What are Goji Berries?
Goji berries, also known as wolfberries, have become popular as a “superfruit” in North America since the early 2000s. These tiny reddish-orange fruits are often sold dried, and can be eaten raw or cooked. They are low-calorie, fat-free and packed with antioxidants, Vitamin C, beta-carotene and fibre – making them an extremely healthy food. Many companies have marketed them as natural remedies for a number of ailments including diabetes, hypertension, fever and the common cold, although many of these claims have not yet been medically proven. Their use in traditional Chinese medicine goes back thousands of years, with the goji typically featured in fortifying broths made with chicken or pork. In the West, goji berries are often sold in energy bars, trail mixes and smoothies.
My first experience with goji actually came quite recently. Last year, my dad told me that he started to grow goji in his rural Ontario backyard. He had gotten a plant from my auntie who grows them in her backyard in Québec. Not too long after that, my mother made some steamed chicken with goji. Unfortunately, I found the goji had a bitter taste and grainy texture, and didn’t complement the flavour of the chicken at all. Dismissing thousands of years of ancient Chinese wisdom, I decided I would probably not eat this dish again except to please my mother. 🙂
So, when I came across Gojiccino, I was totally intrigued!
What is Gojiccino?
According to their website:
Gojiccino concentrate is a rich, dark liquid packed with flavour and aroma. Think of it as “goji espresso” in a bottle. It was invented by us at Beveragist Co. and it’s the only goji-based beverage concentrate for making lattes, iced drinks and smoothies, so – it’s one of a kind!
I stopped by Fresh Restaurant in Toronto to try my first Gojiccino which is similar to a cappuccino. The taste was totally unique: herbal with a subtle mocha finish. It was delicious and addictive. I also couldn’t get enough of the aroma! It paired perfectly with the accompanying slice of Fresh apple pie. I am looking forward to enjoying an iced Gojiccino when the weather gets warmer!
Since launching in 2013, Gojiccino has been on an exponential growth path, cropping up at more and more cafes and health food stores including Fresh and Whole Foods Market locations in Ontario – and even a few spots in New York and Pennsylvania.
Gojiccino is the brainchild of Beveragist Co.’s co-founder, Jennifer Low, whose impressive culinary resume includes decade-long food editor and recipe developer at House and Home, bestselling cookbook author (Kitchen for Kids: 100 Amazing Recipes Your Children Can Really Make and Everyday Kitchen For Kids), and resident food expert on the CBC‘s Steven & Chris show. So basically, this lady knows how to make stuff taste good. 🙂
I was very fortunate to chat with Jen who was at Beveragist HQ in Ancaster, Ontario. We discussed the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship, what makes Gojiccino unique (and so darn tasty) and, course, what’s next for Gojiccino.
Interview with Jen Low, Beverage Director of Beveragist Co.
Q: What is your role, and who else is part of the Gojiccino team?
The company is owned by me and my husband, John Southerst. I developed the Gojiccino product. We’ve got a a number of people we work with, including food scientists who help us create the commercial batches of the product and make it food-safe, web designer, graphic designer, and other consultants. As for my own role, I wear multiple hats – when you’re an entrepreneur, you need to! I’m a product developer, sales person, and I work closely with the designers on our marketing materials and strategy. The only thing I don’t do is the day-to-day business structure which is my husband’s end of things – dealing with the accountant, banks – mundane but necessary stuff. We strategize together in terms of the direction of the business.
We’ve been out since the beginning of 2013, but really in earnest in the spring of 2013. We launched but then sat back and learned from the first set of customers. It’s all been instructive and helped us figure out how to grow, understand who is our core customer, and leverage that.[/item]
Q: You’ve mentioned being inspired by the entrepreneurs you interviewed when you were a business journalist. Which entrepreneurs do you admire most and why?
I can remember so many! I have a weak spot for entrepreneurs. These were people that were in touch with their ideas on a daily basis. I enjoyed that they were straight shooters.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t inspired by an entrepreneur I spoke with.
They were all good at different things: some were good at strategy; some were good at taking a family business and building it out. I remember there was a very young entrepreneur who called me up. I got off the phone and I just knew this guy was going to succeed. That was the Founder of Freshii. He did the media calls himself and said “I’m Matthew Corrin. I’ll tell you about my business.” Now he does business all over the world now. He was super-impressive.[/item]
Q: In Sir Richard Branson’s autobiography, he talks about having to be pragmatic and creative during his childhood. Can you ascribe your entrepreneurial spirit to any events or relationships in your early life?
It’s an interesting question. I didn’t come from an entrepreneurial family, so I couldn’t say I wanted to be just like dad. I always felt entrepreneurial, but I didn’t know where it came from. I thought someday I’d like to have my own business. There is a certain kind of freedom of expression with that. I’m a creative person. Good or bad, I made a decision and let’s see what happens. I don’t need to fly it by a committee. However that also means you have to make every decision, and you can’t second guess yourself. But I remember from the beginning thinking, there is nobody else to ask questions like “what should be our tagline?” or “is there a certain part of the market we’re missing that we should be selling to?”
You have to learn to think with your head and your heart and achieve an optimal balance if you can.
Q: You have some pretty great food credentials – from writing bestselling cookbooks to being a regular guest on the Steven & Chris show. Can you talk about your food journey?
I had a degree from UBC and took some courses in journalism from Ryerson. Right away, I landed a general journalist job at Rogers. It seems so easy looking back! I guess it was the right time and right place. Then, an opening came up at Profit Magazine covering small business. I wrote about small business for a time. They had to downsize the staff, and I started to do freelance writing. I really loved learning about food. Back then, people didn’t write about food. These days, everyone and their cousin is applying to cooking school to be the next Food Network star. I knew I wanted to write about food and needed the right credentials.
