Melanie Ang’s delve into entrepreneurship was a bit of an accident.
Spending lots of time doing outdoor field work for her master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, Ang tended to eat a lot of dehydrated meals with her and her field mates.
Somewhere along the line, she thought the meals could taste better while also being more environmentally friendly when it comes to packaging.
So Ang, then in Vancouver, started to test recipes for different dehydrated Asian and vegan meals for herself and others, before the positive feedback pushed her to test the waters.
“Never intended it to be a business, we just experimented...and started to share it with people,” she said in an interview with OttawaMatters.com.
“People thought it was a cool idea, including the sustainability aspect of it and they wanted to buy it,” she said, adding the packaging used for the meals is 100 per cent compostable.
That’s when the Backcountry Wok and Wok Fresh brands were born, first in Vancouver and then in Ottawa last October, with Ang working out of a commercial kitchen on Gladstone Avenue.
Both brands contain the same ingredients, Thai Green Curry for example being the most popular, but Backcountry Wok products have more protein and salt content for those who plan to be exerting themselves outside.
Wok Fresh, on the other hand, was developed in Ottawa and has different packaging and less protein and salt, with it being more popular for and geared toward healthy snackers.
“In the summer, Backcountry Wok is still popular, but people start purchasing it for the office or for school,” she said, adding the eco-friendly packaging has also become a selling feature.
While she continues to explore larger markets like Toronto, Ang chose Ottawa because of its proximity to Gatineau and Algonquin Parks and the more local connections and opportunities available.
“In starting a second branch, I think that community and that local feel was really important to me,” she said.
“For instance, we’ve been working with producers of the Ottawa Farmers Market to source ingredients after the market’s been over and really build that relationship and connection. I think it’s much easier in Ottawa and something I was looking for in starting a second branch.”
The small business community has been nothing been welcoming to Ang, most notably Invest Ottawa, but also other entrepreneurs who’ve stepped up and offered advice or allowed her to pick their brains.
“It’s different compared to the Vancouver experience…in Ottawa there’s a smaller community and you can go to markets and see the same vendors and same customers,” she said, which means more personal connections or more feedback.
Not having a background in business, Ang said these connections in both cities have often been crucial to her success and says to anyone starting a business or their own venture, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“When we first started, it was very much a trial and error kind of process, really starting from ground zero, but I feel like there’s so many people and business who’ve already done and learned from their lessons,” she said, noting Ottawa has a very friendly business community.
“As someone starting out, maybe you don’t know who to ask or don’t want to ask because you don’t know enough or your intimidated by that, but I find many people are willing to share their lessons learned so you don’t have to start from scratch.”
Ang’s products under both brands are available for shipping online from their website and are also offered up in a number of retail locations across the city, including Wild Oat Bakery & Café, Sandy Hill Pet and Human Food Co-op, Rainbow Foods, Natural Food Pantry, Trailhead Paddleshack and many more.