By Laura Aiken
I first met Rivi Horwitz and her son Omri at the Grocery Innovations
Canada show just after they had been shortlisted for the Bakers Journal
Innovator of the Year award.
I first met Rivi Horwitz and her son Omri at the Grocery Innovations Canada show just after they had been shortlisted for the Bakers Journal Innovator of the Year award. Rivi was buzzing around outside their Rivi’s Guilt Free Cookies booth, encouraging me to sample and chatting up a blue streak about having her photo taken with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne that morning; Omri played the friendly son holding down the fort inside the booth while his mother’s energy ran circles around us.
|Photos: Laura Aiken|
I walked away from the introduction and thought, “Boy, those folks have the magnetism of motivational speakers for what they do.” I often think this after speaking to bakers, a passionate bunch by nature, and two more meetings later I was all the more convinced.
The thought has made this story a pleasure to write, and Bakers Journal would like to offer a heartfelt congratulations to the Horwitz family of Rivi’s Guilt Free Cookies for winning this year’s Innovator of the Year award gold sponsored by Fuller Landau chartered accountants and business advisors,
silver sponsored by Paragon Glaze Consulting, and bronze sponsored by Speedo flavours.
Rivi and Omri may work day and night together in their Toronto based business, but they are not night and day about their united mission to give people a healthier cookie. Their bakery products are at the heart of their innovation.
The cause is that of a healthier carbohydrate snack. Rivi has accomplished this in a number of ways. She uses no oil, butter or margarine. Her products are either fat-free or low in naturally occurring fat, such as that found in her dark chocolate granola. She doesn’t use artificial colours or flavours. She has created a product that is safe for kids to take to school by having a nut-free facility. She extended the specialty nature of her products to include being dairy-free, and certified kosher. She chose to use all non-GMO ingredients in her baking as well.
The special nature of her cookies, and their availability in Toronto hospitals (including SickKids), has led to some very rewarding customer moments. Rivi and Omri shared a story from their Facebook page about Casper, who was born at 26 weeks weighing only 1 lb. 8 oz. Amy Lewis (Casper’s mother) uploaded a video of her son excitedly devouring Rivi’s Guilt Free Cookies she purchased from the cafeteria while he was in SickKids hospital’s intensive feeding therapy program. Lewis sent Rivi an update at Thanksgiving showing Casper, now 18.5 lbs, and still over-the-moon for his favourite cookies. Both videos spur a priceless swell of the heart, and judging by the smitten faces of Rivi and Omri as they shared the videos with me, their cause brings much in the way of reward.
Rivi makes five different kinds of cookies: oats and raisin, chocolate, ginger and spice, lemon, and the recently launched vegan Chunky Monkey that is made with banana and chocolate. The relative lack of fat means these are not the decadent melt in your mouth cookie that most people are accustomed too. They have a soft chew, offer a full flavour and are sweetened with organic cane sugar. She typically uses egg whites or banana puree to add moisture. She also makes use of not often heard of cookie ingredients such as the barley listed as the second ingredient in her Chunky Monkeys.
“You can do a nice cookie without it,” she says firmly of the fat missing from her cookies. “No, it’s not the same, and maybe you miss the others, but like everything else it’s about choices.”
She also makes an oats and raisin biscotti and five different kinds of granola: 70 per cent dark chocolate chunk, dried fruits and seeds, blueberry and green tea, ginger and ginseng, and kale, lime and pineapple. The granola has no added fats and 20 per cent less sugar than traditional granola, she says. One of her latest launches was a packaging innovation, whereby they decided to retail the granola in sleek, easy-to-grip shakers with two different size openings at the top. Users can shake a little or a lot onto yogurt, ice cream or whatever they wish.
“Since the beginning of production, we have always been changing for the better,” says Rivi. She counts the move from regular to untreated flour and doing away with corn syrup in favour of organic cane sugar as being among the improvements. Omri credits experience working with businesses like The Big Carrot, a well-known natural foods market in Toronto, with opening her eyes to the fine-tuning she would need to do develop the products into their vision of health.
