How sweet it is: the private-hobby-turned-global-hit story of Hummingbird Chocolate

- Almonte, Ontario

Imagine creating a small business that simply began as a fun hobby—and within five years, owning a collection of some 75 international medals for your product.

ITA Mike Barre with the owners of Hummingbird Chocolate, Erica and Drew Gilmour.

That’s exactly what happened with Hummingbird Chocolate.

Based just outside Ottawa in Almonte, Ontario, Hummingbird was first established by Drew and Erica Gilmour: a young married couple with a passion for high-quality artisan chocolate. After years working internationally for non-profit organizations that assisted farmers in developing countries, the Gilmours decided to return to Almonte to pursue chocolate making.

At first, they used equipment they jerry-rigged themselves, from shop vacs to chicken roasters, to create their product in their home.

Half a decade later, the Gilmours have grown their family-run business to a level where Hummingbird chocolate is now selling throughout Canada and exporting to Japan, China and the United Kingdom, with several other countries on a waitlist.

Indeed, the company has had many successes in a short time—many which, according to its owners, would not have been possible without the support of the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP).

Startup and survival

Hummingbird partnered with NRC IRAP in 2012 for guidance and advice on growing the business.

At the time, the company was struggling with sluggish sales.

“Here we were, trying to introduce a new, premium product from an unknown brand—but as we were still learning our craft, we were making mistakes and being inefficient,” recalls Drew.

Great chocolate starts with great beans. Hummingbird Chocolate uses sustainably grown and ethically sourced cacao beans, ensuring farmers receive better than fair trade prices.

In the beginning, Mike Barre, an NRC IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor, took time to understand the company’s processes, unique proposition and goals. He then balanced this information with his understanding of market potential and market conditions.

“From there, through gentle counselling, Mike helped us break through this ‘invisible artisan wall’—that is, what separates many skilled but non-business-savvy artisans from equally skilled artisans who survive in the marketplace,” says Drew.

According to Mike, much of helping Hummingbird break through that wall was based on providing an external perspective.

“Companies are very isolated and focused on what they do, and what NRC IRAP does is offer an informal board of directors approach where—using the experience we’ve obtained either personally or by working with other companies—we provide outside eyes and ears to help new companies successfully grow,” he explains.

Drew agrees. “The key support we received back then was the sharing of tactical expertise to enable us to survive long enough to make it to the next step of viability.”

Viability and sustainability

By 2016, daily survival was no longer a true concern.

“At that point, we were able to start thinking more strategically about the business—and the support we were receiving from NRC IRAP began taking on a longer-term outlook,” says Drew.

With Mike’s guidance, Hummingbird focused on its business services, establishing operational controls to make production more efficient while keeping costs low. NRC IRAP also connected the business with management consultants. One such consultant did a costing study, recommending Hummingbird increase its prices.

“It’s easy for a manufacturer to go broke through expansion, but Mike ensured we did not get swept away by opportunity, putting in the systems and people necessary to ensure cost-effective execution. I cannot emphasize enough his artful blend of advice from the tactical to the more strategic.”

"It’s only through our ITA’s intense engagement that we were able to find the path forward to raise production fivefold in a year: a considerable gain for any company"

Drew Gilmour, Owner, Hummingbird Chocolate

A time of “hypergrowth”

According to Drew, the only way to describe the last two years of Hummingbird is ”hypergrowth”.

In summer 2016, the Academy of Chocolate awarded Hummingbird the Golden Bean—also referred to as the industry’s “Oscar,” or most prestigious award. Almost immediately, the firm—which had only four staff members at the time—was swamped by a 50-fold increase in demand in Canada and around the world. 

Now, the company is beginning to expand aggressively. Hummingbird has grown to a team of about 15 employees, invested in state-of-the-art equipment from Italy, and plans to increase its facility significantly.

Most recently, the company entered a partnership to establish and operate a chocolate factory with Canopy Growth: the world’s largest cannabis company. The new chocolate-making facility is projected to take over the former Hershey factory in Smiths Falls, Ontario.

“Throughout our relationship with NRC IRAP, Mike has gone outside of his traditional remit to introduce or connect us with other vendors, potential specialists or customers—and perhaps the most prominent example of this is Canopy Growth,” says Drew. “He provided profoundly well-considered advice to ensure we proceeded in a way that would revolutionize our current operations, while staying well in line with our brand, ethos and direction.”

Meanwhile, plans are also in place for Mike to introduce Hummingbird to a part-time CFO. According to Drew, there is much more to come for Hummingbird Chocolate.

“Our story is not yet written, but it’s reading very well,” he says.

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