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What's the deal with Neal Brothers?

How these two wild and crouton-loving guys made their mark in the food biz

It's a telltale sign that your company is still wet behind the ears when you sell your prized hockey card collection to help fund it.

That’s what brothers Chris and Peter Neal did in the early days of Neal Brothers Foods, which they started as university kids making croutons in their mother’s kitchen, in Aurora, Ont., in 1988.

For the first few years, the brothers stuck close to home, distributing their croutons at farmers’ markets and small shops around Toronto such as Pusateri’s and Harvest Wagon. Stores in Kingston or London, Ont. “may as well have been in the Far East,” says Peter.

They grew cautiously, although they really had no choice but to take their time. They weren’t rich (mom, Mary, was an elementary school teacher and dad, Stan, an investment advisor) and the brothers didn’t have a line of credit–hence selling Chris’ hockey cards for $800. (Chris still pines over three rookie cards: Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler and Börje Salming.)

Today, Peter credits their slow-and-steady expansion as a big reason they’re still in business.

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And business is looking good. Neal Brothers now has roughly 50 employees and the same number of its own products. It’s coming out with a line of organic, fair trade chocolate soon, and will start selling four SKUs of Neal Brothers kettle-style potato chips in more than 300 Whole Foods in the U.S. in January. All this, plus Chris and Peter just put out a cookbook called Goodness.

It was a long road to get Neal Brothers to this point. After finding their footing making croutons, Peter and Chris ventured into co-packing to have other products made for them under the Neal Brothers brand. First up, tortilla chips and salsa.

It was the early ’90s and Peter remembers how, at the time, tortilla chips were typically “these awful, hard, stale things” confined to ethnic aisles. But he and Chris convinced retailers to place their stone-ground corn tortilla chips amongst the potato chips. It worked, and eventually sales took off.

As they got further into their sales and marketing groove and had more retailers sign on to try their products, an epiphany struck. “We realized that if we’re to these stores already, why don’t we throw some other products in there?” recalls Peter.

And so Neal Brothers began distributing other companies’ products. Among the first was Cape Cod potato chips. Today, Neal Brothers distributes roughly 50 brands besides its own in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Along the way, the brothers have tried to do the right thing, says Peter. He’s not making a Spike Lee reference–he’s talking about selling products that use natural, organic and, more recently, non-GMO ingredients when possible. Neal Brothers also makes ethical choices about the companies with which it works.

For instance, when the family business that used to make its chips sold to a multinational that wouldn’t use the types of oils the brothers wanted, they took their business elsewhere. They ultimately found a chipmaker that would do everything they wanted: non-GMO, organic and low sodium.

The brothers’ passion for better-for-you food also comes across in their new book. Goodness is their way to help tell the story of Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), a group that advocates growing and cooking healthy food. The book is filled with dozens of recipes and stories of chefs and food activists across Canada aiming to make good food accessible. (Half the book’s proceeds go to CFCC.)

But don’t let Peter and Chris’ serious side fool you. These dudes like to have fun. When they travel, a tacky rental sedan won’t do; instead, they usually rent motorcycles. In San Francisco for the Fancy Food Show this year, they rented Indian bikes and spent two days hitting up stores such as Bi-Rite Market and Trader Joe’s.

Such visits help Peter and Chris validate food trends. In San Francisco, for example, some of the top trending items they spotted were healthy jerky, turmeric “and, of course, coconut everything,” says Peter.

During store visits they look for products that foodmakers boasted are selling well to verify whether in-store positioning and pricing live up to those claims. “Just going to a trade show and being in that bubble isn’t enough,” says Peter.

Sounds like the brothers have learned to think outside the crouton box.

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