It’s not hard to believe that many creative—and seemingly impossible—ideas are born in an IKEA parking lot, but starting an international food business selling energy snacks probably isn’t a common one. In fact, maybe it’s only happened once.
In 2013, 25-year-old Jana Zaibak, then a recent grad in Toronto, was doing that thing that’s flickered across the minds of many: cutting out refined sugars from her diet. To curb her craving for sweetness in a nutritious way, she started creating her own energy balls using nuts, dates and cocoa. After a few months of tinkering with her recipe to make something as delicious as a dessert, Zaibak was sitting in an Ikea parking lot when her skeptical mom tried one for the first time. Pleasantly surprised, mom asked, “Jana, why don’t you try selling these to Pusateri’s?”
After all, what are moms for if not to give you sudden lofty goals to achieve?
“I’m happy she suggested that because I never would have thought of selling them,” recalls Zaibak, who had just completed her master’s in early childhood studies and was starting to job hunt. “[But I thought] There’s nothing like it on the market right now. I’m not making an income, so I might as well work on this.” Soon after, Zaibak was shopping her all-natural Nomz Energy Bites—organic, vegan, Paleo and gluten-free—around to Toronto retailers.
Luckily, she got an immediate confidence boost at the first place she pitched. “Evergreen was the first store we ever approached and they were so nice! The manager, Joe, said, ‘Come in next Saturday and sample your product. If it does well, I’ll carry it.’ The second store we approached was not as positive,” Zaibak says, laughing. “We were a new product with no sales behind us. I’m glad we started off with Evergreen because it was such a positive experience. Had we gotten rejected by other people that day, maybe I would have just given up.”
Now, only four years later, Nomz is carried in more than 400 stores (!) across Canada, and the energy balls come in four flavours (almond, coconut, hazelnut, pistachio). From the start, Zaibak has made a point of employing refugees, a decision motivated by her desire to be the change she wants to see in the world. Today, her team includes women from Afghanistan, and her most recent hire is a newcomer from her home country of Syria. Zaibak speaks fondly of the women in the kitchen: “They really are the foundation of the business. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.”
After landing Nomz Energy Bites on so many shelves so quickly, Zaibak is now cooking up more food ideas. A new product joined the line this summer: a dairy-free, vegan ice cream made with banana and nut butter. You can find it at Whole Foods in Canada, and Zaibak just sent her first shipment to Dubai, with the goal of distributing throughout the Middle East. A still-secret third product is also in the works; look for it next year.
As for the original lofty goal set out by her mother? “Pusateri’s said yes about six months into the business,” Zaibak says. “They’re one of our top customers.”[Newsletter]