UNIQUE FOODS: Celebrating 25 years of Innovative Beverage Trends in Canada
By Tania Moffat
At its heart, a business is the sum of its relationships. Who people choose to work with is based on this. However, no matter the industry, there will always be another company able to provide a similar product or service should that relationship falter. The stronger its connections, the more successful the business will be.
Jon Silver, president and owner of Unique Foods Canada Inc., has spent the last quarter-century cultivating the bonds upon which he built his business. That foundation runs deep. Unique’s commitment to those relationships has cemented its reputation in the industry, enabling it to adapt and persevere through the last 25 years and an unprecedented global pandemic.
“Those in business who believe that they don’t need friends will never succeed in business or life. My success is thanks to my team, family, brother, our customers and the businesses that I have had the pleasure of working with,” Jon explains. The importance of these relationships is evidenced by the number of staff, customers, and suppliers that support Unique and count Jon as a personal friend.
John Tzouvelakos, owner of the LaSalle Drive-In, has been a customer of Unique since its inception. “Jon’s a good guy. We have a great business relationship, but after 25 years together, we’ve developed a close friendship too. If either of us ever needs anything, we know all we have to do is pick up the phone.”
Jon was working for a food service company, attending trade shows in the U.S. and Canada when he recognized a potential business opportunity. The beverage sector was exploding in the U.S. and overseas, while beverage choices in Canada remained limited. A fortuitous meeting at a trade show opened the door for his new business idea.
Sam Simpson, owner of Cable Car Beverage Corporation, wanted to expand his beverage line into Canada. After meeting Jon at a show, he was impressed with his energy and enthusiasm. Taking him under his wing, Simpson gave Jon the opportunity to bring Stewarts Old-Fashioned Sodas into Canada in 1996.
“At this infantile stage of the business, I was literally selling beverage cases out of the trunk of my car and storing product in my garage and basement. What started as a pallet turned into two, then four and eventually a truckload. I realized that I couldn’t do this venture justice and work my other job, and Unique Foods was born. Some of the first customers that came on board were LaSalle Drive-In, Lester’s Deli and Cotes St-Lucs BBQ,” Jon recalls.
A local institution since 1951, Lester’s Deli owner Bill Berenholc has also been a customer from the start. “We have a presence in the marketplace; therefore, it’s important for us to be consistent with our product and supply chain. Unique is a great company, and we’ve had only good relations with them.”
Building a presence
Unique continued to grow, expanding from the Quebec market into Atlantic Canada, then Ontario and the West. By 2000, Silver brought his brother, Josh Silver, on board. The two worked well together, balancing each other out perfectly by bringing their unique strengths to the business. Josh had an affinity for public relations and became the charismatic face of the company, while Jon, a whiz on the business end, focused on the corporate and administrative aspects of the industry.
“Jon has a real knack for identifying and bringing the next big beverage trend to market. He brought Hype Energy drinks to Canada before energy drinks were even a thing,” Josh says of his brother. The pair learned early on that Unique would have to expand its offerings beyond trends after witnessing industry giants swoop in with their own products or outright purchasing the trending brand.
“I’ve always believed that it’s the people behind the brand that make it successful. My brother is an unstoppable force on his own, but we grew and developed each brand exponentially together. Unique became more than just a distributor of trendsetting beverages. We acted as a promotional agency for the products in our portfolio, representing them at various events, giving back to the community through donations and developing a strong social media network and following for each brand,” shares Josh.
Companies began to approach the duo because of their connections and reputation. The Silver name became synonymous with innovative beverages and well-executed events. People trusted them as ambassadors of their brands because the Silvers not only knew what would work in Canada, but they backed their products with dedication, enthusiasm and drive.
Unique’s junior vice-president of sales and marketing, Mike Tobin, has been with the company for 15 years. In that time, he’s witnessed their diversified product line flourish. “I enjoy being a part of the team who decides what the next big thing we bring to market is. Unique approaches new clients differently than most. We are very selective of the products and brands we choose to carry. New brands take time to prepare for the market, which takes time away from our existing products. It’s a delicate balance; the timing, the product – everything has to fit.”
Reza Mirza met Jon when he was the president and owner of Activate Drinks, a product that was later sold to Unique Foods in 2012. Today, Reza is the CEO of Icelandic Glacial. “Unique is our Canadian supplier for Icelandic Glacial water. Jon is a real hands-on guy. He took the initiative to create a four-pack of our sparkling water flavours, which we could not do in our factory here and helped build our sparkling water distribution. His team has been a real asset in getting our products into major accounts like Loblaws, Shoppers Drug Mart, Bulk Barn, Whole Foods and the like.”
Another example of the trust that companies instill in Unique is evidenced from their distribution contract with Orangina. Suntory Brand’s Orangina is popular in food services and controlled by Pepsi Bottling Ventures in North America. “We were given the account because they believed in our philosophy and liked how we back our brands,” Tobin says.
