When Jovan Johnson made her first batch of gluten-free crackers, she had no idea that it would be the beginning of a new way of life and the start of a booming business.
A diagnosis of colon cancer at the age of 31 had rocked her world, and as she later sat housebound at her friend’s lakefront home trying to recover from the chemo treatments, she began experimenting to find healthy foods her body could tolerate. “I was sick and simply trying to eat as clean as possible,” she said.
Using a borrowed food dehydrator and her friend’s kitchen table, she began developing gluten-free, sugar-free crackers and
added vegetables, spices, seeds and herbs to pack a healthy punch of flavor. “I just wanted to make something pure and healthy,” she said.
While the sickness left, the passion for the food stayed.
With the help of her business partner, Hugh Wiebe, she began marketing the crackers under the name Jovan’s Pure Nutrition in 2010 and began commercial production of her recipes, gathering friends and employees to mix and hand spread the cracker batter in a commercial kitchen. “That first year was tough,” she said, recalling that she would go home at night covered in seeds from the process. “We were using seven Cuisinart mixers from Costco when we started. That was the most expensive batch of crackers ever.”
Demand for the product at local co-ops and specialty stores boosted sales, and the company quickly outgrew their rental space, prompting a move to Blaine in 2011, where they took over the Bioplex facility on Odell Road and streamlined their processes. “I like it here,” she said. “The city of Blaine is very friendly toward food processing operations. It’s a good spot to work.”
Since then, with the company’s continued success, they’ve expanded their product line to four flavors of crackers (Garden Pesto, Spicy El Paso, Taste of Tuscany and Zesty Tomato) and a new line of breakfast shakes that will hit the shelves this week.
They also recently purchased Aldrich Farms, a Bellingham company that sells gourmet jams, jellies, mustards, sauces and more. It’s an acquisition that furthers Johnson’s ambitions to produce locally sourced healthy food.
“I love to can,” she said. “I’m a canning fool and I love to garden. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, so when we heard [Aldrich Farms] was for sale, we picked it up. It fits nicely with our brand.”
She said that they will continue to sell the Aldrich Farms products at local farmers markets under the Aldrich Farms label, but will be rebranding the products that will be sold in stores.
The company added a line of steel-cut oat products this year as well, further rounding out their product line.
With so much on the table, she’s had to let go of some aspects of the business to keep her head in the game. “It’s definitely evolved,” Johnson said. “It can be overwhelming, but it’s inspiring that we are able to do this. I’m very involved in production and I love understanding the process and developing new products, and the minute I’m not producing, then I’m out.”
That meant she needed an extra hand on deck to keep the business sailing smoothly. In August, she appointed Brad Haggen as executive vice president of sales and marketing to help increase the company’s retail presence across the country.
Haggen has more than 20 years of management experience with Haggen, Inc., a regional grocer founded by his family, which sold a majority stake in the company four years ago.
Haggen’s achievements include the creation of two subsidiaries, Haggen Market Street Catering and TerraVida Coffee. His tenure also included six years as vice president of marketing. “He brings a lot of industry knowledge to the table,” Johnson said. “We needed someone strategic because it’s very difficult to have an idea and actually get it into the marketplace. We’re very fortunate to have his experience and to have someone who understands the grocery market.”
With Haggen on board, Johnson said she can now go back to what she really loves – having a hands-on role in the company and making nutritious and healthy food.
“Now I get to be excited about developing new products,” she said. “For me, it’s not about being sick anymore – it’s about nourishing people. It’s lovely to be inspired.”