Maple Ridge firm in finals for Young Entrepreneur Award

A cheese puffs bakery based in Maple Ridge is in the running for a $100,000 prize as a finalist in the 2015 Young Entrepreneur Award.

Brazilian cheese puffs.

Brazilian cheese puffs.

A cheese puffs bakery based in Maple Ridge is in the running for a $100,000 prize as a finalist in the 2015 Young Entrepreneur Award.

Entrepreneur Silvia Martinelli Waqued is representing the province as the finalist in the contest offered by the Business Development Bank of Canada.

Waqueda is introducing a popular snack from her native Brazil to Canadians, and cashing in on the gluten-free food market.

She wasn’t sure how her Otimo Brazilian Cheese Puffs would go over with Canadians, until she sold 500 bags in four hours at Vancouver’s Gluten Free Expo.

“The gluten-free community is more willing to try new products,” she observed. “People see a lot of value in simple things – simple ingredients.”

The traditional Brazilian recipe for pão de queijo, or cheese bread, calls for flour made from the manioc root, which is naturally gluten-free. That’s critical for people who are gluten intolerant, and “gluten-free” is the latest buzz word in healthy eating.

Since that trade show, it has been a challenge for her burgeoning cheese-puffs enterprise to keep up with demand.

“It has been intense, but it’s rewarding as well,” she said.

Four employees work at the S&B Gluten Free bakery in the Webster’s Corner Business Park, and they mix up ready-to-bake batter that is sold at trade shows, farmer’s markets and locations around B.C.

Waqued has tapped into a market hungry for better choices. She sees an opportunity to expand beyond local markets in southern B.C., but to do so she must ramp up production and meet additional regulatory requirements for packaging.

Working manioc dough on a large scale requires specialized equipment to flash-freeze the puffs and, in the process, improve product quality and shelf-life. It’s also important for her to market her puffs as gluten- and GMO-free, which requires additional testing and certification.

To ship outside B.C., she must redesign her packaging to be multilingual. With all these pieces in place, Waqued estimates an eight-fold increase in production, which would give her credibility with grocery chains in Canada and the U.S.

The $100,000 and the growth in her business would be a reward, but winning would mean more than that to Waqued.

“To be honest. It’s recognition of the effort, and all the challenges we overcame in the beginning.”

Just making the final 10 is an accomplishment.

“Each of this year’s finalists has provided a compelling story about how their business stands at that crucial crossroads where the right mix of vision and action can secure future growth and success,” said Michel Bergeron, senior vice-president at BDC.

The BDC Young Entrepreneur Award winner and runner-up will be announced on June 22.