Caitlin Olauson co-owns and operates a company that produces tasty and healthy snack bars using locally sourced produce such as lentils, flax, saskatoon berries and quinoa (yes, Saskatchewan produces quinoa). And she says her experience with The Local Bar shows that there’s great opportunity and support in Saskatchewan for other entrepreneurs who believe in a buy local approach to business.

“I think it’s important to have a connection to your food and where it comes from, to know what’s in it and who made it,” says Olauson, who comes from a farming family and operates Olauson Food Products in Saskatoon with her sister Julie.

“It seems like such a big, missed opportunity to be shipping produce across the world and buying it back as finished product.”

She says Saskatchewan has the infrastructure, incentives, support services and people to help turn ideas for food products into reality. “I’m continually amazed by how often people are willing to sit down and have a coffee and just tell you everything they know about social media, or about building a website, or how they did this or that to start up their own business,” says Olauson. “I thought it was going to be a mean and scary business world out there, but people are just really helpful.”

Olauson got her taste for entrepreneurialism while studying food science at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture. In a research project during her final year in 2011, she was part of a team that developed a different pulse-based snack bar that won the provincial leg of a national contest and placed second in Canada. “It was my first exposure to product development. Then I got a job in product development and that helped me learn from some of the mistakes I made the first time around.”

It was at the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre in Saskatoon where Olauson polished up her skills and knowledge about food production. The Food Centre is a non-profit organization that offers a full range of services to small and medium-sized businesses looking to add value to agricultural products. Today, she and her sister rent part of the facility for a day or so when they need to make and package a new batch of snack bars—they use crispy, ready-to-eat quinoa grown in Saskatchewan and processed by a local company.

It was also at the Food Centre where she learned about the Saskatchewan Agri-Value Initiative (SAVI), a Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture program that provides assistance to small and medium-sized businesses wishing to add value to agricultural products. She and Julie applied for and received a grant reimbursing them for 50 per cent of certain of their expenditures. “Starting a food business can be pretty expensive—you have upfront costs and you don’t know if you’re going to make that money back again. SAVI was incredibly helpful to us.”

Olauson, a new mom who recently earned a master’s degree in community health, recently launched The Local Kitchen, a firm with a “parallel ideology” to The Local Bar that she operates with two partners. “It’s a community shared kitchen space where we do cooking classes, workshops and kitchen rentals,” says Olauson, adding the company received help from the Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan in organizing the enterprise. “We’re trying to create a community of different food businesses that learn from each other. It’s filled with people creating food products.”

Olauson says that making nutritious products from whole foods grown in Saskatchewan suits her belief system and lifestyle. She thinks that helping others to do the same creates a synergy that bodes well for Saskatchewan’s economy.

“There’s an odd thing that happens with local food. As you connect with people, you grow together. I think the more that local food businesses can help each other out, the more it helps the whole industry grow.”

Written by: Dave Yanko