This year, in honour of Black History Month, Futurpreneur is profiling a series of exceptional Black entrepreneurship leaders in our network—entrepreneurs and mentors who are making a difference in their communities.

 

“With good intentions, you can thrive in whatever you do,” says Sonel Merjuste, owner of Les Aliments Merjex Inc. “We started this family business to promote better health for our sons and the community and we’ve truly only grown from there.”

With the support of Futurpreneur’s financing and mentorship, Merjuste and his co-founder Jasmine Exael launched the company in 2018 when their youngest son decided to become vegetarian.

The plant-based options on the market weren’t for them: “We originally tried tofu, but we didn’t like the flavour. We were open-minded when a friend suggested we try tempeh, so we did some research. It was an incredible protein alternative, but the first time we tried it, it was lackluster.” Merjuste explains, “That’s when we realized: there’s a huge market there.”

Merjuste had been wanting to launch a business for quite some time but said nothing seemed quite right for him, or the market, until now.

A Taste of Home

Dietary restrictions have significantly increased over the last decade – more than 40 per cent of the population is actively trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets, and over 2.3 million Canadians identify at vegetarian or vegan. The industry itself is rapidly growing – growing on average 8 per cent annually since 2010.

There is certainly a learning curve when transitioning to a plant-based diet, and it can be challenging to properly prepare new dishes and foods with ingredients you may have never tried before – like tempeh.

“You might get a new food, look at it defeated thinking, ‘well, what do I do with that?’ ”

As a Haitian immigrant, Merjuste explains that there was not much of a market for tempeh in his home country, and it didn’t seem popular in Quebec either. “It’s an Indonesian fermented soybean product – and if you’re unfamiliar with it, it can be a little different.”

With an open mind, the couple took to the kitchen and developed two tempeh flavors that they would eventually bring to market as Tempehine: including a Haitian-inspired marinated tempeh.

“Our goal was to create tempeh with an excellent flavour that was effortless –so while we would eventually offer a natural tempeh product, we worked to create a marinated and precooked tempeh that would easily accommodate a plant-based diet,” he explains. What’s more, Tempehine is truly dedicated to ensuring all of the ingredients are locally sourced in Quebec to offer the best product to the community.

“From there the business took off fairly quickly.” Tempehine is available in three product types, including natural tempeh, pre-cooked marinated tempeh and their newest addition, the temp-burger.

Black in Business

“You need to believe in what you do – you have to be passionate and have the will to succeed. It’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be complicated, and you might feel alone in your journey at times,” Merjuste says.

As a Black immigrant, Merjuste initially faced many barriers to success. His biggest challenge was raising capital because he lacked collateral. In a study by the Canadian government, next to support and services, the biggest barrier to business ownership identified by Black Canadians was the lack of financial support.

“Futurpreneur saw our potential straight away and accompanied us on our journey – they helped us with financing, but most importantly, we really benefited from the expertise of our mentor,” said Merjuste.

Merjuste sells his products online and in small markets throughout Quebec. He has recently begun offering his products in grocery stores, so he can reach new customers during COVID-19, but he says it’s been challenging because it’s so competitive.

But whatever the obstacle, Merjuste is set to succeed: “If you really believe in yourself, there will be a huge payoff.”

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