Trade Talks: Winnipeg Entrepreneurs Share Stories, Spark Connections May 23, 2024

By: Kristin Marand

Winnipeg’s World Trade Centre (WTC) brings Manitoba entrepreneurs from all industries together to share their experiences, successes, and challenges in its monthly WTC Talks series. Last week’s event at Little Brown Jug featured two founders in the food and beverage space: Landon Kroeker of Von Slick’s Finishing Butter and Kevin Selch of Little Brown Jug. The event, hosted by WTC CEO André Brin, was a candid look at the ups and downs of navigating a product-based business.

At the WTC Talks May 2024 event, Landon Kroeker, Andre Brin, and Kevin Selch.
Pictured from left to right: Landon Kroeker, André Brin, and Kevin Selch.

“At its core, it’s about two entrepreneurs telling their story and inspiring others,” says Brin. “It’s to feature entrepreneurs from Manitoba, to show that there are unbelievable success stories here, and to inspire others that it is possible to grow your business to the point of being very successful in Manitoba, Canada, and maybe all over the world. The idea is to inspire but also to learn and network.”

Selch shared that while working as an economist in Ottawa in the early aughts, he became enamored with the burgeoning craft brewing scene in Ontario, Quebec, and Vermont. He decided to bring the concept back home just as Manitoba’s regulations began to shift, creating opportunities for local producers. He says he returned to his hometown with just one B – a business plan but didn’t have any of the other B’s he knew he needed: a building, a bank, a beer, a brewmaster, or a brand.

Kroeker and long-time friend and business partner Rob Sengotta knew they wanted to work on something together. When Sengotta, a French-trained chef, proposed the idea of finishing butter in a push tube, they knew they had found a unique gap in the market and started down the path of entrepreneurship.

Little Brown Jug launched in 2016 with its flagship beer, 1919, a Belgian Pale Ale. While in Ottawa, Selch had undertaken a significant home renovation, which gave him the confidence to approach the landlord of the historic space at 336 William Avenue and propose turning it into a brewery. The names of the company and the product are significant and emblematic of Selch’s vision to create something uniquely local.

“At the time, everyone was using growlers for craft beer, so I thought it was appropriate. I also love that Little Brown Jug are three diminutive words that reflect the independence and humbleness of our city,” he explains. “And with 1919, there’s a dual meaning there, referencing the Winnipeg general strike, a significant event in our city’s history. The hop we use in that beer is called Brewers Gold. It was made by crossing a wild Manitoban hop with an English hop and was the first commercially available hop in the world brewing industry, it was also founded in 1919.”

At the WTC Talks May 2024 event, Landon Kroeker and Kevin Selch on stage.

For Kroeker, the name Von Slick’s wasn’t their first choice but was borne out of necessity and in a hurry.

“We were going to be called Churn Finishing Butter. Our first run of full packaging, about $30,000, which for us was a huge investment, was going to be printed in a week. I reached out to a lawyer to pick his brain. How do I move forward with this name? Can we protect this name? A couple of days later, they said you can use it, but no, you can’t protect it,” he explains. “On the fly, we had to make a change. I previously had a design company called Von Slick’s, and I looked to Rob and said, ‘I think this name’s fun. I like it. He agreed, and we made the switch. So I went home that night, switched all packaging, sent it off, and it got printed in a few days. So it was a pivot.”

Both Kroeker and Selch shared the challenges of building a brand from the ground up with products that must be tasted to become established.

“Finishing butter is a very common condiment in Europe and fine dining but not very common at retail. Our product is very unique and sort of weird. If you just see it on the shelf, the chance of you buying it is low if you don’t know the story behind it or haven’t tried it. For us to build a brand and create demand, I needed people to try the product. Trade shows were by far the best way for us to do that,” Kroeker says, adding that Von Slick’s faces an additional layer of complication – not having enough milk fat to be considered a butter but too much milk fat to fit in the special milk class, so retailers put the product in different sections, making it challenging to direct customers.

“At the beginning, trade shows were super important. As we grew, we benefited from the immense support of local businesses that wanted to help us and reached out a hand to carry our product early on. We’ve evolved into festival and other sponsorships – we like to be where people are drinking beer, then they can try your beer and then hopefully choose your beer afterward,” adds Selch.

Kroeker also discussed his experience appearing on Dragon’s Den and how upfront packaging costs almost sank his company – twice. Selch meanwhile talked about the unique challenges of being a business with fewer than 50 employees, working in a highly regulated industry, and renovating a historic building. Both entrepreneurs expressed gratitude for the support available through WTC Winnipeg and other organizations and stressed the importance of knowing you don’t have to navigate entrepreneurship alone.

“If a company reaches out, we want to know what they’re looking for, and then we try to match them with what they need,” explains Brin. “We have advisors on the trade and small business side and access to all kinds of secondary market research. Connections, networking events, referrals, we try to stay extremely connected to the entire ecosystem. We recently added a section on funding to our website to connect businesses with public or private sector funding opportunities.”

WTC Talks, June 26, 2024. Andréanne Dandeneau and Christian Dandeneau. REGISTER

The next WTC talks event takes place Wednesday, June 26th, on the patio (weather permitting) at Tavern United Downtown from four to six pm and features sibling entrepreneurs in two very different fields. Andréanne Dandeneau, founder of Anne Mulaire, a sustainable size-inclusive fashion company, and her brother Christian Dandeneau, co-founder and CEO of IDFusion software, will be the featured speakers. The intimate events typically draw around 50 guests and cost $10. For more information or to register, click here.

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