On April 19, 2017 truLOCAL’s official Facebook account shared a photograph of truLOCAL CEO Marc Lafleur and vice-president of sales Greg Quaile standing in the CBC Television studio where the legendary Dragons’ Den was shooting its twelfth season.
“It’s official… we faced the fire of the Dragons! We can’t share any details until the season airs, but it was truly an incredible experience and we cannot thank Dragons' Den enough for the awesome opportunity. AND of course, we want to thank our AMAZING customers and supporters for cheering us on!! You guys give us the courage to follow our dreams and we have nothing but love for all of you!” the post accompanying the photo read.
While it would be months before truLOCAL and Dragons’ Den fans got to see the episode for themselves, truLOCAL’s pitch had already landed them a lucrative deal with two of the Dragons, with offers having been made by two more.
Dragons’ Den, a high-stakes real-life business show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of famous Canadian investors, is one of the most popular things on Canadian television, and shortly after Lafleur and Quaile started truLOCAL, their friends and family had urged them to make a pitch for their business on national television. But with thousands of dollars and the possibility of working with world-class entrepreneurs on the line, they couldn’t have been pitching their then-brand-new meat delivery business to a more high profile or high-stakes audience.
When the episode aired in January 2018, it proved to be electrifying television. Lafleur and Quaile’s pitch — a seven percent share in truLOCAL for $100,000 — was met with great enthusiasm from the Dragons, four of whom (Joe Mimran, Michele Romanow, Jim Treliving, and Arlene Dickinson) made compelling offers.
The first offer came from Mimran, who was willing to provide the $100,000, but asked for a ten percent share in the company. Mimran was followed by Romanow, who offered the same deal — $100,000 for ten percent — while also adding that she had distribution connections that she believed could help truLOCAL expand. Michael Wekerle demurred out of concerns over the packaging, while Manjit Minhas joked that, as a vegan, she wouldn’t be a good fit for the business. Treliving upped the ante by offering Lafleur and Quail their original deal of seven percent for $100,000.
The episode came took a dramatic turn, however, when Dickinson made a huge bid, offering Lafleur and Quaile $300,000 for a third of the company. Lafleur and Quaile countered by asking Romanow and Mimran to team up on the offer, which they both agreed to do.
In seven minutes of solid pitching, truLOCAL had positioned itself as one of the most exciting up-and-coming food delivery companies in Canada — and some of the nation’s top investors had taken notice.
A Turning Point for truLOCAL
Looking back on his experience on Dragons’ Den a year later, Lafleur believes the episode (and the capital and attention it attracted) has had a major impact on truLOCAL’s explosive growth. Not only were they able to secure $100,000 of start-up capital, they also had the advantage of Romanow’s digital-marketplace savvy (in addition to being a venture capitalist, Romanow has had remarkable success as a tech entrepreneur and online retail expert).
“We were super fortunate that the Dragons got behind what we’re trying to do,” he said, in particular noting how excited he was to work with Romanow. “I had a digital marketing background so just having the ability to be around someone and learn from someone who specializes in this space is exciting for the business but also personally.”
TruLOCAL’s success on the show was no accident, however. As soon as they knew they had made it through the preliminary rounds of pitching and learned that they’d made it to the show itself, Lafleur and Quaile went into overdrive, preparing themselves for every eventuality and making sure they had a rock-solid pitch. They also familiarized themselves with every Dragons’ Den episode so they would have a sense for what tended to work and what didn’t.
“For months leading up to our pitch we’d binge watch episodes over and over just trying to get an idea for the Dragons’ personalities, and common things that some of the other pitchers would run into,” Lafleur said.
The preparation stood them in good stead when it came time to make their pitch, but Lafleur also said their research prepared them to do much more than simply look good on television. The days they spent anticipating every possible question and concern helped them develop an inside-out knowledge of their business and industry.
“It became one of the best possible exercises in knowing every single aspect of your business,” he noted. “We’d raised money before Dragons’ Den, and any founder who’s gone through any fundraising process — whether it be through angels or VC’s — will understand the importance of knowing not only your business but also your industry better than anyone else.”
The preparation wasn’t all drudgery, however, and Lafleur and Quaile even figured out to make a kind of game out of it.
“We told our friends and family that we’d be down to do a ‘stop, drop and pitch’ sort of thing leading up to the pitch,” Lafleur recalls. “Essentially at any point in time…could be while doing the dishes…Out for lunch….late for a meeting, they could ask us to pitch. We’d have to drop what we were doing and nail our pitch, if we messed it up, we’d have to do it again.”
The value of these hours and hours of work became clear during the taping. Despite the fact that the episode turned out to contain a number of twists and turns and unforeseen offers, they maintained their cool and consistently made their case for why truLOCAL’s meat delivery service is providing a popular and important service that will appeal to a huge, untapped market of shoppers who want high-quality meat delivered in a convenient way.
