Sweet Innovations

Island Abbey Foods sets sights on becoming a global brand

I used to think innovation mostly happened in fancy buildings with walls of glass and white leather furniture, on well-manicured green lawns in places far-flung from Canada’s island province. It turns out I was way off the mark. Way, way off. In fact, innovation can happen anywhere that you find ingenuity, perseverance, and a supportive community. And so it is that Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island is home to one of the world’s most innovative companies in the honey industry, Island Abbey Foods. The established company is positioning itself to become a global brand and beginning to make waves in the lucrative, ever-growing world of nutraceutical products.

“It’s very complicated to make what we make, really, really complicated,” John Rowe, president of Island Abbey Foods, tells me.

We’re sitting in Rowe’s office at company headquarters, a large, squat building located on Innovation Way (I kid you not), in Charlottetown’s West Royalty Business Park. It’s an unassuming office, windowless and modest in size. On a table adjacent to the entryway there’s a display of Honibe-branded products, including its flagship product, the Honey Drop.

While it may not be obvious to the average consumer, the Honibe Honey Drop is a product of innovation. In short, it’s the only pure dried honey drop in the world that’s been scientifically proven to retain all of honey’s naturally-occurring health benefits, as touted on the Honibe website.

The Honibe Honey Drop, where it all began//Submitted Photo

“People have been trying to make this product [the dried honey drop] for eons and nobody had successfully done it,” Rowe tells me. The process, he explains, involves removing water from the honey, or dehydration in fancy terms. It sounds deceivingly simple and the final product looks very much like any dried candy product on the market. The difference is that all the other products are sugar-based, with most merely containing honey flavouring.

Having shaken the honey world up with their honey drop, Honibe is now zeroing in on the lucrative and growing market of health supplements. Its product line has grown to include honey gummies infused with Omega 3 oils from fish (side note: WAY tastier than taking the fish oil directly), honey gummies for adults and children with a multivitamin/mineral, and honey lozenges, to name a few.

“There’s absolutely education required to understand what the difference is between us and the other products that claim they are honey,” Rowe says. “The biggest thing is typically the price because our products are expensive by comparison. I mean a pound of sugar wholesale is about 25 cents, a pound of honey wholesale is $2.50. So that alone dictates that everything we make is going to be more expensive than other products we may be competing against.”

Despite its higher price tag, the Honibe Honey Drop hasn’t suffered for lack of sales. In fact, the product is now sold in over 22 countries in Europe, Asia, South America, and North America.

Susan Rowe, COO, and John Rowe, CEO, of Island Abbey Foods accepting the Trade Team PEI Exporter of the Year award (2017)//Submitted Photo

“For our brand we only use Canadian honey. We try to buy locally but our demand is higher than what the entire crop is here every year,” Rowe tells me. The company uses about 1,500 pounds of honey a day.

“We would have a team of eight or ten people come around the equipment and literally pull it out of the equipment in a syringe and squeeze it into the molds that the product is formed in. That’s the only way it could be done until we invented the molding system,” Rowe tells me of the process they used to create the Honibe Honey Drop for several years. It’s another indicator that innovation has been built into every facet of the company.

During our lengthy conversation covering his early career as lead singer in a band while studying at Bishop’s University to his family’s background in farming and the hiking trip with a jar of sticky honey that became Honibe’s origin story, he keeps coming back to the immense support he has received from the Island community. Key amongst those supporters has been the BioFoodTech, who provided Rowe with the space to trial his honey drop at lab scale, along with Innovation PEI, Agriculture Canada, ACOA, and the National Research Council, whose help provided access to the funding needed to take the product from concept to a commercially viable product.

“I’ve been an entrepreneur in many other places around Canada and the US and I discovered that this is an ideal place as entrepreneur because there’s all sorts of support,” said Rowe. “Here if you want to have a meeting to talk about an idea, you talk to Innovation PEI and they will bring Agriculture Canada, they will bring ACOA to the same meeting, so you don’t have to have three meetings, you can just have one. That does not happen elsewhere.”

“We want to become the biggest honey brand in the world. We want to be known globally for innovation in honey products, Canadian honey being top quality, second to none, and we believe Honibe is the catalyst for that.”

Honibe Honey Gummies contain Omega 3 oils or vitamins and taste good too! //Submitted Photo

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon is the co-founder of Salty and was its editor-in-chief for the publication's inaugural year. When she’s not writing about food, Shannon's either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

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