When the corporate world came calling, this Carp entrepreneur headed another way

Candace Tierney started out at the Carp Farmer's Market, where she got to watch people try her fully-vegan, oat milk ice cream for the first time.

It was inevitable that Candace Tierney would start her own business — the writing was on the wall even when she was still a student at the University of Ottawa.

“While I was in school, I was interviewing with all these really big companies like Procter & Gamble as part of the school’s networking, so I was meeting with these massive corporations that have these multi-levels for hiring and they were like, ‘I don’t think you want to work for us,’” chuckles Tierney, a marketing graduate.

They were right. She didn’t. Today, Tierney is the founder and owner of Oat & Mill, a small-batch vegan ice cream company. Her products are sold in mainstream supermarkets and served at vegan restaurants.  

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“We are fully vegan, so Oat & Mill is a great option,” says Jo Masterson, owner of Little Jo Berry vegan bakery and coffee shop in Ottawa. “Our customers love it. The flavours are fun and more than just the basics, which is often what the vegan options look like.”

Oat & Mill wasn’t Tierney’s first foray into the food business. In 2014, right out of university, she started making chips from dehydrated vegetables. Raw Mountain products soon developed a niche following, but Tierney had a hard time keeping costs within a marketable range.

“It was really challenging because with produce it’s really expensive and there’s really no way to convince people that one bag of chips contains three bell peppers,” says Tierney.

Undeterred, Tierney went back to the drawing board, looking for a fresh idea.

“I kept asking what is a food that I love and that everyone loves. It was self-explanatory — ice cream — it’s universal,” she grins.

Already a vegan, Tierney wasn’t impressed with the ice cream options on the market in 2015.  

“So I started doing some research into dairy alternatives and I found this company in Sweden that was making an oat milk at the time and that was unheard of in North America,” says Tierney.

The idea of using oats as the base appealed to Tierney because oats were familiar to her. Her first few batches were a disaster, she laughs, but she persevered and by the end of that first year of experimentation she was ready to share her creation.  

“I moved into the Carp Farmers market and that was an incredible experience because you get to watch people try your product for the first time and that is so powerful. That to me is a true focus group,” says Tierney, who grew up in Carp.

In 2019, Oat & Mill moved to the Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre in Colborne. Occupying 1,200 square feet in the custom-built, state-of-the-art food production space and tapping into both the financial and staff support there, Tierney is scaling up again to supply Sobeys, Foodland and Safeway stores with Oat & Mill ice creams.

Her product is unique and her dedication to the process, taste and quality means that, for now, she needs to maintain the small-batch production system.

“For example, for our chocolate chip ice creams we use this technique called stracciatella — an Italian technique where you take tempered chocolate and mix it into ice cream so it breaks off into a whole bunch of different size chunks and just tastes amazing. This isn’t something that can be mass produced, or at least I haven’t found a way to mass produce it yet,” says Tierney.

Still, 6,000 litres of ice cream a month is not negligible. Tierney is working toward a circular system, reducing production waste and investing in organic recyclable containers while sourcing local ingredients. At the moment, her certified gluten-free oats are shipped in from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but Tierney is working with a local farmer in Northumberland to change that.

“The difficulty is that most farms aren’t going to go through the process of certifying gluten-free because they’re often doing crop rotations and it’s an extra step,” explains Tierney, adding that her company is not big enough to buy a full year or full season’s worth of oats from one big farm.  

All in all, developing a product from scratch, finding production space, attempting co-packing, seeking a circular system, employing staff, dealing with warehousing and distribution, Tierney has acquired a wide range of experience that she’s quick to share.

“My goal with sharing is to hopefully prevent others from making the same mistakes I made early on,” says the University of Ottawa’s Startup Garage alumni and mentor. “It’s also my responsibility. I had great mentors who helped me early on and I wouldn’t be where I am today without that support.”

“Candace told us early on to be mindful of our gross margins, which made us really pay attention to how we planned to grow the business,” says Vanessa Griffiths, chief marketing officer and co-founder of Gift Better Co., an Ottawa-based custom corporate gifting service that launched in late 2019. “That one conversation led to many discussions and ultimately shifted our business model into one that is much more scalable. 

“Having a mentor like Candace early on in our journey as entrepreneurs was like having a cheat sheet. Although her industry is quite different from ours, we gained so much from just hearing her share her experience. On top of all that, she made the path to entrepreneurship seem much more accessible than I perceived it to be and her kindness and willingness to share with us made it extremely comfortable to ask for help or clarification when we needed it,” says Griffiths.

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