Angela Santiago, CEO of the Little Potato Company, knows a lot about potatoes: how to grow them well and how to make them the sole product offering of her company and still be profitable. Her little company that could was featured in a Productivity Alberta case study back in 2009. We wanted to check back in with Santiago three years later to ask her a few questions and see what is new for the Little Potato Company.
Productivity Alberta: The description of the company in ’09 was that it is a multimillion-dollar company. How would you describe your revenue now?
Angela Santiago: We probably have doubled since then. I don’t think we noted a revenue number back then, but as of last year (2011) it was $35 million. There was a 30 per cent demand increase (between 2009 and 2012).
PA: You had 80 employees in 2009, how many do you have now?
AS: We have 125 just in the Edmonton facility. Another 30 in P.E.I..
PA: Have you introduced any new products since ’09?
AS: Yes. It’s a line called Potato Jazz. It’s microwaveable, ready in five minutes, fresh potatoes. They’re not precooked or anything and include a spice pack. One pound (size). Right now they’re called Zingers, but we’re relaunching them as Potato Jazz.
PA: My success rate with microwaving potatoes isn’t good. How are these made to be successful in the microwave?
AS: I think for a few reasons. One is they have not been precooked, so they’re still a fresh potato. And two, they’re small and I think that’s always been the key. Once you get to a bigger potato, it is more difficult for it to microwave within a good time. Ours microwave, because of their size, within five minutes. That’s the big advantage.
PA: Was Potato Jazz a product you had been working on, or was it a customer request?
AS: We saw it in the U.S. and it was done with big potatoes so it wasn’t doing very well. We thought, ‘Oh we can take that concept and do small potatoes with it.’
PA: Are there any other new products since ’09 that you’ve launched?
AS: Yes, we launched a new variety called Miss Blush. That’s a red and yellow-skinned swirly potato. So, red and yellow on the outside. Quite pretty.
PA: Did your new products require any new equipment?
AS: Yes. We did get new equipment for the Potato Jazz line and yes it fits (in our facility), but barely. We need to move. We are busting the seams. We do now have a packing facility in P.E.I. and we grow about 800-900 acres out there and we pack in P.E.I., more for the eastern part of Canada and the eastern part of the U.S.
PA: Do you have immediate plans to move?
AS: Yes, we would like to move within 18 months. It will still be in Edmonton and probably close, but not quite, double (the existing 35,000-square-foot facility LPC is in now). It would still be just for packing and we would probably increase our storage of raw product as well, but that’s all part and parcel.
PA: Do you have growers all over the world?
AS: No, just in North America. We’ve added a few more, but in 2009 we were growing in California and Washington, so we’re still doing that. What we’ve probably added since 2009 is Florida, Georgia, Nova Scotia and Ontario. I’m not sure if P.E.I. was included then, but if not, it should be and Saskatchewan and Alberta still as before.
PA: Are you finding it hard to maintain the preferred characteristics of your potatoes when using so many suppliers?
AS: No, because we have proprietary variety, so they grow our varieties. But that is sort of the bottle neck. We can’t just pull off the open market. It’s proprietary seeds. That makes it a little more difficult to grow faster sometimes.
PA: Expanding to use more and different growers, has that affected your supply chain at all?
AS: Sure. Now you’re dealing with multiple locations. And multiple freight challenges like when you’re freighting up from Florida and Georgia to P.E.I., you have the same headaches, probably just more of them now.
PA: If you key business structure is still to grow and sell small potatoes, do you have any desire to expand the company into something else?
AS: Yes. Into other countries, but probably not into anything other than potatoes – in particular, small potatoes. Growing, selling, marketing and everything (i.e. a need then for a new packing plant abroad).
PA: Is this an immediate plan?
AS: We’re putting a business case together specifically for Australia. Hopefully by the end of the year we will have decided if we’re going to go or not.
PA: With such different climates, have you tested whether your potatoes can grow in Australia just as easily as here?
AS: We have to do further tests. The climatic thing is less important than the soil type but you can usually find that within a certain region.
PA: In ’09, Little Potato Company was featured by PA because of its efficient processes and practices. Do you feel your company is still as efficient?
AS: We got really efficient but I’d say we’ve probably gotten back to being inefficient. We have to refocus on being lean. When you grow, you sometimes just throw people and money at problems and not necessarily the right solutions. So, now we have to relook at that again.
PA: Do you feel LPC’s inefficiency is because you’re bursting at the seams with your facility?
AS: Yeah, that makes a big difference. The building is not conducive at all to being efficient.
PA: Do you know how you’re going to become lean again? Is it a focal point?
AS: Yes, it is a focus. One, is moving. Then also looking at our processes again because when you move, you get the opportunity to declutter (a key lean practice).