Finding Freedom in Food

A Calgary couple trades in a restaurant career to make gluten-free eats for people who can’t get a good meal.

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In 2006, Calgarian Brent Boeckx felt as though he had lost almost everything. He had just finished a seven-year stint owning and operating the popular Mortal Coil lounge, was going through a financially difficult divorce and was suffering from a mysterious illness. As he was struggling to get his life back in order, Boeckx struck up a new romantic relationship with former restaurant manager Linda Nainaar.

Early on in their relationship, the couple realized that they wanted to work together, but they didn’t want to open another restaurant. “I’m sure it would be a tour de force, but at the end of the day, we’d just be selling a lot of liquor,” says Boeckx. “It would give us the SUV and the nice house, but it’s not noble anymore.”

“People say we bought a business. But we bought our freedom.”

Around the same time, Boeckx was diagnosed with celiac disease, which meant that he had to eat gluten-free food. The options, he says, weren’t very appetizing. So what does a restaurateur do when he can’t find tasty food? He makes it himself. In 2010, he and Nainaar started People Food, a company that makes tasty gluten-free eats that are also devoid of additives and chemicals. People Food opened in a modest strip mall as a retail store, but it’s now a wholesaler for independent grocery stores and restaurants.

After tinkering with a few different business models and cutting out other ingredients that Boeckx and Nainaar had eliminated from their own diets for health reasons (namely casein, which is typically found in dairy products), People Food now focuses solely on pizza crusts and veggie burger patties, the latter of which are available for wholesale nationwide through a major food distribution company.

Still, four years after opening, and even with the popularity of gluten-free foods on the rise, People Food is hardly turning the kinds of profit Boeckx and Nainaar saw in their bar and restaurant days. However, the couple doesn’t regret sticking to their principles. Not only can Boeckx eat a good burger again, but the couple is helping others get a great gluten-free meal too. “Our food is delicious and we’re grateful for that,” says Nainaar, “but more importantly, it’s not going to make people sick from what’s in it.”

While they may not be able to enjoy the spoils that come with big restaurant money, everyone in the family is healthier and happier. “People say we bought a business. But we bought our freedom,” says Nainaar. “There are pitfalls, but it is worth it. And I would never go back.”

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