There’s a special ingredient in the sauce that Paul Gill cooks with his wife, Pari, in a commercial kitchen in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley. You could call it magic, or love — love for Vancouver Island and its many gifts.
“Me and my wife are dancing at the facility, thanking God for bringing us to the Island while we’re cooking. So I’m dancing and cooking, and knowing what that’s doing to the food.” Happy chefs make happy food, Gill likes to say.
Gill came with his family to the Island in 2019. “We know how lucky we are to be here,” he says. “Everyone’s been on that hike, and been inspired. Everyone’s swam in that lake and felt the magic.”
The Gills own Sutra Foods, and sell simmer sauces that can be prepared easily at home with other ingredients. Part of the reason they are so happy here, Gill says, is the opportunity they found to share a commercial kitchen just south of Duncan, B.C., with Arbutus Farms, a manufacturer of fresh deli foods. Access to that kitchen has significantly decreased the couple’s workload, Gill says.
When Gill saw the chance to bring his company under the Island Good brand, which designates products as made on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, he didn’t hesitate.
“I know when I go and purchase something else from an Island Good company, someone’s proud of this,” he says. “I know that those people were probably dancing, too.”
Island Good is a branding program established by the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance (VIEA) that seeks to promote products made on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. The program has expanded significantly since it launched in 2018, spurred in part by new awareness during the COVID-19 pandemic about the importance of food sustainability and buying local. The program has a big goal for the future: to become the go-to for locally prepared foods and other local products.
How Island Good began
According to its website, the idea for Island Good came out of a 2013 luncheon, when the VIEA set out to serve only Vancouver Island products for the meal.
“It was quite a quest to have to go and find what was local,” says Suzanne Hedges, the relationship and business development manager for Island Good. But that struggle ultimately led to the idea of Island Good as a way for consumers to more easily identify Vancouver Island and Gulf Island products.
The VIEA launched a pilot project in partnership with grocery stores in 2018. For six months, local products at Country Grocer, 49th Parallel Grocery, Quality Foods, and Thrifty Foods could be identified by an Island Good marking on shelves. At the end of the experiment, the products with the Island Good branding saw an average boost in sales of 16.4 per cent.
Also in 2018, the VIEA hosted about 650 delegates at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre, and fed the crowd with exclusively local food and beverages, Hedges says. “The conversation around the tables was just mind blowing. I think it was very inspirational to all of the attendees to go, ‘Wow, this is all from the Island.’ It was amazing.”
How it works
Island Good has grown significantly since then. Its website lists more than 130 licence holders, including about three dozen in the Cowichan Valley region. Most are food producers, although more recently the brand has expanded to include many kinds of local goods, such as screen-printed clothing and live-edge wood furniture.
Businesses pay annual licensing fees to the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance in exchange for rights to put the Island Good branding on their packaging and other marketing materials. These fees range from $150 to $1,000 depending on the number of employees that work at the company, according to the Island Good website.
Seventy-five per cent of licensing revenues go back into marketing efforts towards boosting the Island Good brand and the companies under its umbrella, Hedges says.
Businesses report benefits
Paul Gill, of Sutra Sauces, says the program had an immediate impact on business. “Buyers take us much more seriously” as a result of joining Island Good, he says.
Another way the program impacted Sutra Foods was an immediate spike in their own social media audience. “Our social media blew up a little bit,” Gill says. “We definitely got a few hundred more followers, as soon as we joined.”
Brad Boisvert, owner of Cure Artisan Meat and Cheese, says they saw an increase in business since they joined the program. “With Island Good out there promoting us, even our wholesale numbers are up,” he tells The Discourse.
Boisvert says that Cure saw an uptick in social media engagement after joining, too.
Two businesses responded by email to The Discourse’s requests with less enthusiastic responses. One mentioned that the cost of adding Island Good branding to packaging is prohibitive. One mentioned that the licensing cost did not appear to be worth the benefits to them.
Notably, both of these businesses are identifiably local from their brand names. It’s possible that the Island Good brand is more immediately helpful for companies whose products can’t already be easily identified as from Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
Hedges, with Island Good, says she understands that businesses need to consider all of their expenses, “especially in a circumstance such as we’re in.”
Beyond the benefits of using the Island Good brand on products and marketing materials, companies benefit from Island Good’s promotion of companies under its banner, opportunities to collaborate with other businesses and the opportunity to sell through a program that offers pre-made and custom gift boxes of local goods, Hedges says.
COVID-19 brought new awareness and growth
Island Good has grown significantly over the past year, in part due to boosted awareness of the benefits of buying local, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also in the last year, Island Good has partnered with municipalities and organizations to cover the costs of licencing and reduce the largest barrier to entry.
In the Cowichan region, Community Futures Cowichan partnered with Economic Development Cowichan to cover licensing fees for local companies. Community Futures is a federally funded agency in the Cowichan Valley and its objective is to help promote small business growth and development in the community.
It was an “automatic yes,” says Community Futures general manager Cathy Robertson. “We just relieved the cash flow part for [the local businesses] and just allowed them to access another marketing tool to make sure they were being seen, and their items were being bought,” she says.
“We’ve since heard it’s made a huge difference to a number of those businesses,” Robertson says. “Plus, it’s an investment in Island Good. So the more cash they saw coming to their project or program, the more they can invest in making it a better program to serve all the businesses.”
The primary motivation was to lessen the impacts from the pandemic, Robertson says. “But, as a consequence, all this other great stuff comes out of it. It’s a great example of how COVID has actually allowed us to do good things or see things differently, to approach it differently for the greater good.”
The pandemic has had a tangible impact on how consumers shop, Robertson says. “I think we know this to be fact — most people [became] much more aware and conscious about buying and supporting local.”
Looking to the future
Island Good has big plans for the future, says Hedges. The goal is something like a hyper-local Amazon, she says, offering easy purchase and delivery of local goods. “It’s going to happen, and we want to give all of the Vancouver Island makers the opportunity to be a part of it,” she says.
In the near future, Island Good is working on an Island Good subscription wine box, featuring wines from vineyards such as Blue Grouse, Unsworth, and 40 Knots, Hedges says.
For now and for the future, Island Good encourages people to seek out and try the local goods that Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands have to offer. [end]
This Food For Thought article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights/RBC. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.