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Good Health Meets Good Business

By Michelle Collins |

Nigel Malkin is in the business of keeping people healthy. Along with partners Deanna Embury and Katie Rogers, he operates Licious Living. The concept is simple: clients sign on to a service and receive catered meals each day. The difference is that their menu follows one of three eating plans: Healthy Living, The Zone, and Atkins.

"It's not a money making gimmick," explains Embury. "It's really about helping people get on track with their nutrition program. If they look forward and realize that there's an epidemic upon us, what are the solutions to that. Lifestyles are changing, with parents trying to balance two careers and kids. On the whole, our psychology about work and life balance has changed. With that, service needs to change."

Right place, right time
The epidemic that Embury is talking about is a recent report that draws comparisons between tobacco and obesity. According to the Annual Report Card on Canadians' Health, published by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, while Canadians have stopped smoking they are gaining weight at an alarming rate. In particular, 12.1 million adults in this country (20-64) are overweight and/or smoke.

While these numbers aren't very promising they do hold some opportunities for entrepreneurs like Embury. First launched in 2002, Malkin and Embury have recently launched a service in Toronto as well.

Another movement taking place among some of the food giants is the removal of trans fatty acids from their products. These fats are generally hydrogenated, or partially hydrogenated oils that change their chemical make-up when they are heated. Humans are not able to break down these fats and they can lead to obesity and disease later in life.

The demand for healthier alternatives can also be found in the fast food industry. Restaurants that once relied on burger and fries as staples are now finding themselves losing market share as people begin to learn more about the effects of these high calorie, high fat foods.

"The fast food industry is trying to deal with demand for healthier choices, but they can only offer them at a higher cost," explains Embury. "They are taking away the element of cheap fast food. It may be the solution on the side, but it's still not teaching people portion control and good choices."

Follow your market
Licious Living has an advantage over existing businesses in the same industry. Since the very beginning they were positioned as a service that was intended to help people learn how to follow a particular eating plan, that would then lead to better food choices. However, as a business owner you shouldn't take it upon yourself to do an about face and lead customers into health consciousness even if it is the right thing to do.

"If I were a restaurant owner or a retailer I would not change my menu based on today's recent health study," explains Marvin Ryder, a marketing professor with the Degroote School of Business at McMaster. "The trick is what impact are those studies having on your target market. You should be following the consumers, not leading them. Let the educational and medical leaders lead the consumers."

Marvin says that business owners interested in these changes should definitely keep an eye out for what's happening in that environment, but don't act on it until the customer demands change, or until you understand how these changes will influence their choices.

"I think consumers, generally speaking, are confused about their health. Unfortunately, in health there aren't that many simple rules. In a strange way that's good for business, because consumers are confused and looking for someone who will shed some light on these issues. Businesses will come out and trumpet various issues and people will grab onto them."

Ryder does acknowledge that there is definite potential for businesses like Licious Living. The key is to look for environments where that business can survive and thrive. For example, such a business will likely find a big enough customer base in cities like Toronto, Vancouver, or Montreal. Yet in a smaller city there may be more of a challenge as consumers learn how to make do with the choices at their local grocery store.

Trends and fads
With so much information coming out all of the time it can be difficult to spot where the opportunities lie. You don't want to build your business on a fad that fades away in a few years. Ryder compares the current spotlight on trans-fats to the Oat Bran phenomenon of several years ago. While trans-fats and obesity studies are important to pay attention to, they will likely wane once another break through or discovery is announced.

Looking into the future Ryder sees a definite trending around food labelling. People search for things that are "light" or "diet" with the belief that they are healthier choices.
"It will always depend on the society. I'm not sure carb reduced products will still be around in five or six years from now," says Ryder.

Another interesting trend that could lead to opportunity is the growing influx of ethnic foods. As more and more cultural groups come to Canada they bring their foods and approaches to diet as well. Ryder sees this having an impact on all food outlets from specialty restaurants to grocery stores.

As for the current popularity of things like the Atkins diet, and exercises such as Pilates, Ryder thinks there will always be niche businesses that sprout up around these things.

"These diet fads will continue, you can make money at it, but don't rely on it to the point where you'll be out on the street when it fades out. Plan your exit strategy. Go in knowing you're going to get out," says Ryder.

Embury and Malkin are following a similar strategy in their own business. While they currently offer an Atkins and Zone eating plan, they are prepared to make changes when and where they are necessary.

"Our menus evolve all the time based on customer surveys. We look for patterns. It's been an evolution, we're really happy with what we have right now, but we'll always respond to customer feedback."

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