By Andrew Snook
Plant-based foods innovator bulking up its size and scale to evolve into a key player in the burgeoning market
Kimberly Chamberland had a vegetable-based vision.
In 1987, long before vegetarian or vegan lifestyles were even remotely popular, she decided to bring one of the first veggie burgers to market in the Vancouver area. From there, Big Mountain Foods was born.
“She started out in the restaurant industry and from there was actually approached by one of the Safeway buyers that visited her restaurant all the time,” recalls Big Mountain Foods president Jasmine Byrne, Chamberland’s daughter.
“He would talk to her about why she doesn’t make a product package that has a shelf life and make her life a lot easier. So she started looking at ways to package and format her burgers through a patty machine. That evolved into her getting her first listing at Safeway.
“Then she started doing wholesale to different retailers around the West Coast. And from there she opened up a small manufacturing facility and had steady growth from then until 2012.”
In 2013, Byrne joined her mother’s company to help grow the operation.
“We joined forces and realized that the plant-based industry was starting to get traction more than ever. Before it was really hard to get people to buy into the vegan lifestyle and plant-based consumer awareness.
“But companies like Beyond Meat started to get traction, which in turn helped our business,” she says.
Over the last five years, Big Mountain Foods developed major expansion plans and moved into a 70,000-square-foot facility in Delta, B.C., housing a patty forming line, a sausage stuffing line, a crumble production line, and a tofu production line.
The plant currently operates Monday to Thursday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., with a goal to eventually have production running on full 24/7 schedule.
“We have commissioned four production lines in the new facility and there’s still lots of room for growth,” Byrne says.
“We’ve decided to do all of our own manufacturing, but the focus right now is really getting our plant operational in order to be able to take on that growth.”
The company has been investing heavily in infrastructure for its production plant with help from various supporters.
“We’ve had a lot of support from the Canadian provincial and federal governments and Protein Industries Canada to complete this expansion plan. Now, we are pretty much on the finish line and commissioning all the equipment,” Byrne says.
Big Mountain Foods’ core products include:
- The Original Veggie Burger, a 100 per cent vegan patty;
- Various vegan crumble products that include CauliCrumble Veggie Grounds, Broccoli Boost Veggie Grounds and Lion’s Mane Mushroom Crumble;
- A line of vegan sausages featuring Big Brat Veggie Links, Fiesta Veggie Links, Mama Mia Veggie Links and Superfood Brekkie Links;
- The Soy-Free Tofu and Smoked Soy-Free Tofu products made from Canadian fava beans.
All of Big Mountain Foods’ product lines are certified vegan, non-GMO verified, gluten-free, soy-free, and free from common allergens.
The company sells its products at almost all the major retailers across Canada including Loblaws, Sobeys, Walmart, Safeway and Whole Foods.
“In the U.S. we are just branching out and it’s a whole different ball game,” Byrne says. “They’re definitely more of a challenge than in Canada, but we’re growing.
“We have a few major listings like Sprouts Farmers Market and a few of the Kroger and Albertsons banners.”
The company also just recently hired on a U.S.-based sales-force and a national U.S. broker.
“That’s definitely our focus this upcoming year, to expand aggressively into the U.S. market,” Byrne says.
In addition, the company is also starting to enter the meal-kit delivery and restaurant sectors.
“We are just branching into food service, because FreshPrep actually listed our CauliCrumble in their food delivery service, which was an awesome way to test the market and see how people prepare our products at home.
“Now, we just finished putting together our sales plan to approach restaurants,” Byrne says.
Between battling for shelf space in the highly competitive U.S. grocery retail market and all of Big Mountain Foods’ products requiring refrigeration, ensuring the company has the right packaging technologies in place at its production plant is vital.
To meet the company’s packaging needs, Big Mountain Foods works closely with food-packaging experts at MULTIVAC Canada Inc., having enjoyed a positive productive relationship for several years.
According to MULTIVAC Canada’s regional sales manager Sam Nosek, “We help them with equipment, film and service support.
“We are a one-stop shop for packaging fresh foods,”Nosek says. “Here in B.C., we have an Innovation Centre facility, where we can work with customers to develop packaging solutions from initial concepts to fully tested market-ready packaging.”
Big Mountain Foods’ first major investment in packaging equipment from MULTIVAC Canada unfolded in 2019, when the company purchased an R105 thermoform packaging system to pack veggie burger patties, breakfast bites, CauliCrumble and its various veggie sausage links.
Capable of both vacuum-packing and MAP (modified atmosphere packaging, the R105 thermoformer features customized tooling to accommodate a wide variety of products with minimal changeovers.
The machine includes an MBS converging unit with integrated metal detector to inspect for metal contamination, with its compact footprint, electrical lifting systems, and graphical touchscreen controls all part of the package.
“Our R105 was a custom solution from MULTIVAC,” Byrne recalls. “ They actually did the inline merging system, the checkweigher, and the X-ray to create an all-in-one solution for us instead of us piece-mealing it out to vendors.