A Surprising Offer
Lafleur recalls that the biggest surprise was Dickinson’s offer to triple their ask in exchange for a larger stake in the company.
“We definitely weren’t expecting that,” he said. “We know the Dragons can be harsh so we were just hoping for a best-case scenario where we’d get what we asked for and MAYBE get a couple Dragons together. You can’t see it very well on the TV segment, but we were definitely taken off guard.”
While Lafleur doesn’t regret accepting Michele and Joe’s offer, he does wish he’d been able to communicate to Dickinson how grateful he was for her confidence in his business.
“If I could do it all over again I’d thank her for the amazing offer and let her know the reason we turned it down was that we felt like it was too much too soon.”
In the end, the decision allows Lafleur and Quaile to continue to grow their business with the help of Romanow, without needing to worry about whether or not they had given away too large a stake in their company.
A Different Approach to Delivery
As many of the Dragons noted, one of the things that really made truLOCAL stand out as an appealing candidate for investment was the extent to which it seemed like a venture that had its finger on the pulse of modern dining and shopping habits.
While grocery delivery is nothing new, truLOCAL saw very early on that there was an untapped market niche for the delivery of high quality, sustainably raised meat to customers who are conscientious about what they eat, but who don’t always have access to locally sourced meat from butcher shops. While the local food movement is alive and well, and more consumers than ever before are conscious of the importance of whole foods and a healthy diet, people are also very pressed for time.
Lafleur and Quaile banked on the idea that there was a significantly large number of Ontarians who would love to support local farmers and buy meat that was raised in humane and environmentally friendly ways, but who simply didn’t have access to the kind of specialized shops that took care when sourcing their food. If most Canadians were still buying their meat at supermarkets and grocery stores, was it because they believe this is the way to get the best food, or because doing so is more convenient than going out of the way to visit a butcher shop? Whether or not there was a market for truLOCAL’s product would hang on the answer to this question.
At the same time, Lafleur and Quaile understood that an online delivery business in the 21st century needed to immediately set itself apart from the crowd, not just by offering incredible products, but by offering seamless, easy-to-use delivery process that makes life easier.
Lafleur and Quaile both had on-the-ground experience of the meat delivery industry before cutting out on their own, which enabled them to understand both the market the existed for meat delivery, and some of the challenges consumers were facing in trying to have fresh, quality cuts of meat delivered to their homes.
TruLOCAL’s Recipe for Success
The truLOCAL service is based around a relatively simple idea: customers can sign up on the truLOCAL website to have a box of truLOCAL products delivered to them on a monthly, bi-weekly, or tri-weekly basis. The boxes come in two different sizes and are available at a standard cost. Shoppers can opt for a one-person small box, which costs $125 per order and comes with up to eighteen individual portions, or a two-person regular box, which costs $249 per order and contains up to forty individual portions. No matter where you live in Ontario, Alberta, or British Columbia, your box will be delivered for free.
But how much is a portion, and how do shoppers decide what they want to get in their box? One of the most innovative aspects of the service is that each box comes with a certain number of points that can be spent filling it. More gourmet products like prime rib roast or a package of three ribeye steaks will cost five points, while cheaper, simpler products like bacon, ground turkey, or a package of sausages cost one point. Customers buying a regular order box have up to twenty points to spend, which makes it possible to mix and match individual cuts and products almost limitlessly without worrying about going over budget for the order.
And there is much variety to choose from: we offer a huge line of products to suit any different palate, and whether you like hearty steaks, basic staples like skin-on, bone-in chicken breast, or are a huge fan of seafood, you’ll find no shortage of mouth-watering options. And because you can change your order at any time you like, over time you can explore all the different options that truLOCAL makes available.
When it comes to the delivery itself, truLOCAL also distinguishes itself from the competition. A major concern with all grocery delivery services (but especially those that involve meat) is that you generally need to be at home to receive your order. Given the busyness of modern life, it can be even more difficult to manage your schedule so you are home to receive a delivery than it is to simply pick up the items yourself. With truLOCAL, customers avoid this inconvenience because truLOCAL orders are all delivered in a refrigerated box, so the meat will keep all day if you aren’t home when the delivery comes. And truLOCAL doesn’t just deliver to houses: they can deliver orders to apartment buildings, offices, gyms, and even cottages.
Industry experts have been saying for years that grocery shopping is one of the areas of the economy ripest for tech disruption, and recent analysis has noted just how significant a role new, Internet-based delivery services are already playing in reshaping how Canadians get their groceries. As companies like truLOCAL show customers just how easy online ordering can be, and prove that delivery doesn’t have to mean accepting lower quality, these changes are only likely to take root more deeply.
