Scott Chudleigh and his brother, Dean, are the third generation to earn a living from the family’s farm in Milton, Ont. In the mid-1950s, Scott’s grandfather had revolutionized the Canadian apple industry when he imported a new variety of tree from England that grew to just 2.5 metres tall. The dwarf tree meant tractors could be smaller, ladders weren’t needed and the cost of growing and maintaining the tree was lower.
Scott’s dad, Tom Chudleigh, grew a lot of apples, but he never liked the politics and banter at the wholesale produce markets where he would sell his crop. So when someone pulled over on the side of the road and asked whether he could pick his own fruit, Mr. Chudleigh saw an opportunity to change his business model.
He put up a sign and the orchard quickly became a popular tourist attraction. He started bringing in doughnuts from Milton to feed the crowds. Eventually he was bringing in so many that his supplier said he couldn’t give him any more. It was at this point that Tom’s wife, Carol Chudleigh, started baking pies.
Her baking would ultimately set Chudleigh’s Ltd. on a path that would export 70 per cent of the company’s famous individual-sized desserts – called Apple Blossoms – beyond Canada’s borders.
But back to the Chudleigh family’s story.
Neighbours came over and helped Carol bake pies. “But once the grocery stores wanted more than 10 pies the ladies didn’t want to do that any more,” son Scott said.
Meanwhile, Tom and Carol had set a rule that any of their children who wanted to go into the family business had to invent a position rather than take a job from someone already working on the farm. Dean was the first to graduate from university, and when he returned home he began working on a small baking production line in the basement of the barn.
Disaster struck in 1990 when a goat chewed through an electrical wire and sparked a fire that burned down everything but the family house. When Scott returned from university he immediately began working to rebuild the farm. At that time there was already someone working for his parents who was responsible for selling pies in Canada, so Scott decided to go south of the border.
In 1993 he took a pie down to the restaurant chain Red Lobster’s management in the United States. As soon as they took a bite they were sold. After about a year, however, Red Lobster came back to Scott and told him they needed a sliced pie. In order to cut the pies the company would need to buy a million-dollar piece of equipment.
It was out of this dilemma that Chudleigh’s signature product was born.
“We made what we call an Apple Blossom, which is a single-serve apple pie that has six folds in a round pastry,” Scott said. “They loved it.” More than two decades later Red Lobster still serves Chudleigh’s products.
Chudleigh’s soon sold its whole line of pies to the U.S. grocery chain Wegmans.
“After that it was really having enough guts to call up the major food service chains,” Scott said. “Some of them would say yes and give you the opportunity to pitch, so I would hop on a plane and get down there.”
Private-label products for grocery chains such as Loblaw in Canada and Kroeger in the United States became a big part of the business. But earning this business presented a challenge.
What often happens when a company stamps its name on your product, Scott explained, is they begin to look around for the same product for less money. Scott decided to trademark the Apple Blossom.
“It was a totally new shape,” he said. “Like Mickey Mouse has a trademark on the shape of his ears, we trademarked the shape of the Apple Blossom.”
Now the private label business was secure, but demand was reaching a point that Chudleigh’s needed to make blossoms at a faster rate. A lot of the growth was coming from Wendy’s restaurants in Japan, which helped the company reach high enough volumes to purchase a dough-folding machine.
Wendy’s eventually decided to discontinue the dessert. But by that time business was booming in the United States. “It was a good lesson to diversify around the world and to look at different economies,” said Scott.
Today the company does 70 per cent of its business outside Canada, with most of those sales in the United States. Outside of North America they target countries with high disposable incomes including Norway, the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand.
Distribution systems are another consideration for Chudleigh’s when the company decides which international market to target. The company has focused largely on North American markets because many countries in Asia and India do not have adequate infrastructure for distributing frozen food.
In addition to a cautious approach to international growth, much of Chudleigh’s success stems from anticipating the single serve trend in desserts. Chudleighs was making apple blossoms long before cupcakes became popular. And Scott believes strongly that individually sized sweets are not just a passing fad.
“Cupcakes will go up and down, the flavours will change, the shapes will change, the value will change,” said Scott. “But I don’t think we’re going to go back to large sizes of cakes and pies. Single serve means everybody gets what they want.”