Mind you, she does not view her cookies as stalks of celery.
“This is a cookie, it shouldn’t have fat but it definitely should have sugar or people won’t eat it,” says Rivi.
“It’s a snack to be eaten in moderation,” clarifies Omri, who is young, free of health problems and eats as he pleases but credits his upbringing with the ingrained knowledge and awareness of what a healthy label should look like.
The cookies were healthy enough to pass the dietitian’s litmus test for the Breakfast Club of Canada, and now the company donates 300 cookies a week locally to the program.
“Lots of mothers buy it for themselves and the day they go to buy it for the kids I’ll be happy,” says Rivi.
The making of Rivi’s Guilt Free Cookies
Rivi’s Guilt Free Cookies bakes and breathes in an industrial area along the winding strip of Chesswood Drive in Toronto. It is an older (quite literally bricks and mortar) stretch of units that has a peacefully residential feel. The bakery has been in its current location for four years of its 17 years in business. Rivi started the company when she was 40 years old and her youngest of three children, daughter Yarden, hit grade 3. Her husband is also an entrepreneur, and she had always been “busy” so she knew she needed something purposeful to do now that her kids were all in school full time.
|The Horwitz family recently launched new packaging for its granola that lets customers easily shake the granola on various foods through two different sized openings. |
The desire to start a specialty bakery arose from Rivi’s own health woes and modified diet at home. In 1988, Rivi watched a member of a local soccer team collapse and die one afternoon of a heart attack. The tragedy spurred Rivi to visit her doctor for an overdue exam. She was shocked to learn she had a perilously high cholesterol level that was four times what was acceptable. She immediately began a fat-free diet that brought her cholesterol levels down, but they were still abnormal. On Oct. 23, 1989, the family moved from Israel to Canada. She became determined to manage her condition through diet, and her passion for baking inspired her to create a cookie that would be healthy enough for her to enjoy.
“I’m not saying that oil or butter isn’t healthy, I’m saying it’s not healthy for me, and you can make a nice cookie without it,” says Rivi.
People started tell her she should sell her baking, and her first lab-tested fat-free treat was her original oats and raisins cookie that remains a classic staple of the bakery today.
Omri, who was in Grade 7 when his mum started the bakery, remembers when he and his brother Yoni helped out with packaging cookies and stacking trays to be washed. By the time Omri reached high school, Rivi was deep in the trenches of growing the bakery and would be gone before he even got up for school. But he always knew where to find her and spent a lot of time at the bakery growing up.
Her first client was a local Second Cup, where her cookies were offered at first as an unlisted product to customers, then later became a part of the menu as the healthier alternative cookie. Whole Foods in the Yorkville neighbourhood of Toronto took 10 years to come on as a customer, she says, and now they order weekly. The brand has established itself in a number of grocers and specialty Greater Toronto Area stores, such as Pusateri’s Fine Foods, McEwan’s and Fiesta Farms.
The road ahead
The bakery has grown for 17 years without a loan by putting “everything back into the business,” says Omri, who handles much of the distribution, bookeeping and multipurpose activities at Rivi’s Guilt Free Cookies.
“We are always looking to innovate,” says Omri. “Like any small company, we are limited by financial means but it’s something you need to do to stay afloat, to stay relevant and to be open to change.”
For mother and son, it isn’t just an investment for a personal return, it’s a dedication to the cause they believe in and it’s a lifestyle, as many entrepreneurs know. They are working the kind of day and night hours that could make the 9-to-5 set straight out squeamish.
“I don’t mind coming to the office after a full day [on the road], I’d almost rather do that than go home and veg out. As appealing as it sounds, it gets boring,” says Omri with a flicker of excitement in his eye that makes obvious the passion he has for the job. “There’s dreams at the end of the day and drive.”
Rivi has put her heart and soul into a genuine passion for lowering cholesterol not just for herself, but also for others and for the next generation. In doing so, she has discovered what makes it all worthwhile.
“People in the food business know you don’t become rich doing this,” she says. “You put so many hours in. We have really invested a lifetime and you just never know what’s going to happen. You have to enjoy the journey.”