Young Guns: Launching a food business is all in the family for Ashley Paterson

Launching a food business is all in the family for Ashley Paterson.

Healthy Hippo founder, Ashley Paterson

Credit: Healthy Hippo

Paterson founded Healthy Hippo, whose low-sugar, vegan candy hits the sweet spot with retailers in B.C. and beyond

There isn’t a day in Ashley Paterson’s life that she can remember not working in the food industry. Her mother, Kimberly Chamberland, founded Vancouver-based Big Mountain Foods in 1987. Paterson, who was born a few years later, eventually lent her hand to just about every department in the vegan food operation, including marketing, sales, production and research and development.

A few years ago, though, “it was time to branch off and do my own thing,” she says. “It was as simple as sitting on the couch eating candy one night. I said, I would do this, this and this different,” Paterson recalls of that snack. “And my husband looked at me and said, Why don’t you?”

Paterson started what is now Healthy Hippo—a hippo-shaped, low-sugar, vegan and GMO-free candy—in late 2017. “It was so foreign to so many of these candy companies and food scientists who were like, What are you doing? Trying to build candy from fibre and monk fruit?”

Low-sugar candy in this province has long been the domain of SmartSweets, but Paterson believes (and her sales have shown) that there’s room for more than one company in this niche market. “We’re lower in calories, lower in sodium, have a balance in fibre, are fully vegan,” she says. “And we use monk fruit juice concentrate, which is 15 to 20 times sweeter than sugar, as our sole sweetener.”

READ MORE: On Trend: 5 B.C. companies that make snacking easy on the body

6 a.m.

Mornings start early for Paterson, who wakes up at 6 a.m. and puts on the coffee. She gets in an early workout—usually the 7:30 a.m. class at downtown Vancouver Pilates outfit Jaybird Studio. “It’s just a huge reset for the mind, body and soul for me—in the dark with loud music and amazing instructors.”

8:30 a.m.

Paterson gets back home just after her 16-month-old daughter wakes up. She has breakfast with her family (her husband is a former professional fighter who went by El Hippo—hence the company name) before her phone starts blowing up.

“I like to hang out with my daughter as much as possible before the day starts,” she says. “Before things get crazy.”

10 a.m.

The meetings come fast and furious for Paterson, who oversees a team of 12 people, all of whom work from home. “We’re all just constantly in contact,” she says. “Emails, meetings–it’s never-ending.”

Like her mother, Paterson has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Besides some entrepreneurship courses at Alberta’s Athabasca University, she doesn’t have a formal education. “I graduated school early in Grade 12 and just got right to working. I love education, but it’s also just not me.”

1 p.m.

Much of Paterson’s recent time has been taken up with day-to-day operations, product development, and creating and executing strategy. Even though it launched years ago, Healthy Hippo has only had two production runs. But the word is spreading. “People aren’t saying, Oh this is a good alternative,” Paterson insists. “They’re just saying, this is a really good gummy.”

The company just listed with Buy-Low Foods, Choices Markets, Nesters Market and Amazon in Canada and the U.S. Plus, Healthy Hippo is in negotiations with two of the country’s largest retailers. “We just wanted to make sure that everyone felt really good after they ate it, but that they also enjoyed the taste and texture,” Paterson says. “It takes a long time to get there.”

7 p.m.

After having dinner with her family and putting her daughter to bed, Paterson combs through some emails and reports that need sending. “Some nights I can relax a bit, but usually I’m back to my computer doing things that need to be rushed for the morning,” she says.

Running a burgeoning startup while looking after a young daughter isn’t the easiest act to pull off, but Paterson handles it convincingly. “I watched my mom do it, so it’s no new news,” she says with a laugh.