Food information seemed to stick in my brain; it came easily and naturally. I graduated, then I caught a lucky break. Marion Kane, who was then food editor at the Toronto Star told me she had some spaces open if I wanted to do some stories for them. Later, I heard about the food editor opening at House & Home magazine. I thought, what have I got to lose? So applied and got it. It was an amazing time to learn about food because I covered food news, developed recipes, and supervised shoots. It was a time when food photography became much more elegant. Food photography used to be really bad. Then, magazines coming out of Australia were showing a simplified, beautiful kind of food photography. I was part of that big style change in magazines. The Food Network was hitting its stride. The most glorious and beautiful cookbooks would come across my desk. It was a real golden age of food reporting.
I’ve had the opportunity to interview people like Jamie Oliver or Australia‘s Donna Hay. For Donna especially, part of her success was to Easternize Western flavours. She’s been extremely successful. Foods at the margin become part of the mainstream. That’s where the opportunities in food are. I covered food and knew I wanted to been in the food business which is the most fun. I didn’t want to make delicious butter tarts – many people make this. I have developed literally thousands of recipes for clients. The challenge for me in owning my own business was to develop something that people would want – in an area that is brand new.
In the mid 2000s, I was speaking with my food journalist friend in Northern California and we were comparing food trends. She mentioned gojis were starting to become popular. I filed that information away for later. A few years before I left House and Home magazine, I was thinking about what my friend said, and about my mother. My mom is very into wellness and knew all kinds of things about Far East apothecary. If you could see her, she is very robust and really fit; she drinks all these tonics. I thought, there’s gotta be something there!
My maternal and paternal sides of the family have been in Canada for over 100 years. I remember joking with them that they had all this time and couldn’t get in on the ground floor for tofu or soy products!
Q: What’s the craziest drink someone has made with the Gojiccino concentrate?”
We provide each of our purveyors with our base recipes. We support creativity. There are some that add a dash of cinnamon or a shot of protein powder. The sales are phenomenal with the base recipes. We’ve tasted and gotten feedback and think those are the most balanced. But, if someone wants to add something to it – they know their customers best – we support that. There was one barista who took the concentrate and made a sorbet and said it was amazing.
We didn’t make the frappé first. We had it in mind, but I didn’t get to it (laughs)! The frappé was originally made by a guy named Mike at Nature’s Emporium. The one we make now is not exactly the same, but I have to give him props for making the original goji frappé. He knew we were entrepreneurs and said we could share the recipe with others. How amazing is that?
We are part of a big sea of change to help people choose healthier options. Every one of our purveyors sees others like them as part of the same team.
I didn’t count on this network aspect at the beginning. I am an artisan at heart and was used to working on my own. Suddenly I meet these people who identified themselves as on my team. It’s been a delight and surprise.
Q: How has the business evolved since you started two years ago? What was the turning point when you realized you might be onto something big here?
We didn’t make a new flavour of something. It’s a brand new category of beverage. If I had been the first person to sell coffee, it’s kind of like that.
We needed to go out and tell people why, but less and less now. I come across people whom I’ve never met who are telling me about the Gojiccino product! We fulfill a certain niche in the market that hasn’t been filled. We’re naturally caffeine free. We’re the only beverage made from goji. I also couldn’t have done this earlier, say 7 or 8 years ago. I would have had to be educating people a lot more. Now, 95% of people know about gojis.[/item]
Q: Are there copy cat competitors out there? If so, how are you staying ahead of the competition? Is there a patent on the process?
The name is trademarked in many jurisdictions. In terms of the process, our joke is that nobody else can make it since we can barely make it (laughs). It is not easy to make. The only protection you have is that you keep it under lock and key. It’s a trade secret. I don’t discuss it – although you wouldn’t believe the number of people who ask me during demos! I would love to show people how to make it because they’d find it interesting, and then erase it from their memory! As an entrepreneur, you live and breathe your product. It would be the lowest of the low for someone to reverse engineer a product.
This was created out of whole cloth. We are the only product of this type – anywhere.
Q: Who are your favourite chefs and/or restaurants?
My taste has changed and I’m not so much into fine dining anymore. I think it was in Stratford, a busy little place that people go to before seeing a show. The chicken was roasted perfectly; it was crispy and meat was perfectly juicy. The mashed potatoes were just perfect, and I don’t know how they did it. I remember thinking this was a really well-done plate. The best soup I ever had was in Bayfield on Lake Huron. It was the most delicious creamy soup with tarragon. I wanted to rush back and tell them I needed the recipe!
There was one restaurant just outside San Francisco called “Taste”. It was unbelievable. It was fancy. The level of virtuosity was amazing. It was a husband and wife place. That food was knock-your-socks-off good. I think I even kept their menu.
My pet peeve is when restaurants are over-reaching just for the sake of being fancy. It needs to be simple and not overly-complicated. I approach my eating experiences from the perspective of a recipe developer. You are always trying to develop recipes that are perfect, meaning if you took something away, the whole thing would not work, or if you added something it wouldn’t work either. You find these perfect dishes in different places.
I do remember eating at Susur Lee‘s original Toronto restaurant, Lotus. That to me was such an earth-shattering experience. I swear to you, my taste buds were changed for a whole week! I’d never experienced flavour profiles like that.
Q: What’s next for Gojiccino?
In 2015, we’re looking to expand further. We’ve even gotten inquiries from Italy. We’ve got some very big launches coming up just around the corner. Very shortly, we’ll be in all the Ontario Whole Foods. We’d like to go national.
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