Calgary’s Elaine Cadrin turned a guilt-free snack into a multi-million dollar business

The search for a low-fat snack led Cadrin to a big business venture


Photo Cooper & O’Hara

Elaine Cadrin loves to snack. And for many years, the potato chip was her vice of choice. “I love anything crunchy,” says the founder of CheeCha Puffs. “I think I’m related to the beaver.” Fortunately for Cadrin, she shares another trait with ­Canada’s national animal: ­industriousness. In the 1990s, Cadrin’s doctor told her a health condition made potato chips off-limits because of high fat content. But she wasn’t discouraged. Fresh out of her MBA, she began searching for a low-fat solution. If she could turn it into a business, all the better.

She’d heard of pasta-like wheat pellets that, when fried in oil, puffed into a crispy snack. Apparently, Mexicans and Americans were devouring them by the handful. Cadrin thought there must be a way to puff up the pellets without using oil, so she began experimenting, and discovered that, if she cooked the pellets in her hot air popper, she could produce a perfectly puffed – and crispy – snack every time. She began producing the snack in huge quantities using potato pellets (because of her fondness for potato chips) produced by a manufacturer in Mexico, and sold them at farmers’ markets under the name CheeCha Puffs, a tribute to the name of the Mexican snack (Cheecherone) that inspired Cadrin’s product.

Today she’s selling about $2.5 million worth of CheeCha Puffs each year, and her potato chip-inspired flavours are in ­Walmart Supercentres across Canada, as well as Loblaws, Costco and a host of other major retailers. The secret to her success has been, by her humble account, a trifecta of lucky breaks. Her first came in 1999 when local stores in Calgary agreed to sell her products. “At that time, store managers did make a lot of decisions about what they could carry,” she says. “Now that’s changed in the industry. Quite often they can’t carry anything unless it’s mandated from head office.”

Her second came a few years later when her products, which are naturally gluten-free, became a favourite of celiacs and the health conscious, a trend she jumped on by ­promoting her snacks as not only low fat and gluten free, but also vegan and nut-free.

Cadrin caught her third lucky break earlier this year. She had nearly given up on getting into the U.S. “because the costs are horrendous,” she says, when she went to a trade show in Chicago hoping to meet some companies for which she could create a private label product. Instead, she met a broker who volunteered to present her product to Walmart U.S. The brand was looking at expanding its healthy food section, and Cadrin’s CheeCha Puffs were a natural fit. They loved the product. “It’s all a question of timing,” Cadrin says. Walmart U.S. is currently testing CheeCha Puffs in 45 stores across the U.S. If sales are good, they’ll expand to other Walmart U.S. stores from there.

This time, Cadrin isn’t leaving it to chance. “We’re going to do our best to do our marketing and demos to make sure it happens.”

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