Sonel Merjuste and Jasmine Exael left Haiti for Quebec in 2008. The couple has achieved a great deal: a close-knit family, a shared business vision, and the resounding success of their brand, Tempehine, created by their company, Les Aliments Merjex.
An unusual path into business
Sonel Merjuste never doubted he’d become an entrepreneur in Quebec. Why? He wanted to give back to Quebec, which welcomed his family and made them feel at home. “The first thing was to help develop Quebec’s economy,” notes Merjuste. He also had a strong desire to make a difference in the community.
“In Haiti, I was involved in a number of business projects,” Merjuste says. “We arrived here in 2008, and I started to learn about the Quebec business scene to understand it. Jasmine and I tried to start two businesses, but they didn’t work out. We realized we needed tools to understand the country’s ecosystem better. So, off I went to get a bachelor’s degree in business at HEC Montréal. Most of the time, entrepreneurs are optimists. Either we’re crazy, or we’re really optimistic. I chose to be optimistic and a little crazy,” he says with a laugh.
Despite his optimism, as a first-generation immigrant, he had trouble getting people to take him seriously when he was looking for partners and seeking financing from financial institutions. “When we come as immigrants, we have our own background, but not the credit history banks want. We have to start from scratch. People can be distrustful: They don’t know where you’re coming from, don’t know you, or don’t know your background. You’re not a fixture in the community.”
Finding startup financing
Aliments Merjex received its first financing with the help of PME Montréal, which specializes in coaching and financing for entrepreneurs. Although not a large amount, it was critical at a time when the couple was trying to get their business off the ground.
Also important to the couple was the Montreal-based Groupe 3737, a national not-for-profit organization that provides coaching and support tools for BIPOC business owners with an ecosystem of more than a thousand entrepreneurs across Canada.
“Their ecosystem is very important to all the communities, as well as to business development. They have an in-depth knowledge of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. An opportunity to have their coaching and support in creating a business makes it possible to structure the project better and draw on their history and contacts. They can support us in various ways to facilitate medium and long-term matters.”
The couple gained a better knowledge of the Quebec and Canadian business markets. Learning to find suppliers, negotiate leases and find partners were all factors in developing the business and taking control of the “logistics circuit,” as Merjuste calls it. He stresses that being first-generation immigrants in Quebec made it hard for them to go knocking on doors since they didn’t know who to turn to.
“In my opinion, Groupe 3737 is an outstanding and important partner for any entrepreneurial ambition in the Black community. I believe they’re essential,” Merjuste says.
Founding Aliments Merjex
“Aliments Merjex” combines the family names Merjuste and Exael. The brand name Tempehine combines the words “tempeh” and “protéine,” the French word for “protein.”
When their son told them he no longer wanted to eat meat, Merjuste and Exael had to find solutions. They were already contemplating setting up a catering service focused on healthy food. Aliments Merjex and the Tempehine brand were born.
“I was always involved with the community and community projects. Taking a trial-and-error approach, Jasmine explored tempeh, which didn’t immediately appeal to me. She found different ways to prepare it. We realized there was something in it, nutritional value that had potential. We discovered a new protein source for our family and decided to share our experience with our beloved Quebec. The adventure began in 2019. Today, I can say that we’re a fairly dominant player in the market. You can’t talk about tempeh without mentioning Tempehine.”
From the start, the idea was to help people eat better. The main aims in creating the Tempehine brand were to get people to rediscover tempeh, make cooking easier, and offer people a source of vegetable protein that was good for them.
“Food is medicine. If we eat well, we should be in better health,” Sonel Merjuste pointed out. “We bring an awareness of healthy eating that will, in a way, have an impact on the body. We dared talk about tempeh, eating well, and vegetable protein. I say we dared to do it, because it’s like a fish swimming through air. Nobody expected to see a Black label in the food industry, especially vegan food. We dared because we thought that ‘eating better’ should be within everyone’s reach.”
Agility, resilience and generosity during the pandemic
After overcoming many obstacles, just when the business started to take off, the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“We were going to present Tempehine at a trade show on March 17 and 18, 2020, and what had to happen finally happened: Quebec went into lockdown on March 13, 2020. We were stuck with the inventory we were supposed to sell on-site. We were faced with a huge question: should we keep going or stop? Because we’re passionate about what we’re doing—and we do it with heart and love—we decided to keep going. I really believe everyone needs to eat better.”
The inventory was mainly split between two organizations that help Quebec families: Moisson Montréal and Les fourchettes de l’espoir. The community received the product well, which gave them some visibility.
A company rooted in the community
“We are proud to be able to do something this good for Montreal North and introduce another narrative about the community,” says Merjuste. “This attracts other entrepreneurs in the community, who see us as ambassadors, as standard-bearers. We’re involved in youth entrepreneurial development at CDEC in Montreal North. We have several partnerships and are engaged in numerous interventions to share our experience and show that anything is possible, even if it’s hard. Because, with Tempehine, we entered an extremely tough, competitive market. Three years later, despite COVID, we’re getting into grocery stores across Quebec and supplying a restaurant chain that sells our products (burgers) across Canada and the United States. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished in such a short time and under such difficult conditions.”
A winning approach with tempeh
Innovation lies at the heart of Tempehine initiatives. How do you make tempeh accessible and, especially, get people to love it who’ve never been able to cook it properly or appreciate its taste?
“Ground tempeh, which is a great meat replacement, will be key to our success. We’re getting into something everybody knows, comfort food. It’s a healthy, vegan food for everybody and contains no animal products. We’re tapping into what the market is asking for. With our innovative approach — our pillars — we’re taking anything that can be made with meat and making it with tempeh. In addition to the health approach, we also have the taste approach, making tempeh taste good. Our tempeh won the silver medal in the 2022 Montreal SIAL innovation competition.”
Tempehine products have earned two renowned certifications: “Aliments du Québec” and “certified organic.” The project is also environmentally aware: all packaging is recyclable and printed with water-based ink. “We’re doing this not just to help people to eat better, but also to help the planet as much as we can.”
Aliments Merjex is supported by a seasoned team in developing its brand, from branding and marketing to taste. They work closely with Richard Lemyre, a marketing expert from Complètement Agro, and Martin Lamoureux, a chemistry instructor from Collège Lionel-Groulx, who specializes in food chemistry. His expertise has contributed extensively to developing the product.
Merjuste and Exael have a clear vision of what they want to achieve with Tempehine in the coming years:
- Make tempeh an indispensable, irresistible part of the Canadian diet. In 2023, they want to be on more than 15,000 plates a week.
- Become a tempeh innovation leader.
- They want to make Tempehine Quebec’s tempeh in the next five years.
“Our roots in Quebec are getting strong. After that, we will look at the rest of Canada, the United States, and the world. Everybody can eat it, vegans, omnivores and carnivores.”
According to Merjuste, some of the best recognition they’ve received came from the public after they went on the Radio-Canada show “Dans l’oeil du dragon.” People were hugging them on the street because they loved their passion and authenticity.
“That motivates us. It’s our reward. I was also surprised and honoured to be featured on ‘L’épicerie.’ In a feature on tempeh, they bought all the brands of tempeh to test them, and Tempehine provided the background. They came to film our processes, and Tempehine was the star of Radio-Canada’s show ‘L’épicerie.'”
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