A force for good

For Ian Walker, it’s not just about making healthy, organic snacks—it’s about making a difference

people_ianwalker6124-tgoehringBurnaby, B.C.-based Left Coast Naturals
is a long way from Ian Walker’s hometown of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. But the principles behind his natural and organic food company—to make a positive impact on people, the planet and the community— can be traced to the kitchen table in his childhood home.

Walker was born into a longtime family business, an environmental services company founded by his great-great grandfather in 1887. “My dad got my brother and I really involved and we would talk a lot around the kitchen table,” recalls Walker. “We would talk philosophically about business, how to treat employees and how if you’re successful in business, that creates a responsibility for the community you work in.”

While Walker knew early on that he wanted to make a difference, he didn’t exactly set out to be a trailblazer in the natural snack space. After graduating with a commerce degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Walker travelled around Asia and Australia, and settled in Vancouver in 1995. Jason Dorland, an acquaintance, was working on a graphic design project at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and came up with a line of fictional nut butters called Skeet & Ike’s. Walker created a three-page business plan and the pair decided to actually make the product and see how it sold.

They worked day jobs and made nut butters in a commercial kitchen at night. On weekends, they sold their products at Granville Island Market and retail stores quickly became interested. About six months into it, Walker and Dorland decided to pursue Skeet & Ike’s full time.

“Jason was a vegan Olympic athlete and I was a bit of an environmentalist, so the organic, natural movement resonated for both of us,” says Walker. As more retailers came calling, the partners started their own distribution business, Left Coast Naturals, and began distributing their own products as well as others. In 1998, Walker became sole operator after Dorland (who was still an owner until 2015) left to become a teacher.

In 2005, the company launched Hippie Snacks, an organic line that’s grown to include various flavours of coconut clusters, seed and nut clusters, granola, coconut chips and the newly launched crisps in cauliflower and avocado varieties. Hippie Snacks are sold at grocery and natural food stores across Canada and the Western United States, as well as at Starbucks. On the distribution side, Left Coast Naturals now distributes around 30 organic and natural food brands to more than 500 stores across Canada.

The company plans to continue to grow its distribution side and build out the Hippie Snacks product lineup. In addition to the new crisps, the brand is launching new vegetable snacks in the coming months. Expanding Hippie Snacks’ presence in the United States is also part of the plan, but the company is working on building a strong consumer base on the West Coast first.

Sustainability is at the core of Left Coast Naturals. In 2011, it became a certified B Corporation—one of the first Canadian companies to do so. Its environmental initiatives include minimizing waste and packaging, using renewable energy and choosing suppliers that have strong environmental ethics. Left Coast Naturals also has high standards for the products it distributes and requires all food products to be non-GMO.

On the people front, employees are given cash incentives for things like cycling or walking to work, taking public transportation and buying organic groceries. Every year, Left Coast Naturals donates 5% of its profits to community projects that have a positive impact on the environment or youth.

This has all led to many accolades over the years including, most recently, the 2018 EY Social Impact Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Pacific Region featured in BC Business magazine.

Asked what is his secret to success, Walker goes back to those formative kitchen table conversations. “We had discussions about what really matters in life,” he says. “First, you have to define what success is, and there’s not a universal definition of success. There’s probably a stereotypical one, which is build a huge business and sell it for lots of money. And I don’t really think that way. I think the most successful people are those who have a positive impact on people and on society.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s February 2019 issue.

Photography by Tanya Goehring.