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Meet My Little Chickpea founder Rula Sharkawi

After leaving the corporate world, Sharkawi started her own food company to make it easier for busy people to eat whole, healthy meals
7/10/2023
Rula Sharkawi
Rula Sharkawi. Photography by Tobi Asmoucha

In 2012, Rula Sharkawi was working as a vice-president of stakeholder relations, communications and marketing for a recycling company. She had two young children and found herself short on time when it came to food prep. “I wasn’t able to keep up with 21 meals in a week,” Sharkawi explains. She went to the supermarket to seek easier meal options, but was unhappy with what she found. “I would look at ingredients and would have to Google what was in my food,” she says. “I realized there was something wrong with that.”

Sharkawi dreamed up a vision for a company that would help busy people eat nutritious, healthy foods “that my grandmother would recognize,” she explains. She began experimenting with family recipes, like falafel and hummus, derived from the shawarma restaurants that her parents had owned in Toronto when Sharkawi was growing up.

READ: As more consumers prioritize health and wellness, grocers step up their offerings

Her aim was to develop a product that had less than 10 ingredients and no preservatives, but would stay fresh in the fridge for at least 10 days. Five months later, in September 2012, on Sharkawi’s 40th birthday, she quit her well-paying corporate job to bring My Little Chickpea, her food company, to life. 

Thanks to a friend’s business contact, Sharkawi was able to get her falafel in front of the buyer of a major retailer. “They shot me down,” she recalls. “They said the product was dry and it wouldn’t hold up well.” Sharkawi was disappointed, but felt even more motivated to tweak and perfect her recipe. “I had strong determination,” she recalls. “I knew I would hit some hurdles. I thought: ‘This isn’t going to stop me.’” 

Sharkawi’s next step was to partner with a product developer to perfect her falafel recipe, creating three flavours that would retain their quality and texture throughout a 10- to 14-day shelf life, in addition to four flavours of hummus. She also hedged her bets and, in early 2013, rented a 1,000-sq.-ft. commercial kitchen in the east end of Toronto. 

READ: Traditional recipes to inspire food and beverage flavours in 2023

With her new products in hand, Sharkawi brought a handful of small retailers on board, including Maisie’s Independent City Market in Toronto, which is a Loblaw franchise. “I felt very proud and excited,” she says of getting her products into a store. “I remember framing the first cheque I got from Maisie.” Sharkawi’s reach slowly grew after that – first at a smaller café in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood, then selling to Summerhill Market, also in Toronto.

Traction was growing with My Little Chickpea, but Sharkawi was still a one-woman show, working up to 15 hours a day. “I was doing everything: making products, delivering them, doing all the accounting,” she recalls. “There were moments when I was crying at my desk, thinking: ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’”

Thankfully, things turned around for Sharkawi by the end of 2013. “We had [products in] some good high-volume stores,” she says. “Now I had cash flow, and I could hire people.” In April 2014, Sharkawi brought on a chef and an office administrator, purchased a delivery van and hired a driver, which allowed her to focus on business development and product innovation

The company’s next big break was launching at Whole Foods Market in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), in the fall of 2016. “They said it was the No. 1 selling product in its category,” she says. “Our products were selling out. That was a huge boost for the company.”

Sharkawi began to set her sights beyond the GTA. However, the current iteration of her products – especially its clamshell packaging – limited their shelf life. “We reformulated our recipes and explored different packaging options,” she explains.

With help from the Business Development Bank of Canada, Sharkawi purchased equipment for creating a sealed product in “modified atmosphere packaging,” which doubled the shelf life to 30 days. That led to My Little Chickpea’s entry into artisanal health food stores in Kingston, London and Windsor, and even as far away as British Columbia. By the end of 2017, My Little Chickpea could be found in about 140 stores.

READ: Canadians cooking at home to save on groceries: Mintel

“Things started to snowball from there,” Sharkawi recalls. In 2018, My Little Chickpea began shipping to Alberta. She also brought on about 90 Sobeys stores in Ontario in the same year. By 2020, Sharkawi had developed a frozen chickpea veggie burger as a private-label product for a major retailer, along with frozen cauliflower bites and falafel burgers. Then, by the spring of 2021, My Little Chickpea made it into Whole Foods stores in British Columbia.

My Little Chickpea is now selling 10 products in about 500 stores in provinces across Canada. Later this year, Sharkawi will be working on getting her products into major retailers in Quebec, since they’re only in a few small stores in the province. And in 2024, she hopes to break into the U.S. market.

Sharkawi faced plenty of challenges along the way, but she is proud of where she’s landed. “It feels amazing,” she says. “I love the fact that I can help busy people eat well. That makes me feel really good.”

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s June/July 2023 issue.

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