Grad Takes PATH to Healthful Adventure

A few years ago Teresa Chang’s friend Valerie Choy was feeling the urge to change direction in her career. “Teresa, what would you think of the two of us starting our own business?” she asked. “Yes!” replied Teresa -- after due accountant-style reflection, of course. “We both had a number of years of corporate experience under our belt,” said Teresa in a recent interview, “and it was a good time to see if we had what it took to run our own business.”

At the time, Teresa (MAcc ’03) was working for a major accounting firm at the TD Centre in Toronto’s financial district. A standout feature of the area is PATH, the city’s famed underground walkway, which links 30 kilometres of shopping and services (1200 shops and service outlets) and entertainment sites, and connects more than 50 buildings and office towers. Streams of people pass through the site daily, often assailed by pangs of hunger and an irresistible desire for refreshment. But what they could find a few years ago -- mostly chain franchise operations -- cried out for an alternative.

That proved to be an ideal opportunity for the two women. After researching the quick food industry, they decided to reinvent themselves as food service providers -- with a distinct difference. In 2010 they launched deKEFIR, a café specializing in healthful yogurt-based snacks, in the downtown area’s new Bay Adelaide Centre. The prestigious 51-storey structure boasts top accounting and legal firms as core tenants.

“Our background helped us evaluate the viability of such a business and put together a comprehensive proposal,” Teresa recalls. “We also had help from lawyers and bankers.” Preparing to launch the enterprise was both nervous and exciting, she admits. “It felt like jumping off a cliff! Accountants are typically risk adverse, and starting a new business from scratch was completely opposite to what I was used to.” 

As well, setting up as an independent poses its own unique challenges. “We had no franchisor sending us marketing materials or national campaigns,” Teresa explains. “Having control over what and how you want to sell means you take full responsibility -- and suffer the repercussions for concepts that don’t work.” But, she adds, “We prefer it this way!”

What’s on Offer at deKEFIR

deKEFIR storefrontThe store’s inviting ambience and comfortable seating mean customers can socialize, talk shop, and get away from stress – and avoid contending with the food court. “We joke around to ease some of the tension, even if it’s just a five-minute escape,” says Teresa. “We’re happy to provide that service on top of the healthy food!”

What deKEFIR offers on the food side is whole milk fermented with a kefir culture, served either fresh or frozen. Fresh kefir goes into parfaits and smoothies. “We serve our fresh kefir unsweetened,” Teresa explains, “but with the option of honey to sweeten it to the customer's taste. We add organic cane sugar to the plain kefir to sweeten it before we freeze it.”

The UW grad extols kefir’s benefits when combined with fresh fruit or other toppings. “It’s a great way to introduce probiotics into your diet,” she says, “and it tastes awesome!” Four sizes are available. For $3.47 you can get a frozen kefir, parfait, or smoothie with one topping choice. On “Toonie Tuesdays” a frozen cone will cost you only $2.00.

customer with Teresa ChangCustomers choose toppings from an extensive list featuring strawberries, melon, dragon fruit, nuts, bran, crackle bits, store-made granola and much more. “In the summer months, we have access to Ontario berries, wild currants, orchard fruit, and even Northern Kiwi,” says Teresa. “We also bring in specialty fruit so customers can try items such as guava, lychee, and figs.” At the time of our interview, heading the list were persimmons, pomelos, and pomegranates.

customer with Teresa ChangThe store’s peak periods are breakfast and mid-afternoon. “We have a slightly older crowd for breakfast, very health aware,” reports the UW grad. “In the afternoon, the crowd is younger, looking for a fun and healthy snack to get them through the rest of the day.” With kefir still unknown to many potential customers, raising awareness is part of the café’s mandate. “But the wonderful thing about Toronto is that consumers’ palates are already attuned to a wide variety of ethnic foods,” observes Teresa, “so kefir is not a big stretch for most people.”

Insights and Reflections

Teresa Change with menu“When I was a UW student, I was set on climbing the corporate ladder,” recalls the Waterloo alumna. “Being an entrepreneur was never my ‘dream job.’ I simply jumped onto the opportunity when it presented itself!” Nevertheless, she counts her co-op experience as contributing much to where she is today. “Nothing beats applying textbook knowledge to real life scenarios,” she suggests. “It gave me insight into how a business should be run.” Equally important was obtaining her professional designation, which proved invaluable when negotiating for deKEFIR.

Today the partners make major business decisions together. Teresa deals with accounting and finance matters, while Valerie handles menu development and marketing. With their three part-time employees, they have patiently grown the store while monitoring developments around them. They are seeking to open another shop, in a year-round high traffic location that permits staying open weeknights and weekends.

Outside deKEFIR, Teresa participates in CPAO events and volunteers with various organizations. Last year she was a judge in the DECA youth business case competition. “I truly enjoy watching young people flourish and excel in what they are interested in,” she told us. “At the same time, I hope I can shed some light and help them in developing their career path.”

If you’re a grad feeling a tug towards entrepreneurship, she offers this advice: “If you think you have a great idea, take the plunge. It’s fun, exciting, scary and rewarding all at the same time. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Stop talking about your idea, take actions to realize it!”

By Stephen A. Jones, School of Accounting and Finance

What is kefir?

Kefir originated in Eastern Europe’s Caucasus region, where milk was traditionally stored in ruminant pouches and fermented naturally. The word “kefir” is of Turkish origin, meaning "good feeling.” At deKEFIR we meet customers from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Poland and elsewhere. Their unanimous response to our fresh kefir is "This is what I used to eat back home!" Many have never had frozen kefir before, so it’s always a fun surprise when they try it too.  – Teresa Chang 

Choose yogurt carefully! 

Full fat, low fat, no fat, no sugar, fruit on the bottom or stirred in, drinkable, Greek…. Today commercial yogurt comes in many choices. Yogurt, kefir, sour cream, and buttermilk are all healthful if taken as originally intended. Many lactose intolerant people can consume fermented dairy products because the bacterial culture has broken down the lactose for them. But be sure to look at the list of ingredients in commercial products. There’s a ton of additives in these products now. – Teresa Chang