Fifteen years ago, when her mom convinced her to take a seat at the table, Amelia Warren joined the family business, with no idea that she was sitting down to what would be more like a chef’s tasting meal than a single course affair.
Or maybe she did know. But one thing is certain. She had the appetite for what was to come.
The nationally lauded CEO of Epicure — last year Warren was named a recipient of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40, recognizing her as one of the country’s outstanding business leaders — has worked alongside her mother, founder Sylvie Rochette, and her team, to realign the company in line with a strong set of social values, all from their headquarters in North Saanich.
“I do this work, and have chosen to spend my energy and time here, because I think it’s one of the best places for me to do good work on the planet,” says Warren.
That good work is more than just bringing healthy, affordable and quick meal choices to the table. In line with their mission, says Warren, the company also wants to “enrich and improve the health of this and the next generation.” It also includes significant charitable outreach, through numerous initiatives including the Epicure Foundation, which Warren set up when she first joined the company, and providing meaningful employment for families, specifically women.
Young, strong and passionate, Warren brings energy and optimism to her unique role as CEO that extends well beyond the boardroom. She is a public figure who leads and inspires a ground army of direct-to-consumer consultants that sell Epicure products out of their homes, to their friends and networks, on a daily basis.
“We have a sales force of 25,000 people, so managing the energy, the emotion, the engagement, the happiness of those people is directly tied to business success,” says Warren.
The direct-to-consumer model was established early on by Rochette, who, when she wanted to scale the business she had built in her home, chose that approach over wholesale and did not seek investment. Her decision was quickly validated when the business revenue tripled in the following year.
“What it does is provide women opportunities and flexibility to build businesses when otherwise they wouldn’t have the resources, the background, the financial backing to do it, while they’re also being everything that they need to be for their families,” says Robin Ambrose, VP of People and Wellness.
“I’m certainly really energized to be a part of an organization that is led by a really strong woman who knows her business and who is impassioned about her business. There is a very people-focused culture that comes with that.”
— Robin Ambrose
The company’s mission has always been to make life easier for time-stretched, budget-conscious working women and families who want easy, healthy meal options. But it’s about more than just meals — creating opportunities for women — or “democratizing entrepreneurship” — remains a core principle of the company: consultants can start up their own business with only $125.
Those consultants are the backbone of Epicure, and staying in tune with them is a priority at head office. Every week, the executive team is given a list of names and numbers of the week’s highest sellers or hosts of the most cooking classes, resulting in around 50 conversations.
“It’s to hear the stories, how Epicure has been able to inspire things in their lives and also get feedback on how we can do better for them,” says Ambrose.
From Avon and Mary Kay to Tupperware, direct selling has a long and successful history, but moves in and out of style.
“It depends on what other trends are happening in retail, whether direct selling is considered to be cool or whether it’s considered to be passé,” says Warren.
Today’s career economy relies heavily on affiliate marketing, with brands looking for ways to connect directly with their customers to build community around their product. Warren points out that brands are spending a significant amount of money on influencer marketing, while Epicure’s consultants are like micro-influencers, each with their own network of 50–500 people, “who they’re influencing to buy our products, creating engagement, building authentic stories and content.”
“What is inherently baked into the direct-selling model is [something that] a lot of other kinds of industries are trying to emulate,” says Warren.
Rochette’s original recipes were simple pre-blended herb mixes that quickly became so popular with friends that she started selling them at the Saanich farmers’ market. While many locals will fondly remember the dip mixes, Warren was cognizant that the company be recognized for more than just dips. Identifying the growing opportunities in clean eating, around 2013–14, Warren saw the potential for Epicure to better market and share their products.
“We were not really talking about them in a way that reflected the value they provide, which is helping people cook healthier, helping people cook faster, a little bit easier, which was the ethos of the company,” says Warren.
The result was a rebranding, a process that meant moving away from what Warren describes as Rochette’s “amazing labels” and the original vision for her “baby.” With change comes some courageous conversations.
The changes were born from what was already there, says Warren, with the aim of amplifying what was working. Tasting parties were transformed into cooking classes. A focus was placed on complete solutions, as opposed to individual products, that unite cookware and food for greater efficiency and simplicity.
To better reflect the company’s products and intention, Epicure created and trademarked the Good Food. Real Fast™ movement, and better communicated their ingredients. That included being industry-leaders in joining the Non-GMO Verification Project, going gluten-free, and creating the Never Ever List, an openly-available list of ingredients that Epicure avoids.
“That really separates us out,” says Jennifer Danter, director of innovation and research, of the Never-Ever List posted online and at the beginning of Epicure’s catalogs. “On top of that, the gluten-free and nut-free, I feel the care that’s gone into sourcing the ingredients — it’s huge. That takes so much time and manpower. By the time you get your package, you’re never thinking about everything that went into it, but you truly are getting a good product made with sustainable ingredients, carefully sourced.”
“It’s that combination of the product, the cookware and the recipe — they just work so well together. You pick seven products, and you have a meal plan for the week. It’s that easy. I feel like we’ve really narrowed in on the struggle of the average person.” — Jennifer Danter
The seven-strong product team creates around 10 new products a season — launching 50 to 60 new products a year, each one tested from three up to 10 times.
