Profile: John Rowe Moves Upmarket
Back in 2011, John Rowe, president and CEO of Island Abbey Foods, received one of the largest offers ever made by the investors of CBC’s Dragons’ Den — $600,000, plus a $400,000 line of credit — to help develop his Honibe Honey Drop.
Charlottetown-based Rowe initially accepted the offer, but turned it down when it became clear that the business he had started with his wife, Susan, was going to fly with or without the help of the TV stars.
Since then, demand for his pure dried honey products has grown. The honey drop and newer related products, including a line of honey-based vitamin drops, are selling in 5,000 retail outlets across Canada. The Honibe drops have even been enjoyed in space by astronauts on Commander Chris Hadfield’s mission to the International Space Station.
The Honibe Honey Drop is an individual serving (one teaspoon) of 100 per cent pure dried honey. The product has won many awards, including the prestigious Global SIAL d’Or (Gold Medal) in 2010, which recognized the Honibe Honey Drop as the best new food product in the world.
Now, the company is about to launch two similar products in drop, candy and lozenge form: solid maple called Island Maple and solid agave (the plant from which tequila is made) called PurAgave. It is also collaborating with international health and pharmaceutical companies that want to develop medicinal products using the honey-based delivery system.
“We’re working with the top pharmaceutical companies in the world,” said Rowe. “We have the first all-natural delivery system for their product and that’s why they’re interested. We can imbed any type of therapeutic ingredient in our honey-based platform.”
Rowe said that honey is healthier than most other sugar products because it is made of complex carbohydrates that are easily absorbed by the body. Honey also has anti-bacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities, and there are health synergies from combining it with a medicine.
The Honibe story began in the early 1990s when Rowe went hiking in British Columbia with friends after completing his business studies. When the group stopped to pitch camp, Rowe found that the jar of honey he’d brought along had shattered inside his rucksack, covering his clothes with the sticky substance he’d intended to use as a healthy energy source.
After he’d quit worrying about attracting bears and other wildlife with the spilled honey, Rowe decided to find a solid honey product to take on subsequent hikes. But he couldn’t find one. The closest thing he found was honey candies, which he describes as sugary products that are merely flavoured with honey, not made from it.
Rowe comes from a family of agricultural business people who have farmed the rich red soil of Prince Edward Island for the last 200 years. He describes himself as an entrepreneur by nature and nurture, and when he discovered that he couldn’t find the product he wanted, his business instincts were aroused.
“I sensed an opportunity and started researching it.” His research suggested the product could be made, but it still took a decade to figure out how to dry honey into discrete drops and then scale the process for commercial production.
To cope with burgeoning production requirements, the company has recently moved into a large custom-designed manufacturing plant in the P.E.I. BioCommons Centre in Charlottetown.
Rowe said it has been beneficial to be based on Prince Edward Island where innovation in the fields of agriculture and biosciences is part of the culture.
“Early on, we were able to test our platform with local organizations, such as the National Research Council and Bio Food Tech,” he said. “And Islanders love to support one another — we’ve had 140,000 people on our marketing team. They’ve helped us build the Honibe brand. I don’t believe you’d get that outside the East Coast.”