Left to right: Stella Vanstone, Emma Kula and Michelle Boigon. Photography by Tobi Asmoucha
It was in 2019 when Stella Vanstone, Michelle Boigon and Emma Kula decided to pivot their organic meal delivery company, Stellar Eats, into something new. Vanstone, a holistic nutritionist, launched the company in 2017 and was soon joined by Boigon, her cousin, who had been a co-founder and director of business development for an eco product distribution company. Kula, Vanstone’s high school friend and a former sales and marketing professional, came on board the following year.
“It was hard to compete with the huge companies like Hello Fresh,” Vanstone explains of the initial venture. “We also wanted to instill confidence in people in the kitchen, so we never felt completely right just dropping meals at people’s doorsteps.” They ended the organic meal delivery business in 2019 and picked up work serving at restaurants while figuring out their next steps.
That’s when Vanstone, Boigon and Kula came up with the idea of creating grain-free baking mixes with eight or fewer unrefined ingredients. The end results would be moist and fluffy, unlike the crumbly gluten-free alternatives commonly found. They also wanted to do it without using diet culture marketing language such as “skinny” or “guilt-free.”
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By early 2020, the trio had developed four mixes: Chocolate Chip Cookie, Biscuit + Scone, Pizza Dough, and Chocolate Cake + Cupcake, and got their products on the shelves at five independent grocery stores in Toronto under the same company name, Stellar Eats. But it remained a side business until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The restaurants where Vanstone, Kula and Boigon were working temporarily closed, which, as it turns out, was a blessing in disguise. “The world shut down and we all looked at each other and thought: Can we actually do this full-time?” Vanstone recalls. “Everyone was baking at home. This was very much a business born out of the pandemic.”
The trio went all-in on the reimagined Stellar Eats, ramping up their hand-mixed production in a commercial kitchen that they rented during off-hours, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., to save on costs. But their time in the kitchen didn’t always go smoothly. “We had a little assembly line,” Vanstone explains. “I was mixing, Emma was bagging and Michelle was sealing. One time, we got to the bottom of the batch and I realized I forgot to add an ingredient, but we had just sealed all of these bags. We felt so defeated. We were all in tears.”
They persisted through 2020, growing the brand’s reach from five to 50 small grocers in the Toronto area. A big break came for the business in 2021, when an influencer, Sarah Nicole Landry (aka The Birds Papaya), made the Stellar Eats Pizza Dough in an Instagram story. “That was our first big boost from an influencer,” Boigon explains. “It was unexpected because we didn’t send her the product. It was so exciting.” They also added new products to their lineup: a seasonal Gingerbread Cookie mix, a Fudge Brownie mix, a Pancake + Waffle mix and a Banana Bread + Muffin mix, the latter of which quickly became their top-selling product.
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As Stellar Eats grew, Boigon, Vanstone and Kula divided tasks based on their individual strengths, as Kula explains. “Stella leads sales efforts, I focus on marketing and product development and Michelle is our operations and logistics queen.” This helped the company continue to grow. In 2022, Stellar Eats launched at seven Whole Foods Market stores and 50 Sobeys locations in Ontario, as well as independent grocery stores in the United States, totalling about 500 stores. Thanks to strong sales at Whole Foods in Ontario, Stellar Eats expanded to 16 Whole Foods stores nationally in 2023, along with Real Canadian Superstore and Fortinos locations in Ontario. The trio also launched two products in 2023: Coffee Cake mix and Carrot Cake + Muffin mix, based on customer requests.
Stellar Eats products can now be found at about 1,500 grocery stores in Canada and the United States, and the company is poised to add even more stores to its roster. “Grocery expansion is our main focus,” explains Vanstone. The trio is also developing a product format they can’t yet reveal. “Product innovations are on the horizon,” says Boigon.
Considering the success they’ve achieved so far, Vanstone jokes that she’s glad she didn’t know how hard it would be to make it to this point. “We went in a bit naive,” she admits. “Looking back, I wonder if we still would have done it if we knew what it took. But, in retrospect, I’m so happy that we did it not knowing what the future would hold.”
This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s September/October 2023 issue.