P.E.I. business puts honey in unexpected places

Island Abbey Foods | Dehydrated honey maker produces sugar cubes, lozenges and chewable candy

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. — A Prince Edward Island honey business keeps gets sweeter with time.

Island Abbey Foods, which invented a way to dehydrate honey, recently added a pure honey lozenge to its list of honey products.

As well, it will soon add a honey gummy, which is a way to sneak vitamins into a chewable candy.

“It’s a delivery mechanism for vitamins, minerals, supplements and other natural health products out there,” said company president John Rowe.

Island Abbey Foods has caught the eye of honey lovers around the world since launching its Honibe line of dehydrated pure honey products in 2008.

The company owns the worldwide patent to dehydrate honey in a 100 percent pure form.

“After many years of research, we have created the world’s first method of putting honey in a solid form without putting anything in it. It sounds simple, but it actually took many, many years of research,” Rowe told a recent Canadian Farm Writers Federation conference. “We’re the first in the world to do this.”

He said other honey products on the market are made with sugar and honey flavouring.

Rowe’s business idea began during a hiking trip in British Columbia in 1996, when he opened his backpack to discover his jar of liquid honey had broken and created a sticky mess through his clothes and pack.

“All weekend I thought there has got to be a better way to carry honey around,” he said.

His first product was the Honey Drop, a solid cube of honey for coffee or tea as a replacement for sugar.

The product line has continued to expand and now includes pure honey sugar cubes, granular honey, honey candies, honey lozenges and soon honey gummies.

This sixth generation islander, who is descended from a long line of farmers and fishermen, said he was en-couraged to test his entrepreneurial spirit from a young age.

At 11, his father encouraged him to pick strawberries at the neighbours and resell them. The next year he hired his friends to pick the strawberries and he sold the berries at the booth.

“I learned young about the importance of a team,” he said.

In 2011, Rowe won over the panelists on CBC’s Dragon’s Den and convinced them to invest $1 million for 20 percent of the company. The equity partners helped Island Abbey Farms place its products in 600 retail stores.

Production doubled each year for the next three years because of the exposure on the program.

The investment also allowed the company to expand across Canada and grow to 25 countries from five.

“It was the right time to do so.”

The product also won best new food product at SIAL, the largest food show in the world.

“We have gone from the basement to the Oscars of the food world in a short time.”

Astronaut Chris Hadfield also took the company’s honey products to the International Space Station.

Rowe said he has received many requests from people wanting to know the secret behind his patented technology to turn sticky into a solid. However, he said he has no intention of giving away his competitive advantage.

“Our goal is to work with companies worldwide but capture the manufacture here on the island,” he said.

The company has grown from five to 35 employees , which is expected to double shortly.

“Our mission is to support our economy. We intend to grow here.”

Rowe has been able to keep his process a secret because the equipment was built and designed specifically for his processing plants.

“We have been able to stave off competition. No one has been able to knock us off because some key elements of how we make what we make are not disclosed,” he said.

“We’ve had to create from scratch all the equipment we use.”

The honey giant Burts Bees now has a 30 percent honey lozenge, and Rowe expects others to keep trying to duplicate the process.

“They’re seeing what we’re doing and nipping at our heels. Fortunately, no one has been able to completely knock us off and I am hoping that will last a little while longer.”

The market for his product seems to have no end. Consumers in Canada and the United States eat 1.25 pounds of honey per capita. In Germany, it increases to almost 10 lb. of honey a year.

Tea is the most consumed drink in the world, and 30 percent of the 165 million cups of tea drunk each day in the United Kingdom is sweetened with some form of sweetener. Rowe believes his product could grab part of that market.

“Honey is the dominant natural sweetener.”

Americans use 19 billion lozenges a year, and Rowe believes there is even more potential for growth if Island Abbey Food can grab some of the market with its all-natural honey lozenge.

“We sensed there was room to grow,” said Rowe, whose products are on pharmacy and grocery store shelves.

The company has learned over the years that honey is a good carrier of flavours, which helped it add natural health ingredients, vitamins, minerals and pharmaceuticals to the lozenges.

It buys 250,000 gallons of honey a year from across Canada, which is about the equivalent of the amount of honey produced in P.E.I.

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