A recent community innovation project saw consultants brief the product team to create an Epicure version of a favourite meal, seasoning or flavour. The team works creatively within significant constraints, aiming to use as few ingredients as possible with a budget of under three dollars per serving. Not to mention time.
“We can take a complicated recipe, and we’ll strip it down to the bare essentials,” says Danter. “We’ll create the formula and a blend for it. Then we look at it from a recipe point of view — how do we now make this dish in 20 minutes? … That’s a big challenge for the development team. When you set the timer for 20 minutes, and this includes prep time, it really distinguishes us from magazines and all other products that are like, Hey, dinner’s ready in 20 minutes or half an hour. That’s coming from a chef point of view where everything’s pre-chopped and ready.”
Warren’s approach to cracking the American market was as entrepreneurial as Rochette’s approach in the company’s early days — fearlessly throwing themselves into the unknown. But while Rochette was making it up as she went along, Warren had a polished playbook that included a 20-year track record and a well-established product line to back her up.
The natural place to start was with her trusted network of consultants, of which there were 8–9,000 at the time across Canada, and a simple question: “Who do you know in the U.S.?” Warren, quite simply, offered to go to their houses and cook with them. From Ohio to Oregon and Florida, the latter half of 2018 and the first part of 2019 saw Warren and a colleague on the road “doing cooking classes in random homes all across the U.S.”
“We did that because we wanted to actually figure out: How similar is this to Canada? Does this work? What’s the market response? Are people excited?” says Warren. “We were able to iterate and improve and clarify how we want to do things.”
When it comes to taste, there are a few cultural differentiators that feed back to the product team.
“We have very different tastes,” says Danter, careful to note that trends are very generalized. “What I found is people in the States, they like it a little sweeter, and they like it a little spicier. I feel like Canadians are attracted to the lower sodium products. And their spice level tolerance isn’t as high.”
Today, the U.S. market represents a quarter of Epicure’s sales, and holds the potential for a lot more. Capturing that through organic growth attests to the power of Epicure’s network, with next steps to include more targeted marketing and events. The company has a presence in every state, with the state of Wisconsin currently their biggest market, and are looking to grow in states like California, Texas and Florida, where “our channel and our product category would do really well,” says Warren.
“We see huge upside potential in the U.S. It’s a market that, population-wise, is 10 times bigger, and market-wise is 18 times bigger than the Canadian market. There’s a huge opportunity within the United States to continue to grow.”
Back in North Saanich, that growth has big repercussions for the organization, with a current employee count just shy of 200 people. Preparing for more growth is a focus for Ambrose, who is putting a requisite organization in place.
“It means that we have the right people and the right talent, that we’re able to scale faster,” says Ambrose. “It’s about organizational architecture, and really embracing an accountability leadership model. Making sure that everyone understands what their role is in the organization, and that we have clear, defined processes around everyone’s deliverables, so we can ensure we are efficient in our delivery of product.”
A Time of Discovery
Since 2018, when the company was turning over $50–60 million, sales have more than doubled. People all over the world, some for the first time in their lives, were eating at home seven days a week, which fortuitously coincided with the company’s U.S. launch.
“Before [the pandemic], our entire business was person-to-person, face-to-face,” says Warren, of a model that faced steep challenges and required big learning curves when life moved online. Consultants adapted to Zoom and Facebook, with the demand for products staying strong, and steadily increasing.
Different geographical locations have resulted in very different realities for consultants, bridging in-person and online sales. Now, says Warren, driving conversion digitally is more difficult, people are tired.
“We’re trying to figure out what are going to be the paths to market in this new environment. Whereas historically, we had a path, which was supplemented by digital, now we’re going to have an in-person/digital/hybrid model.
“I actually think now is almost a harder time because [not knowing] what things are going to be and how consumers are going to shop — it’s a new time of discovery.”
Getting products to market is one thing, but keeping those customers is the long-term goal.
“A common challenge in CPG (consumer packaged goods) is, you can do a great job getting people to try your product, but driving repeat business is an opportunity,” says Warren.
Whatever those paths may be, the team knows the market. A subscription service launched earlier this year to drive recurring revenue saw 80 per cent of forecasts sold in a day — 11,000 people signed up in the first two weeks.
Warren sees challenges as opportunities, and seems genuinely excited about changes in the market and the world. With her heart so deeply rooted in Epicure, it’s no wonder she can sustain the drive with such a smile on her face.
Meals to Try
It’s clearly hard to choose favourites, but here are three standout dishes that are currently being enjoyed by the team at Epicure.
“My favourite is our Shepherd’s Pie, a super easy weeknight meal — [you can] use lentils or your fave protein. Fast comfort food, easy to make; everyone loves it!”— Amelia Warren
“Put that with ramen noodles — which have no sodium — and vegetables and some tofu, and everybody’s happy, including me.”
— Robin Ambrose
“I like baking and I am a baker, but the quick biscuits are just so easy. I like having everything measured in one pouch, and it’s gluten-free.” — Jennifer Danter
Paired with individually purchased ingredients, Epicure’s spice packets (above) and their accompanying recipes create meals that can be prepared and cooked in under 20 minutes.