No wonder, then, that Lafleur and Quaile’s vision for truLOCAL as a delivery service that connects customers with the best, and provides an easy and intuitive way to shop for their favourite cuts of meat in a way that is perfectly suited to the busy urban lifestyle, met with such enthusiasm from the Dragons.
How truLOCAL Became a National Contender
While this might seem like an obvious food delivery model in the context of a competitive and rapidly changing delivery market that is increasingly tilting toward bespoke, convenient, and niche options, one of the things that brought Lafleur and Quaile such success on Dragons’ Den was the fact that what they were proposing was, in fact, a completely new way for people to approach shopping for quality meat, one that hadn’t yet been tried in any kind of mainstream way.
Delivery either consisted of large, one-time orders that required a chest freezer to store, or they were subscription-based services that came with contracts that were hard to pause or skip. With truLOCAL, customers were able to choose exactly what they wanted, have it delivered in small, regular orders directly to their door, and they could choose to pause, skip, or add orders as they pleased.
One of the things Lafleur believes has been vital to truLOCAL’s success is being able to claim that they were the first company to pioneer this approach. The truLOCAL service was genuinely innovative, and the Dragons who made offers did so because they recognized the potential for long-term growth it represented.
“Our original pitch was almost two years ago,” he said. “This was a time where exclusively sending ‘meat’ in the mail was still pretty weird to some people. I think the Dragons supporting us really helped normalize it, and show that just because things were happening one way for a long time (retail), the idea of using new best practices and technology can work really well, especially around things like customer service and last-mile delivery.”
Lafleur and Quaile had met while working for an industry leader in the direct-to-home meat business. As they noted in their pitch to the Dragons, working in the industry had made them realize that consumers looking to purchase high-quality meat faced a number of obstacles.
As Quaile put it in their pitch to the Dragons, “there really is no easy and convenient way to source quality meat cuts without driving out of your way, or signing contracts.”
While other companies were making significant profits delivering meat directly to consumers, they required shoppers to purchase in bulk. The idea for truLOCAL grew out of the belief that there was actually a significant market that would be interested in receiving smaller quantities of high quality, premium meat, delivered at regular intervals.
The Risks — And Rewards — Of Innovation
When asked what led him to feel it was the right time to break out on his own and go into business for himself — which he describes as being the most important decision he has ever made — Lafleur attributed his willingness to take the risk to a piece of advice he had once received:
“I remember someone once told me that the amount of money we were making at twenty-two years old could end up being the worst thing that ever happens — reason being is people struggle with leaving the safety of a $50k job to start their business.”
Lafleur likened the experience of quitting his job to start the company to jumping off a cliff and deciding to build a plane on the way down. And while he hasn’t looked back, this doesn’t mean there aren’t things he wouldn’t do differently if he were starting over again.
“We made a decision, didn’t think much about it, pulled the trigger and then started damage control after the fact,” he said. “Should we have stayed a little longer to save some extra cash? Yes. Should we have planned out the first few months after we’d leave before actually leaving? Yes. Should we have at least put a business plan together…Yes. Looking back on it, I’d probably do things differently, but at the same time it’s pretty much the whole beauty of being a founder.”
A Record of Growth
In the year since the episode aired, truLOCAL has continued to expand its service, both by adding exciting new products and by moving beyond the borders of Ontario. In the second half of 2018, the company began to offer services in Alberta and British Columbia, and as the company grew, it was careful to maintain its commitment to high-quality products and local producers.
This was in part a direct result of their deal with Romanow (Mimran ended up dropping out of the deal, and Romanow took over his five percent stake in the company), whose investment capital enabled truLOCAL to double its staff from four to eight and later ten employees.
As Lafleur had noted in the pitch to the Dragons, during truLOCAL’s first nine months in business — in which time it had done $290,000 of sales — it had largely been operating with a skeleton crew. Because the business had low overhead, and because they didn’t need to store inventory anywhere, they were able to start small and scale up. The Dragons’ investment was sought in part because Lafleur and Quaile felt that in order to make the shift to the national level, they would need more staff supporting the operation.
Still, Lafleur acknowledges that it was not always easy to ensure that the meat ordered by customers in western Canada would come from in-province farms, butchers, and fisheries with a commitment to sustainable practices and healthy food. Strong connections with our suppliers had been an essential part of the company’s early growth, and scaling up operations in a sustainable way would require finding ways to reach out to other markets across Canada while still maintaining local connections.
“The biggest challenge [truLOCAL faced] was the expansions into Alberta and BC,” he said. “We’d seen success in Ontario because it was our backyard, but trying to expand this model into different provinces isn’t something you can just do overnight. We needed to learn about the farming and suppliers in these provinces, what made them special, what do those consumers care about.”
