By Linda Scales
Canada’s famous fictional red-headed darling, Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, described her first taste of ice cream as “sublime.” University of Ottawa alumna and entrepreneur Candace Tierney (BCom ʼ14), of Carp, agrees. She enjoys ice cream so much that she created her own: Oat & Mill, an indulgent and dairy-free frozen treat.
Oat & Mill is produced in the town of Smiths Falls, just 75kms southwest of Ottawa, by Tierney and her team of three employees. The location is ideal for the small business that caters to the Greater Ottawa market. It sells 60% of its product via online orders hand-delivered to its customers’ doors, with the rest sold at Ottawa-area food markets and special events. Any visitor to the weekly Carp Farmers Market is bound to find the Oat & Mill booth, and possibly Tierney herself scooping ice cream into cones and bowls.
What many Oat & Mill consumers don’t realize is this isn’t any ordinary ice cream. Even after tasting it, many people are surprised to learn that it does not contain milk … or any of the other ingredients commonly found in dairy-free ice creams, such as hemp, coconut or rice. The basic ingredient in all Oat & Mill flavours is 100% Canadian, organic oatmeal.
“Most people don’t understand how we do that, because when you taste it, you don't always taste oats,” says Tierney. “Typically, with oatmeal, people expect something chewy or even lumpy. Our ice cream is not chewy at all. It's smooth.”
Tierney, 23, is lactose-intolerant, a fact that significantly influences her food choices and inspires her too. While studying at Thammasat University in Thailand on an international exchange from the University of Ottawa, Tierney discovered—and loved—coconut ice cream. After returning home to Canada and enjoying a bowl of porridge, Tierney realized that the creaminess and texture of the cooked oatmeal was very similar to ice cream. An idea was born.
Although Oat & Mill is just four months old (the new company only incorporated in June 2015), this isn’t Tierney’s first business venture. She is also the founder and owner of Raw Mountain Inc. , “an online store for plant-based snacks and adventures.” She manages both, but since Oat & Mill is her “newborn,” her focus is keenly on it.
“I learned a lot of painful lessons with my first company,” says Tierney, who now applies her hard-won knowledge to Oat & Mill. “I've mastered the art of failing.” Tierney believes that you can't really fail at anything if you learn something in the process.
The ice cream start-up would not have existed, however, if it weren’t for $20,000 in seed money from the Start-Up Garage, an initiative of the Ottawa Technology Transfer Network run by the University’s Technology Transfer and Business Enterprise (TTBE) office. Start-Up Garage fosters and supports student entrepreneurship in the Ottawa area. Tierney won the 2015 Best Exhibit award in August.
Applications for Start-Up Garage 2016 opened this month.
Help from the Start-Up Garage was “incredibly important”, says Tierney. “The start-up costs, especially for a product that doesn't already exist, are incredibly high. Plus, they provided networking and community support, which was very helpful as well.”
Tierney said it took her three months to create the creamy oatmeal-and-water base for her ice cream that she continued to improve upon by considering customer feedback and making production decisions.
“I have notebooks and notebooks of test recipes and hypotheses and formulations based on that,” says Tierney about the initial process, which took six-and-a-half months to complete. The only improvements she sees making in the future are production-related, which wouldn’t change the product or quality. Is her basic oatmeal recipe a corporate secret? “It's not easy to replicate, for sure!” she says.
Every Monday through Wednesday, the company produces between 100 and 300 litres of ice cream, depending upon the number of online orders to be filled and the quantities needed for the food markets and special events, which range from four to six a month.
“Every week, we make fresh ice cream,” says Tierney. “Every week, we sell out.”
There are currently 28 flavours listed on the Oat & Mill website, including the traditional chocolate (called “The Chocolate”) to flavours that tease the imagination: Vanilla with Fried Banana and Toasted Walnut, Nanaimo Bar, and Canadian Flapjack Maple. Tierney is a big fan of London Fog, a flavour reminiscent of a latte infused with Cream of Earl Grey tea. Tierney says Chocolate Peanut Butter and Cookie Dough are popular sellers, while children are keen on Unicorn Poop (“vanilla made with classic colourful sprinkles”). Many of the flavour combinations originated as requests from Oat & Mill customers.
One popular option is for customers to order their flavours made nut-free and gluten-free. The oats used for gluten-free orders are certified gluten-free, however, for those who are allergic, nut-free orders are simply orders made without nuts. Oat & Mill cannot guarantee that there will be no cross-contamination. Tierney says this is explained to her customers.
So what is next for Oat & Mill? Tierney says there is always more to accomplish.
"I think the goal for this company is to have many people try Oat & Mill.”
She says that increasing production and distribution are long-term goals. But in the meantime, her thoughts turn to Valentine’s Day and the tantalizing flavour combinations under consideration.
Alumna Candace Tierney’s dairy-free ice cream is made with a most surprising base ingredient: Canadian organic oatmeal. Photo: Oat & Mill.