The Canadian Barley Tea Company apparently secured the fastest deal ever on Dragons’ Dens in 2020—but the pitch didn’t air due to technical issues
When Toronto-raised Janice Ishizaka went to Japan with an English degree from Western University, she had trouble settling into her new job. “I was drinking lots of coffee because I had very long days and I would get the jitters,” she recalls of the move in 1998. “I noticed that all my Japanese co-workers were drinking this brown, cold drink that I never tried, but they were all cool and nobody had jitters. Turns out, it was mugicha.”
Mugicha is barley tea, which Ishizaka claims is a “cold water replacement.” She was surprised by how refreshing and hydrating it was, and loved that it was caffeine and sugar free.
She ended up staying in Japan much longer than anticipated: she got married there in 2003, had kids, and realized that Japanese babies drank mugicha, too. “I said, Oh my god, it's for kids as well? And growing up my kids would always say, ‘Don't forget to pack the barley tea in the suitcase, Mom.’ We drink it every day like water.”
After realizing that Canada is a great source for organic barley, Ishizaka reached out to her sister, Cilla Watkins, who is a dental hygienist based in Salmon Arm. Watkins recently became the interior health director with the BC Dental Hygiene Association. “What piqued her interest was that barley tea helps fight cavities—the roasting process doesn't let the plaque stick on teeth,” Ishizaka explains.
The sisters launched The Canadian Barley Tea Company in 2019, after winning two out of four awards at Shuswap Launch-a-preneur. It’s a pitch competition organized by Enactus, Salmon Arm Economic Development Society and Community Futures Shuswap to help local entrepreneurs launch their businesses.
According to Ishizaka, the drink has been a Japanese staple for over 500 years: “It’s not just another soothing tea or an herbal tea; barley tea has been scientifically proven to hydrate better (which means faster) than water.” And the business has a simple model because the manufacturing process involves only one ingredient. “The trick is to get the high-quality organic barley locally and then roast it in a proprietary roaster for barley. We've got a great space at Zest Commercial Food Hub.”
Getting a spot at Zest (a nonprofit organization managed by the provincial government) cut The Canadian Barley Tea Company’s fixed costs in half in 2021. And since the company launched its e-commerce shop on Shopify and started selling through Amazon, revenue is on track to hit $45,000 this year compared to $10,000 in 2019.
But it's been a challenge getting here. In 2020, Ishizaka and Watkins apparently secured “the fastest deal in the history of Dragons’ Den,” but the pitch didn’t air due to technical lighting issues. “We learned that there would be no execution of the deal until we were profitable, which we weren’t at that point. The free publicity from having our pitch be on air would have been more beneficial to our business than the actual deal,” says Ishizaka.
Retail has been an uphill battle, too, but barley tea is now in 20 shops—mostly in the Okanagan, but also in Toronto’s CN Tower. “We have over 60 positive reviews on Amazon and we're really proud of that,” Ishizaka notes. And recently, a couple even served mugicha at their wedding in Salmon Arm: “When a customer serves your product on one of the biggest days of their lives, it means everything.”