building a brand. I remember days thinking, “Is this the last day we get to do this? Can I cover my next bill?”

 

How did you come up with the flavours?

Initially, I was in a hurry to come up with products to compliment Annabelle’s recipe. I felt, and had heard from other people, that we couldn’t just launch with only one product. I think I really rushed through the product creation process.

I hired a nutritional chef who came up with the flavours. One mix was for antioxidants one was an energizer. There wasn’t a lot of depth to them as products. It was more of a filler surrounding one core product.

Eventually, I realized that I had gone about this wrong, and knew it had to be fixed. I was already going out on a limb, and I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to succeed. So, we did test marketing and focus groups to get a sense of what kind of flavour profiles were trendy. That’s how we came up with the coconut cashews and the salted caramel cashews. Based on our testing and retail feedback, we saw that these would give us a better chance at succeeding. And it worked.

 

Photo Credit: Handfuel

 

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?

A lot of what I’ve learned about entrepreneurship can be applied to everything in my life. It’s important to be optimistic and find the silver lining in everything. I think it’s also important to be patient. I’ve learned that nothing happens overnight.

Specifically when it comes to entrepreneurship, it was hard for me to learn to delegate and stop micromanaging my team. I think it was also a part of growing up for me. When I was 25 and just starting out, I wasn’t pragmatic. My expectation levels weren’t attainable. But now, I’ve learned to empower my people and trust them.

For example, when I first launched Handfuel, I was on a pretty tight budget. I didn’t know what I wanted my brand to look and feel like, so I hired a branding agency. However, I involved myself way too much in their design process and didn’t let them do their thing. The resulting brand ended up as a mish-mash of different ideas.

In contrast, when we re-launched in 2019, the branding agency I used nailed my vision on the first try. I didn’t need to pick it apart. It was exactly what I wanted.

What kind of trends are you seeing in the snack industry?

Low sugar, keto, a lot of people are looking for a snack that is healthy. I don’t know how long this trend will last, but it’s on every retailers list. I would say there’s also a trend of adding protein to everything - cookies, donuts, you name it.

A lot of companies are looking for ways to take stale categories and elevate them with trendy flavour profiles, taking out gluten or sugar, or adding protein.

The biggest disruption I’ve seen in the food industry is replacing traditional products in major categories. For example, Beyond Meat and Halo Top are companies that have completely taken over huge categories.

What’s your favourite snack?

I’m a sucker for the coconut cashews. At one point, I couldn’t keep a box of them in my office as I’d eat the whole thing. It’s a pretty unique product and checks all the boxes of what people are looking for. That and probably the lemon almonds. We still use the exact same recipe Annabelle created.

How do you think your family’s history of entrepreneurship has influenced you?

I definitely think the family entrepreneurship influenced me. Growing up, I watched my dad selling and developing his business. I know that I’m not wired to wake up and do the same thing every day. I never have been. When I was a summer student and I’d go and work at a bank or a commercial RE company - it was like pulling my teeth out every day. I didn’t like it. So, when this opportunity presented itself, I knew I had to give it a try. I figured I was young enough to give it a shot - I had my whole life ahead of me if it fails. I guess I still kind of have that mentality.

 

How does it feel to work with Saul?

It’s awesome! It’s come full circle from a family standpoint.

As great as it is to be where I am today, it’s part of a marathon. I know I’m not even close to the finish line. It’s a pivotal time for me to have all of my ducks in a row. I know I’ve got to come up with a long-term marketing plan to carry us through our national launch. It’s exciting, it’s nerve wracking, but our company is in the best place it every has been and we will keep moving forward and carve our space out in the national marketplace. We’re disrupting a boring, heritage category with something new and funky.

 

You can find Handfuel in our Toronto gift baskets, Canada gift baskets, and Vancouver gift baskets