“That was really great,” Byrne extols. “Their support was very helpful.
“They would give us 3D concepts with what our package should look like and how to make them all fit and work as an all-in-one solution.”
MULTIVAC Canada also helped with supplying the films that Big Mountain Foods required.
“Because our products are oven-baked, we can run into some challenges, like puncturing the seals or the plastic surface, if we don’t dial in the right film.
“They’ve been really helpful with that as well, because anything punctures in our package, will make the prod expire really quick, since it’s fresh.
“But we’ve been able to get a really nice shelf-life and it holds up well in refrigeration,” Byrne says.
“MULTIVAC provides a wide range of tested and certified film solutions catered to the customer applications,” adds Nosek. “Big Mountain uses clear films that are high-barrier for maxim shelf-life, are puncture resistant, and easy to peel.”
More recently, Big Mountain Foods purchased an R085 model thermoformer from MULTIVAC Canada to package its soy-free tofu line.
The unit offers a quick set-up and is designed for simple operation with a small footprint, according to MULTIVAC, while enabling a fast and easy changeover with slide-in drawer system tooling.
Having the two units helped the company enjoy some redundancy for its packaging lines, since MULTIVAC Canada designed one die that is interchangeable for all the product lines at Big Mountain Foods.
“It was great that we didn’t have to buy a whole bunch of different molds,” says Byrne. “There’s not a lot of downtime and changeovers because are all of our products—even though there’s a crumble, a patty and tofu—fit in the same package.”
Big Mountain Foods also recently purchased an I210 Checkweigher Inline Scale for checking the weight to make sure each pack has the right amount of product in it.
Byrne says MULTIVAC Canada was extremely helpful when it came to the packaging design for the various product lines.
“We would sit in meetings, and they would take our products and look at the best ways to fit them universally,” Byrne recounts.
“Also, if we have an idea they will go back and use their engineering team, do all their calculations, and let you know what your package should look like.
“They would show us the MAP package, the skin film, black packaging, coloured packaging, printed film… they basically go through it all.”
One of Byrne’s favorite aspects of working with MULTIVAC Canada is that they offer local service.
“It’s really great when you have technicians in B.C.,” says Byrne, recalling her frustrations with some overseas machinery suppliers in the last couple of years.
“Once the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, getting the servicing and the commissioning performed became extremely difficult,” she states. “It was so hard getting them here to commission the lines, as well as service them, and then you have to pay for all these hotels.
“It was definitely a lesson learned to source more locally, because you never know what’s going to happen with the economy or with the world in general,” Byrne says.
“If you can find the equipment and resources, it’s way better to have local support. It made all the difference for us.”
In operation, once the ingredients for the veggie patties are mixed together, the mixture is sent to a NuTEC Patty Forming Machine.
The patties are then moved via conveyor and then are cooked in a traditional bakery oven.
To form the sausages, the mixture is placed in a Handtmann stuffer, and linker, and the sent to a traditional smokehouse. The company uses ribbon mixers and mixer grinders to mix everything in big soaking tanks, because they use whole beans.
“We have to process and grind those down, and then from there, we use ovens to heat up our products,” Byrne explains. “Then we cool them in blast chillers and then pack them.”
The process for the soy-free tofu products is much more automated and sophisticated, she notes.
“For the tofu, we use a super sack bag unloader, and it goes into a high-speed blender and then into big silos.
“Then we have a custom-made, automated tofu-making machine that will form the tofu blocks,” Byrne explains.
The traditional tofu making process is very manual, says Byrne, whereby employees would press, cut and flip the tofu by hand.
All these manual processes have been eliminated on Big Mountain Foods’ automated line.
“I think it’s one of the highest-tech machines out there for tofu making,” she says. “We can produce millions of tofu blocks a year with a push of a button on an integrated processing line.
“And then for cleaning, we have a fully automated system that cleans the entire plant and all the piping. So, it’s quite a sophisticated system,” Byrne says.
Once all the products are packaged by either the R105 or R085 thermoformer, they pass through the I210 Checkweigher Inline Scale and X-ray detection.
The products are then conveyed to the labelling and boxing line, where a cartoning machine erects the cartons, glues both sides, applies an expiry date and lot code onto each box, and then places the box into a master case.
With it strong focus on innovation and sustainability, the company is always looking for opportunities to use more biodegradable packaging, according to Byrne.
“We all want to get away from plastic in general,” she says.
“We hope in our life-time we see more of that coming to life.”
With another packaging line expansion scheduled for early 2025, Byrne says she is very confident about the future for Big Mountain products and for all vegan-certified products in general.
Naturally, she is also extremely proud of everything her family’s business has accomplished to date.
“We’re a women-owned, family-owned manufacturing facility, which you don’t see every day,” she states. “Moreover, we are the first allergen-free tofu factory in the world.”
For his part, Nosek says MULTIVAC considers it a “real honor” to be working with Big Mountain Foods over the years.
“Their impressive growth and nonstop innovation have been amazing to witness,” he says. “With Kim and Jasmine at the helm, their future is bright.”