Thus far, it’s been a hectic 2019 for Anandakumar Palanichamy, founder and CEO of Dr. Beetroot Canada, a Manitoba enterprise that turns out a variety of beet-based products, including beet juice, beet spread and beet ketchup, the latter of which has been glowingly described in online reviews as "vibrant, earthy and sweet" and "the only condiment you need in your life."
First of all, after spending the previous three years renting commercial space at the University of Manitoba’s Richardson Centre for Functional Foods & Nutraceuticals, Palanichamy purchased a 6,500-square-foot motel in St. Leon, the former restaurant-and-bar component of which has since been converted into a dedicated production facility for him and his team of five employees.
Secondly, he added retail outlets in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario to an ever-growing list of vendors that carry his brand on their shelves, a rundown that currently numbers more than 40 stores in Manitoba alone.
On top of all that, he spent most of the summer test marketing a half-dozen more foodstuffs he hopes to unveil in the near future, among them beet chips, beet hummus and beet gummies. (Ha! It sounded like he said "beet gummies.") "Yes, it’s a one-ingredient product, no sugar added, that we intend to market as a healthy snack for kids," he says, scrolling through his phone to find a photo of the violet-coloured confection. "When I started my company in 2013, I told myself the first five years was going to be the exploration phase, to see if there was consumer demand for specialty beet products. After establishing there was, 2019 has marked the beginning of our expansion period, first across Canada and, hopefully one day, into the States."
Palanichamy, 44, grew up in Madurai, a city in southeast India with a population of 1.5 million residents. From April to September, the average daily high temperature in his hometown is a scorching 37 degrees Celsius, a factor that indirectly led to the married father of three hitting upon the notion of Dr. Beetroot in the first place.
When he was 22, Palanichamy worked for a non-profit organization. His job often required him to drive around in an open-air jeep for hours on end, visiting potential donors. One day, when the temperature was hovering in the low 40s, he suffered heatstroke, almost passing out at the wheel. He went to several doctors, but his symptoms failed to go away. He could still barely lift himself out of bed, he recalls.
"My mother is not an educated woman — she left school after Grade 3 — but through my grandfather, who was a naturopath, she learned about the health benefits of different vegetables and herbs," he says. "One morning when I was still feeling horribly, she made a stir-fry containing diced beets, onions and cumin powder. I ate it and my problems disappeared almost immediately."
Palanichamy studied agricultural engineering at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, India. He moved to Winnipeg in 2004 to get his master’s degree in biosystems engineering at the U of M. Following that, he and his wife Revathi made the decision to live here permanently.
"Ever since the heatstroke, I had difficulty whenever the temperature got too hot back home, so here the weather was perfect," he says. "I don’t even mind the winters."
In 2013, after getting laid off from an assistant project manager’s position, he decided what he really wanted to do was have a business of his own. That’s when his mind drifted back to beetroots. He remembered his mother explaining to him beets not only function as an anti-inflammatory, they also contain cancer-fighting agents, improve digestive health and help to lower blood pressure.
His initial plan was to develop a line of all-natural health products such as "capsules of beet powder, that kind of thing," he says. His research, aided in part by funding from the National Research Council of Canada, concluded demand for that was minimal, at best. He switched gears, turning his attention to specialty grocery items prepared with beets, instead. He began renting commercial kitchen space in the basement at Knox United Church, where he spent weeks experimenting with different recipes. He eventually hit upon ones he liked for honey-dipped beets and a beet dip, both of which didn’t get past the test marketing stage, and after that, beet ketchup, which met with a more favourable response, even from the it’s-not-Heinz crowd.
"That was the first year of the Downtown Winnipeg Farmers’ Market and I got a booth, where I invited passers-by to sample my ketchup and tell me what they thought," he says. "Lots laughed when they saw my sign, saying, ‘Beet ketchup? Whoever heard of such a thing?’ Luckily, though, I got enough positive feedback — some people told me it was too vinegary, others said it could use more garlic — that by the end of August I had come up with a version that seemed to work for almost everybody." (At first, Palanichamy marketed his merchandise under the banner Nutrich Beets, Nutrich being a play on "nutrition." But because so many people mistook Nutrich for meaning rich with nuts, he swapped monikers in 2015, opting for the more curative-sounding Dr. Beetroot instead.)
Dr. Beetroot products, cited alongside Bee Project’s Urban Honey and Flora and Farmer preserves as one of the "Top 10 tasty souvenirs to bring home from Winnipeg" by Food Network Canada, don’t appeal only to those who enjoy the flavour of beets. As Palanichamy has learned, they also draw the attention of people who are allergic to such things as tomatoes or, in the case of his still-in-development pizza crust, gluten.
Months back, when he was a registered vendor at a food-and-beverage trade show in Calgary, a woman approached him with a where-have-you-been-all-my-life expression on her face. She told him she grew up adoring hamburgers and french fries, but had avoided each for years because she was hypersensitive to tomato ketchup, her preferred topping. But after eyeing bottles of his beet ketchup, she was overjoyed at the prospect of being able to enjoy both again.
Generation Green, 433 Main St., was one of the first retailers to stock Dr. Beetroot, back when the eco-friendly shop was located at The Forks Market.
"I brought in his product as I am a big supporter of Manitoba food developers and especially love unique items," says Generation Green owner Sherry Sobey. "Many of my customers appreciate the beetroot natural ingredients and flavour (and) we definitely gave our retailer perspective as feedback on packaging, which they have since changed and we like."
"I have tried (the ketchup and the spread) and both are really good," Sobey says. "I am also going to try the new beetroot powder as a natural colourant in my café. I want to try baking with it or perhaps (in) a smoothie."
Palanichamy purchases his beets in bulk from Jamor Farms, near Portage la Prairie. When asked if he dons gloves when handling the vegetables to avoid his fingers and palms turning a deep shade of purple, he shakes his head, pointing out that’s yet another benefit when it comes to beets.
"There are days when I’m on this thing all day, contacting different retailers," he says, holding up his cellphone. "I’ve read about the amount of radiation phones emit and I believe it because after two or three hours of calling or texting, I can barely lift my arm above my shoulder, I stiffen up so badly. But after spending an hour or two preparing beets with my bare hands, all the pain goes away, it’s truly miraculous."
One more question; given their dad is such a proponent of beets, recently named a 2019 "superfood" by no less an authority than Better Homes & Gardens magazine, surely Palanichamy’s three children, ages 9, 7 and 5, must love eating them too, too, right?
"They’re not too big on beets, no. Though, the other day, I made a beet bread special for them, with red lentils in it. They didn’t seem to mind that too much."
For more information, go to http://www.drbeetroot.ca
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Saturday, August 31, 2019 at 5:00 PM CDT: Corrects web address