Back in 1997, Aaron and Anna Randall started a garden at their home in Keswick. Aaron, a gourmet chef by trade, wanted fresher herbs, so they decided to grow their own.
“We started with just a little garden,” says Anna. “Because we had an abundance we started selling it to other restaurants in the area. We sold fresh to the Superstore as well. That was back when not a lot was known about fresh herbs. It was mostly people who were really good cooks using herbs and some fancy restaurants [as well].”
Little did the Randalls know, they weren’t just growing herbs. They were also building a strong regional brand that grew so big the company was acquired in October by Jolly Farmer, a New Brunswick agriculture company based in Northampton.
Since 1997, Sweet Valley Herbs has evolved to selling solely herb starting plants. The Randalls underwent two big expansions on their farm. They hired around 11 seasonal workers every year and carried more than 100 varieties of herbs. Their products were being carried in garden centres across Atlantic Canada, including Newfoundland, with Sweet Valley Herbs handling almost all of the deliveries themselves.
Anna credits part of Sweet Valley Herb’s growth both to the quality product and the strong brand.
We had already been Sweet Valley Herbs, but about six years ago we worked really hard at marketing our product and branding it. For 15 years we built quality. We knew that was important and that’s why people kept coming back to buy our product,” says Anna.
She also says developing strong relationships with her customers was important.
“There’s something to being able to develop a product and maintain the quality,” says Anna. “That was by far the most important thing. Then we decided to brand, and by branding, we were able to develop customer loyalty. So the end-user begins to recognize that, ‘Oh, this is Sweet Valley Herbs.’
“I recognized that by developing a relationship with the end user, that would benefit us in the long run. Branding is expensive, There’s a lot of effort and a lot of time and money put into branding, but if you do it properly and you’re very conscious of the end user, I think at the end of the day you can be a successful company.”
Their hard work has made the business successful, almost too successful. Anna says they realized last summer that it had grown too big for just two people to handle.
“Once we branded and once people got wind of Sweet Valley and loved the product, we just kept growing,” she says. “The demand for it became more than what two people could manage. It was just too much. We did not have enough space facility-wise. Aaron and I are in our mid-forties and it just took a toll on us. Two people managing a very intense company.”
They started looking at their options. Though closing down was an easy exit, Anna didn’t want to close a company they had worked so hard to build.
We could have shut down our company, there were lots of ways we could have done it, but I wanted the brand to grow and I wanted my vision to grow,” says Anna.
So the Randalls started looking at finding a buyer. Having a relationship with Jolly Farmer already, they decided to see if they were looking for an opportunity grow and expand. It turns out they were.
“I happened to call Jolly Farmer for something else, and I approached them,” says Anna. “After some meetings, they were interested.”
“I felt of anyone, they matched what we’re doing. They have very similar values and vision and it just felt right. It felt like the right fit.”
Jolly Farmer officially acquired Sweet Valley Herbs in October. Both Anna and Aaron now work for Jolly Farmer overseeing the Sweet Valley brand. Anna works in sales while Aaron is a grower.
“For the first while we will help show them all of our tricks of the trade that are unique in the industry,” says Anna. “They want the quality. That’s why we’re here. It’s so they will learn all of the tricks of growing fantastic herbs and such a wide variety of herbs.”
Anna admits that not owning the business anymore is sometimes difficult and working for someone and learning a completely new skill set has its challenges. But she still believes selling was the right decision. She has big hopes for Sweet Valley Herbs and is confident Jolly Farmer will realize them.
“They are going to take Sweet Valley to a different level,” says Anna. “They can fulfill what my vision would have been. My vision and my hope is to continue growing the brand Sweet Valley and to branch it off into other things. So Valley Herbs, Sweet Valley Vegetables, and maybe other Sweet Valley products.
“Also, my vision would be for Sweet Valley to be in the U.S. and maybe in Quebec and Ontario. That is still so exciting. It might not be mine now, but my vision and something I had a piece of that I created, will continue to grow and that is phenomenal. That is a success.”