From the heart of potato country, a family-owned farm, whose beginning dates back to the early 1920s, is currently offering one of Atlantic Canada’s tastiest exports to the world.
Covered Bridge Potato Chips, a product of Albright Farms, has seen tremendous success both domestically and abroad despite only launching in 2009. The company’s old-fashioned kettle chips are now sold not only throughout Atlantic Canada but in several countries across the globe. Ryan and Matt Albright are fourth-generation farmers who purchased the family farm in 2006. That’s when the plan to launch the company’s gluten-free, trans-fat-free potato chips was born.
Opportunities NB (ONB) wanted to learn more. We spoke with Brook Dickinson, National Sales Director, to discuss the company’s story.
ONB: Let’s start with the most significant obstacles Covered Bridge has faced as it moved into export markets.
Dickinson: Initially I’d say the challenge was all about connections; meeting the right people. Distinguishing between really interested leads versus unrealistic ones; qualified leads versus unqualified. Many of our export contacts we now meet via trade shows in both Canada and the U.S. That’s where we really manage to best connect with people. It comes down to finding the best way to build relationships with these potential clients, that was the most significant challenge.
Another hurdle, at least on occasion, is making sure you line up all the financials, both in actual selling price and on payments. It’s imperative that you take care of those details right away, and that’s been a challenge at times. Making sure that the actual transportation costs are lined up and taken care of, that’s important. Putting solid processes in place for that type of thing needs to be solidified as you move towards shipping products abroad.
ONB: Are there any advantages of New Brunswick, geographic or cultural maybe, that have helped Covered Bridge with export success?
Dickinson: Culturally, there’s a tendency in many export markets to view Canada as one big entity, with no focus on Atlantic Canada’s uniqueness. I’m not sure New Brunswick’s culture comes up as much as it could in export meetings. Geographically though with two major ports—Saint John most obviously within our distance—it’s easy for us to get access to export markets. That’s unquestionably a huge strategic advantage. The sooner you can hit the water, the better. As far as the European and Caribbean markets we’re in great shape.
ONB: That’s an interesting point about culture. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for businesses to focus on the uniqueness of New Brunswick. Your company brands itself as being a proudly and distinctly New Brunswick operation. It’s right in the name, a reference to the Hartland Covered Bridge; a provincial and national historic site.
Dickinson: Absolutely. That’s at the heart of our branding. As well, in terms of product naming we have our Atlantic Thick Cut, which is a sea salt chip, and of course our Atlantic Lobster flavour.
We’re proud of being from the East Coast, and New Brunswick, specifically right in the heart of potato country. New Brunswick is known for having around 60 covered bridges. It’s a unique part of our culture and it’s great to bring a part of that identity abroad.
ONB: Speaking of culture, how much emphasis does the company place on researching the cultural norms of target markets?
Dickinson: We certainly do our homework when we prepare to engage different countries. Japan, for example, is a very formal country from our experiences, and making sure that your language and the timeliness of communications is in accordance with what they’re expecting is key. Other countries may be a bit more informal, I won’t say relaxed or imply Japan isn’t relaxed, I just think on business affairs they’re more formal. It’s about making sure you’re selling in a way they’re comfortable with, not in the way you’re comfortable.
ONB: Do you have people on the ground in those countries? Or do you travel to these markets yourself?
Dickinson: This may surprise some, but no. That hasn’t been necessary, at least not yet. It’s been a matter of meeting customers through trade shows like one we recently attended in Saint John (the Southern Trade Lane Buyers Mission) arranged by the province. The trade show route has been our best bet and those face-to-face meetings really get things started.
ONB: We wanted to touch on the Southern Trade Lane Buyers Mission. ONB was proud to be involved in bringing potential buyers from the Caribbean and Central America here to meet with New Brunswick businesses. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Dickinson: We’re always looking for opportunities like that to grow the brand and increase sales, so we were happy to participate. Coordinators set up three great meetings for us. We met with three different companies and they went extremely well. These were very positive encounters, and we’ve already done followups.It was a very positive experience, and I found it quite engaging. We were the only snack company so we found ourselves positioned as a unique trading partner with these companies.
ONB: Have there been any surprises along the way in terms of the export process?
Dickinson: Sometimes it’s the random nature of finding strong markets in terms of repeat buyers. For example, we do regular business in Israel, Germany, and France. They’re very different markets and cultures, and yet they all buy pretty much the same flavours, and have all become equally strong markets. That’s not something I expected.
Another surprise has been learning about other chip companies. At one of my meetings in Saint John, I learned a U.S. chip company that we are quite familiar with is already being imported by one of the companies we met. That was a bit of a surprise as they’re a big company, but not a really well-known brand like say Frito-Lay. Learning about unexpected competition in those target markets, that’s been the most notable surprise.
ONB: Circling back to challenges, what were some of the initial challenges the company faced not with exports but more in general, as a young business?
Dickinson: There were plenty. Brand awareness, and trying to sell a product nobody had heard of; that’s a big one. Being competitive was tough. When you’re doing a small-batch product, not having your economies of scale in place to be price competitive, that was a big challenge early on too. There were plenty of learning curves.
A lot of people don’t want to take on a new brand because it’s an investment for customers as well. They don’t want to invest until it’s a proven commodity, prove yourself until you get enough people to take you on, it’s a chicken before the egg thing.
ONB: What’s your best advice for other businesses looking for export success?
Dickinson: Get connected with the best buyers, and do that through appropriate trade shows. Getting logistics is certainly important, transportation, etc. That’s all for nothing, however, if you don’t have the appropriate buyers. Qualify those leads. Trade shows have been our best bet so far. We’ve had companies contact us before from various countries and you do the back and forth, maybe send samples, which can be costly. Any export deals that come from that takes time because you have time zone differences in play, and those cultural differences. Events really can bring highly interested leads direct to your door.
Cover image via Covered Bridge Chips