UNIQUE FLAVORS: The Backyard Food Co. owners Louby Sukkar, left, and Matt McClelland prepare products at Hope & Main in Warren. Backyard was one of the first companies to apply to produce at the food-business incubator.
A friendship was struck between Matt McClelland and Louby Sukkar after their children were enrolled in the same kindergarten class. Over the next three years that relationship would bloom into a food-production company.
Now, as co-owners of The Backyard Food Co., the pair trace the roots of their business to planting gardens in their respective backyards as a form of therapy after McClelland was diagnosed with cancer.
"I wanted to build a garden to reconnect with the earth and put myself at peace," said McClelland.
The gardens were approximately 60 feet by 40 feet, said McClelland. In the first year they produced 500 harvested pounds of tomatoes from 200 tomato plants and also supported 100 cucumber plants.
"We had a lot of produce. Our freezers were full and the neighbors were sick of it," he said.
McClelland said he reached into his family history for recipes highlighting homegrown vegetables and began to make pickles, candied jalapenos, red-pepper relish and cranberry-apple and tomato jams.
One day, McClelland and Sukkar found themselves out of snacks at a party and decided to offer their concoctions to the guests.
"It was a feeding frenzy," said Sukkar, who believes that was the moment they knew they had something valuable on their hands.
Initially, the pair began to produce larger batches of their produce at the Franklin County Community Development Corp.'s Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield, Mass. But they soon learned about the then-infant Hope & Main, the first Rhode Island-based food-business incubator. Their company was one of the first to submit an application to produce there.
Because of the uniqueness of their flavors, said Sukkar, "we have to create new expectations. Hope & Main helped by getting us to new events," where they could market their produce to a broader crowd.
"[Hope & Main] has grown with us and … we've been able to stay there and thrive longer than we thought we would be able to," he said of the 17 cases they produced in one session at Hope & Main initially, compared to the 200 per session now.
After three years at the nonprofit, Sukkar said, "We're able to maneuver much quicker when bringing new products to market."
The pair credits Hope & Main with opening the door to multiple opportunities. Most notable was their reception at Dave's Marketplace, a relationship that "gave us a chance to prove our product is viable and something people will buy," said Sukkar.
"What started with a little push from Hope & Main turned into a big push for us to get our company going," he added.
The Backyard Food Co. has since expanded, selling at more than 30 Whole Foods locations in the Northeast, but still remains true to its "clean-food" ethos.
"As a cancer survivor, it's important to me not to cut corners to make an extra dollar," by adding chemicals to the food, said McClelland.
Sukkar added: "I'll be damned if I ever make one dollar from selling something that's not 100 percent natural – it's a matter of principle for us."
Over the next year, the pair hope to hire another two production workers and an administrative professional. They expect to open their own production facility within five years. •