Paul Gill. Photography by Lucas Finlay
In 2012, a year after graduating from business school, Paul Gill was feeling the pull toward entrepreneurship. He was working as a sales representative for a marketing company in Vancouver at the time and realized that corporate life wasn’t for him. “I wanted to start my own business,” Gill recalls
A conversation with his cousin, who has a soy allergy, led Gill to research coconut aminos – a soy sauce alternative made with fermented coconut sap and sea salt. “This is a product that didn’t have too many options in the marketplace,” Gill explains. “I saw people on message boards asking how to find these products. There was pretty decent demand.”
After work, Gill would spend his evenings searching for suppliers, co-packers and distributors, working with agencies for the product’s branding, labels and website and setting his price points and promotional schedules. “All of it was new and foreign to me,” he explains. “But, at the beginning, it was very exciting.”
READ: The founders of Stellar Eats have got the (baked) goods
He named his business Naked Coconuts, representing the simple, additive-free nature of his products. The starting lineup would have two products: coconut aminos – the soy sauce alternative – and coconut oil.
Gill spent about a year working on the business while continuing his fulltime job. By February 2013, he was ready to launch Naked Coconuts and quit his sales job, going all in on entrepreneurship. He launched at approximately 50 small indie shops in Vancouver including Greens Market, Sprout Health Market and Famous Foods. “I knocked on all their doors and told them what I was trying to do,” he says. “They were very receptive and supportive. It was incredible to see my products on their shelves.”
One month after launch, Gill switched from plastic to glass bottles in response to customer demand, despite the higher cost and risk of breakage. His products were making such a small profit that he needed to raise his prices, which made the switch stressful.
READ: How Cove Drinks’ founders took their home-brewed kombucha to major grocers coast-to-coast
Such moments made Gill question his decision to start a business. “Many times, over the first few years, I thought: Why did I get into this?” Gill recalls. “It was very common for me to go into my car, roll up the windows, blast the music and yell, scream and sometimes cry just to let it out.”
But Gill persevered and by the end of 2013 he signed with a national distributor, which helped get his products in about 250 independent stores across Canada. That number grew to 600 small, independent grocery stores by the end of 2015. So, in 2016, Gill felt ready to expand the lineup with a teriyaki sesame ginger sauce made using coconut aminos as a base. This addition helped Gill break into around 125 Save-On-Foods stores across British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba in 2016, which garnered the attention of other major grocery chains. That same year, Gill signed on with 80 Metro stores in Ontario and, in early 2017, he launched at 200-plus Loblaws stores nationally.
Looking to expand his product lineup once again, in late 2019, Gill launched protein bites and made his first full-time hire. Then, the pandemic hit. “On-the-go snacks [sales] dropped,” dramatically, he recalls. Gill had to shut down his new product line and let his first-ever employee go. “It was a learning experience, but it was a hard time,” he says. Thankfully, his core line of sauces was doing well enough to help the company weather the pandemic.
READ: Meet My Little Chickpea founder Rula Sharkawi
A chat with a Loblaws buyer in 2021 inspired Gill to, once again, expand his sauce line. He launched a sweet Thai chili sauce, a sweet and sour sauce and a peanut sauce later that year to great success. “It really took the company to a new level,” he says.
Naked Coconuts rebranded to Naked and Saucy in 2021. Its products are now in more than 3,000 stores nationwide. And this year brought another significant change to Gill’s business – he moved his sauce production in-house and now co-packs private-label products for other brands. Gill plans to spend 2024 settling into the new changes, and he’s eyeing a move into the United States in 2025.
Gill has no regrets about leaving corporate life behind. “I know this is what I love to do,” he explains. “I literally feel like an artist when I sit at my desk, working through a problem, the same way someone makes music, paints a picture or builds a cabinet. When I’m working, it’s the same feeling.”
This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s November 2023 issue.