Jared Smith, vice president of business development at Stratus Group, was introduced to Jon three years ago. “With Jon’s help, we successfully launched our first brand, KÖE Organic Kombucha, into Canada with Unique. He is an independent operator that we trust to manage our Canadian business with little support from us. Even through Covid, Jon maintained the business we had, and now we are emerging from the lockdown with massive orders and growth. Unique is a truly amazing partner, through thick and thin,” he shares.
Loblaws director Sylvain Lemieux, a Unique customer for the last decade, also touts the company’s graces. “Jon is an incredible entrepreneur, and Unique’s service really stands out. They always ensure we’re stocked with the right amount of products to service our customers, are diligent with their follow-ups and support us with store events or fundraising.”
In March 2020, on the precipice of celebrating their 25th business anniversary, the Covid-19 global pandemic hit. The impact was severe, with many companies having to close or re-evaluate the way they operated. “This pandemic has been a great equalizer. If it wasn’t for the relationships that I developed over the last quarter-century, our company might not be here today,” Jon says soberly.
“At first, our staff transitioned to working remotely. However, as an increasing number of industry sectors closed down, we were forced to cut hours and lay off some of our staff. As a family-run business, it wasn’t easy to see happen, especially when Josh told me he had decided to step back from the company. It was a big adjustment, but we remain close,” Jon says.
“When Covid hit, our promotional activities flat-out stopped. There were no more events, tournaments or tastings. That entire aspect of our business and my position changed overnight. It was important for me not to be a drain on the company at a critical time, so after a lot of soul-searching, I made the decision to try something new. I had been interested in pursuing various projects over the years, and this seemed like the best time to take that leap. I’ll always be grateful for my brother’s support on this. We’re best friends, and while the change in our dynamic will be difficult at first, I’m excited to see where my path leads. I hope that I can continue to support my brother through my new venture and look forward to seeing how we will be able to work together in the future,” Josh explains.
During this time, Jon’s focus was to keep driving the company forward. “Our team really rose to the occasion. We were fortunate to pivot when we needed to get ahead of market trends and ensure our brand line-up relevancy. Since the foodservice industry was hit hard, we shifted our distribution focus to the grocery and drug sectors, growing several new accounts,” shares Jon.
The company adapted in other ways too. “Customers began asking if we had a source for personal protective equipment (PPE) as there was a severe shortage in the market. We partnered with one of Jon’s contacts in Quebec that supplied industrial products like sanitizers and dispensers and were able to help them transition their products to the retail market. After connecting with them and other importers, we knew we were able to sell nitrile gloves, sanitizer, sanitizer dispensers, and three-ply non-medical masks. Being able to offer these products at fair prices strengthened our relationship with our customers who were unable to source the product themselves, many of whom are still buying PPE products from us today,” Tobin says.
Unique’s ability to seamlessly transfer into PPE sales saw them radically expand their distribution base by June of 2020. This, in turn, opened the door for their beverage business. “We built many new relationships we didn’t have before because of PPE, and these customers began buying our beverages too,” explains Tobin.
By late summer, Unique had conducted a thorough business analysis and began reorganizing its infrastructure to prepare for 2021. “We forecast everything for the upcoming year. It’s a big project to try to determine our needs for the year, made even more difficult with the pandemic,” says Tobin. Accurate forecasting is critical for Unique to prevent losses as their products have varying expiry dates.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. “The pandemic saw some brands cut their distribution, in the end, though, Unique is more than any one brand. We are about finding solutions and staying positive through whatever storms come our way in this competitive industry,” Jon shares. “We made changes for the better, and I am excited for the first time in a long time to bring two all-natural brands, Reed’s Ginger Beers and Virgil’s Handcrafted Sodas, to the Canadian market.”
“Despite our late start on getting the required packaging to enter the market properly, Jon assisted us with finishing all the steps and launching on time. Unique presented a blueprint on how to grow our business in Canada, quickly implemented the plan and even developed new opportunities. They stand out because they have strength in several areas of business, including local knowledge and a breadth of key relationships that ensure success,” says Norm Snyder, chief executive officer at Reed’s Inc.
Jon Silver’s business philosophies haven’t changed much over the past 25 years. He still believes in developing solid business relationships and hand-shake deals where honesty and integrity are paramount in a transaction. He understands that a business must remain fluid to adapt to the ever-evolving market and world around them. These guideposts have served Unique Foods well over the past quarter-century and will continue to do so for the next 25.
Congratulations to Unique Foods and their 25 years of service. They have been an amazing partner through thick and thin. I couldn’t recommend them more.
– Jared Smith, Stratus Group
Congratulations on a successful 25 years. We hope to be an integral part of the next 25!
– Norm Snyder, Reed’s/Virgil’s
Wishing Jon and his team another successful 25 years as we continue growing together as partners.
– Reza Mirza, Icelandic Glacial
Tania Moffat is a freelance writer, editor, publisher and photographer. She has worked in the publishing industry for the last 16 years on a wide variety of B2B and consumer publications, both in print and online. You can connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org