Twenty-five years have gone by since brothers Chris and Peter Neal started a business together, baking croutons in their mother’s kitchen.
Today their line of Neal Brothers Foods, which grew to include pretzels, popcorn, tortillas and barbecue sauces, are available in grocery stores across the country, and the company distributes products such as Tazo Tea and Raincoast Crisps to major retailers like Loblaws, Metro, Sobeys and Longo’s. They also market salsa and pasta sauces made in East York.
In May, the pair further expanded their offerings by launching a line of kettle-style chips, which was actually the initial idea behind starting their food company.
In August, they added a fourth flavour —Maple Bacon — to the initial collection, which consisted of Pink Himalayan Salt, Sweet and Smoky BBQ and Pink Salt and Vinegar.
“We want you to open that bag and smell Saturday morning — with the exception of coffee,” Chris was saying recently from a beer pairing event at Leaside’s Amsterdam Brewery, where the new Maple Bacon chips were being matched with two beers: Big Wheel and Market Pale Ale.
“The maple syrup, the home fries, the bacon sizzling. We want you to experience that every time, and I think we’ve done that really well.”
Peter can pinpoint the start of their venture. It started with a letter he wrote to his brother, a student at the University of Queens at the time, while Peter himself was attending Bishop’s University and shuddering at the thought of the corporate career that lay ahead.
“I said, ‘You’re good at all these amazing things and I think I could bring a number of really good things to the table, [so] why don’t we start up a food company together?’” he recalls.
While building a business alongside his brother has been a career highlight, Peter, a north Leaside resident, feels having the ability to choose staff and partners with the same ethics and values for fair trade practices and environmental sustainability has been a privilege.
“We’re not shooting for world domination, but certainly providing healthier options than other food products,” he notes.
For Chris, another moment that stands out is the day in 1988 the brothers had to replenish their croutons in a store for the first time.
“Seeing the potato chips has been really cool too, because it’s our faces,” Chris says about their kettle-chip packaging, which features pictures of the siblings as they looked through the years, including one of the boys as youngsters in 1976. “We walk in and we’re actually seeing ourselves on the shelves.”
Despite fielding offers to sell the company, Peter admits he’s having too much fun building the company to seriously consider selling.
“People ask us all the time when are we going to sell, and we’ve had a number of bigger competitors approach us to talk about partnerships or buying our company, but then the dream is over,” Peter explains, adding that he and Chris both “get a kick about what we’re doing.”
“There’s a lot of fun with the business: traveling throughout Canada, throughout the world, to find new food, new products, new inspiration,” he said. “No, I don’t want the dream to end.”
This article was originally published in the September 2013 edition of the Leaside-Rosedale Town Crier.