The story of how we endeavoured to meet our goals on this project.
In my last blog, I described how All Dried Up would not have existed without COVID. It was the result of Aangen pivoting in relation to a changing market, and the availability of funding that previously did not exist. This is the story of how we endeavoured to meet our goals on this project while maintaining focus and dedication to our values as a company.
The ADU story began for me in September of 2020 when I returned from a long weekend off to the exciting news that Aangen’s Kitchen Department had been the recipient of a grant to create instant dehydrated meals from fresh foods. Admittedly the task was daunting, I personally have experience with dehydrating foods, I have never had done it on such a large scale. Like all that we do here at Aangen, the proposal was multi level with goals that were varied and intertwined. We wanted to make healthy food for a multitude of people with different access issues, from arthritis to not having a stove. Staffing would occur through our Chance For Change employment program. The ingredients would be fresh and purchased from local small businesses or be donated, second-grade, produce that was not pretty enough for grocery store shelves.
With these goals in mind Aangen team took the plunge into manufacturing. We set ambitious targets and were uplifted by the optimism the project inspired in whomever we shared it with. In this past year there have been many hurdles, but also many successes.
From the beginning we wanted to create a whole menu of options, but it didn’t take long for us to focus on lunches as a starting point. Soups are simple and comforting and we chose four options we felt would have the largest appeal.. Having spent the past 15 years at Dufferin Grove Park, either as patron or staff, it was a no-brainer to draw inspiration from the dishes lovingly served there. Vegan cook, Mary Sylwester came on board to share her know-how with our kitchen team and inspired some of our recipes with ones she frequently used at the park. Our Nutritionist Rebecca Minshall, RD helped us boost them with extra nutrition and our team tested different preparation methods and spices to perfect the flavour. Not to be left out of the fun, I included one of my favourite pea soup recipes that we often send to the respite shelter.
Our first Batch of 200 packages of 4 soups went to Parkdale Community Food Bank in December 2020. We were excited and nervous. Looking forward to hearing the feedback from participants in our pilot project. The feedback helped us adjust our recipes for flavour. However, having the perfect recipe wasn’t enough. Our product needed to be heart healthy and that meant taking into consideration nutrients and sodium levels. The whole team was invested. As a manager and mentor, I was ridiculously delighted when one of our placements from the Covenant House Cooking for Life Program, asked about how much salt there was in a comparable dehydrated soup product.
We also needed to dry the soups enough to create a product that was both shelf stable and easy to reconstitute. We started by industrial blender to grind the dried soup to a fine powder, but then testing and retesting to get the right measurements for a perfect consistency and flavour in the final product. Once that was sorted, there was learning about best before dates, figuring out to extend shelf life, but backtracking to adjust our packaging so that soups did not become lumpy from being tightly squeezed after being vacuum sealed. The dance of one step forward two steps back became the rhythm of the kitchen.
The Alan Slate Grant and the United Way Funding
The next twelve months were a learning process for the entire team. We embarked on a manufacturing process, which is very different from the creativity in a catering kitchen. Everything needed to be carefully monitored and measured. We needed to track batches and the process, while maintaining the heart we are known to put into our food programs.
It was around this time that we were awarded the Alan Slate Grant. This was a much needed injection of energy into the project. We were doing well, but we were now into another wave of COVID and to have the United Way believe in us was a boost of morale.
The funding came at a time that we needed to expand, we were coming up against deadlines, and our staffing costs were more than we anticipated and the soup took longer to produce than expected. Reaching peak efficiency meant getting more soup dried at a time. I researched and found an energy efficient industrial dehydrator and Aangen entered the foray of international shipping. Having nothing to compare our experience with, we can simply say that it took much longer than expected and has us looking domestically for our next big purchase.
A New Kitchen
We were now making regular deliveries to PCFB, but often ran into hiccups when the kitchen had to shift focus to catering contracts. It became clear that All Dried Up needed its own space, to enable us to consistently focus on producing soups and increasing our production capacity.
In the spring and early summer of 2021, Aangen’s Executive Team began searching for a new kitchen. They had enthusiastic support from of our former Outreach Manager and ADU cheerleader, Amy Lester. We found a space in a Parkdale Church which serves as an incubator space for many non profit endeavours. Alas, while the location was perfect and the neighbours like minded, the kitchen needed renovation work to meet current public health standards and fire code. With the tremendous support of Anthony Nikolopoulos from Toronto public health and the team at Epiphany and St. Mark we were finally able to move into our new space at the beginning of October 2021. The ADU team was thrilled to set up the place to work for ultimate soup making, warming my own heart with their enthusiasm. We cannot wait to get started on breakfast and dinner options and open an online store for Aangen.
Here and Now
In this past year there have been many hurdles, but also many successes. I write this blog from our new All Dried Up Kitchen. To my left one of our team members puts our newly designed stickers on soup that will be delivered to our partner, Parkdale Community Food Bank, tomorrow. At the end of the table, an industrial dehydrator dries yesterday’s batch of Broccoli soup. In the next room is a kitchen, where two more team members make a batch of Leek and Potato Soup that will be dried tonight. It seems both a million miles away from where we started, and yet we are still at the beginning of this project. Through the Alan Slate Grant and our Partnership with Parkdale Community Food Bank, we have 5 years of funding to make this All Dried Up a huge success. There have been so many supporters already on the way. From the Brampton man that our sold Creative Director, Alicia Gunning our first 10 tray dehydrator to a restaurateur who donated 50 lbs of carrots.