Better Meat for a Healthier World
One of the central values of truLOCAL as a company is to only source meat from farms, fisheries, and producers who share a commitment to producing in sustainable, humane, and environmentally responsible ways. truLOCAL wants to make sure that its customers can always count on a delivery box that only contains meat that was produced by local companies to meet the highest standards of quality and ethical value.
In this way, truLOCAL is part of a worldwide trend toward better meat. After decades of getting food primarily through factory farms that use a wide range of unsustainable practices designed to maximize output rather than provide the best quality, many consumers are clamouring for meat that has been raised in a more natural way. The push for free-run chickens, wild-caught fish, and cattle and pork that has been raised in pastures rather than feedlots has been a major force in reshaping the market for meat in Canada, the United States, and beyond.
This has led truLOCAL to invest in sourcing high-quality grass-fed beef in every province. In the past ten years, pasturage has become popular as a unique-tasting, more natural take on raising beef. While most cattle are raised eating grass for the first year of their lives, it has become common practice for farmers to “finish” their beef cattle on grain, to provide more bulk and a fatter cut.
While grain feeding isn’t detrimental to a cow’s health, it does change the flavour of the meat. Many aficionados believe that grass-fed beef has a better flavour, as it is earthier and richer in certain vitamins and healthy fats. TruLOCAL prides itself on providing the best quality grass-fed to customers in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario, but even when the beef is not explicitly grass-fed, customers can rest assured that it has been raised in the most environmentally-friendly and sustainable ways.
In British Columbia, truLOCAL sought out farms, butchers, and other meat providers who shared truLOCAL’s values and commitment to sustainable, healthy, humanely raised meat. To this end, they have partnered with a range of different farms, from Farmcrest Farms, the first verified non-GMO chicken farmers in Canada; Two Rivers Speciality Meats, which produce sustainable beef raised without antibiotics; Hopcott Farms, a local beef producer from Pitt Meadows, BC; and Georels Bone Broth. Taking advantage of British Columbia’s reputation as an international seafood destination, truLOCAL has also partnered with seafood companies that are committed to sustainable practices and healthy food, including Organic Ocean Seafood, one of the province’s top sources for sustainable seafood.
In Alberta, the farms and producers they are working with are equally extensive. They include Hillview Heritage Pork, which specializes in pork; Gemstone Beef, a grass-fed beef producer that is also committed to protecting the wild prairie ecosystem where they operate; Canadian Rocky Mountain Ranch, which raises elk and bison on year-round pasture in natural, humane, and sustainable ways; Lambtastic, a farm that raises lamb in a healthy, spacious environment to guarantee the highest quality product; Effing Seafood, which sources sustainable, Marine Stewardship Council-certified wild-caught seafood; Kingsland Hutterite Colony, who have earned a provincial reputation for producing the best free-run chicken in Alberta; and Borderland Broth, a provider specializing in healthy, nutrient-dense bone-broth.
All of this is on top of the established relationships that already exist with producers in Ontario, including long-standing partnerships with Townsend Butchers, Caudle’s Catch, Beverley Creek Farms, West Grey Premium Beef, and Leavoy Rowe.
Consumers who are interested in knowing exactly which truLOCAL products are available in their home province can learn more about truLOCAL on the truLOCAL website, as truLOCAL is constantly updating its offerings and including new and exciting options that you can include in your next meal box.
The Future of truLOCAL
When asked how he sees the ongoing expansion of the truLOCAL brand, Lafleur makes no bones about his national ambitions: he wants to see truLOCAL become a Canadian company, rather than one that simply operates in a handful of Canadian provinces. And so far, the challenges truLOCAL has overcome in expanding in Alberta and British Columbia have provided valuable lessons in how the local delivery model can be expanded to other parts of the company without losing what makes it special.
“It was definitely a growing experience, but being able to connect with farmers from BC and Alberta to start working with them and showcase their story was something that just added to what truLOCAL is all about and has given us a better understanding of what local means in Canada,” says Lafleur.
Whatever else truLOCAL will face as it continues to grow in the coming years, one thing is certain: the vision that originally inspired Lafleur and Quaile to start out on their own, the vision that Romanow, Mimran, Dickinson, and Treliving were eager to invest in, shows no signs of flagging. As long as there are Canadians hungry to fresh, delicious, sustainable meat straight from the farm, truLOCAL will be there to sate their appetites.
“We’re going to become the go-to place for connecting people directly to local farmers and suppliers,” says Lafleur. “Period.”
Curious to hear more?
Click here to watch interview with Marc Lafleur and Stephanie Kay Nutrition.
July 13th, 2021