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How three siblings broke into the plant-based meal business

The Plant Based Workshop was created out of a desire for Asian-inspired plant-based meals
Hanaca Yamada, Mayumi Bae, Tak Yamada of the plant based workshop
L to R: Hanaca Yamada, Mayumi Bae, Tak Yamada. Photography by Tanya Goehring

In 2015, siblings Mayumi Bae, Tak Yamada and Hanaca Yamada lost their father to Alzheimer’s disease. That difficult experience caused them to rethink their relationship with food. “We revisited the way we feed our bodies and our families,” Mayumi explains. Mayumi experimented with going vegan, but found flavourful food options were slim. “I couldn’t find tasty Asian-inspired meals that were plant-based anywhere in Vancouver at that time,” she says

That’s when Mayumi—a die-hard foodie with a background in sales, marketing, food and hospitality—came up with the idea of starting a café in North Vancouver that would serve ramen, rice bowls, mochi cakes and other Asian-inspired dishes. Mayumi, at the time a stay-at-home mother and carer for her father until he passed, shared the café idea with her siblings, who joined her in the venture. While Mayumi went in full time, her two siblings worked part time, keeping their main gigs: Tak as a high school teacher and Hanaca as a flight attendant.

WATCH: On the trade show floor with The Plant Based Workshop

They named their new restaurant The Workshop Vegetarian Café, and it was an instant success. “We quickly developed an amazing customer base,” Mayumi recalls. By 2017, Tak quit his job to go all-in on the café with Mayumi. In the summer of 2019, the siblings made their first foray into consumer packaged goods, encouraged by requests from customers who wanted to enjoy the café’s meals at home. “We just took our recipes and started packaging them frozen,” Mayumi explains, adding that they first sold the packaged meals at the café.

Not long after, a buyer from a nearby Stong’s Market (Northwoods location) asked to stock their frozen products: four broths (spicy tan, carrot-ginger, udon and potato-leek), plus two organic noodles: ramen and udon. Despite their no-frills packaging, the meals sold well and more stores came on board. 

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When COVID hit, Hanaca stopped working as a flight attendant and started working in the café full time, helping to grow the packaged meal-kit business even further. Shortly afterwards, seeing the potential for increased demand, the siblings built a production facility next to their café, which helped them scale up their business. They also branded their products as The Plant Based Workshop, while upgrading their packaging, too.

The new packaging and production space gave The Plant Based Workshop significant room to grow. By the end of 2021, the siblings’ products were sold in close to 100 independent stores in the Vancouver area. In 2022, they partnered with a distribution company to increase their reach even further. That led to two significant milestones: their first buyer out-of-province: Spud in Alberta, plus their first major grocer: six Whole Foods Market stores in British Columbia. “Whole Foods was huge,” Mayumi recalls. “It’s somewhere that I’ve been shopping for a good part of my life, so to see it on shelf was a really proud moment.”

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Last year, the trio expanded their business further east, landing in 24 Fortinos stores in Ontario. They also launched into foodservice, selling their products at universities such as The University of British Columbia (UBC), Simon Fraser University and British Columbia Institute of Technology. In 2023, the siblings also began working on a new shelf-stable product line called Noods, a plant-based ramen kit that included dehydrated noodles and a concentrated liquid broth. Noods would be made with no preservatives or MSG and could be cooked in four minutes. “When we first approached this project, many mentioned that this couldn’t be accomplished,” Tak says. The team did extensive research and partnered with UBC to use a dehydration technology, resulting in a slurp-able, restaurant-quality noodle texture. 

Their shelf-stable noodles and broth bases, plus chocolate and matcha mochi cake mixes, launched in early 2024. “They’re bouncy, cushiony and chewy,” Mayumi says of the mochi cakes. The Plant Based Workshop will continue to push out its shelf-stable line this year, using store demos led by Hanaca. “When [customers] take that first sip of our ramen and broth, they’re usually like: ‘Wow, I would have never expected this to be plant-based.’ It’s a really proud moment for me,” Hanaca says.

The siblings also have their sights set on the export market and plan to continue growing their foodservice arm, too. Looking back, Mayumi thinks her father would be honoured to see how he inspired his children to start a successful operation. “To have an opportunity to be in business with family, seeing how much closer it brought us together, I think he would be super proud of us.” 

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s June/July 2024 issue.

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