From Living off the Land to Feeding the World

By Mary Gooderham

Raised in the wilderness of the Cariboo Chilcotin region of British Columbia, Ellen Melcosky learned to live off the land where her family and ancestors hunted, fished and gathered food.

Melcosky, a member of the Esketemc First Nation, learned to use what resources were available to her from across the territory. She has applied many of these teachings to her own business, Little Miss Chief Gourmet Products Inc., from sourcing the ingredients for her wild pacific smoked salmon to using the resources of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) to extend her company’s reach to the far corners of the world.

“All of my export sales have come to life through trade commissioners in different countries all over the globe,” says Melcosky, who lives in the Westbank First Nation on the shores of Okanagan Lake outside of Kelowna, where she is president and CEO of her home-based business.

Melcosky created Little Miss Chief in 1995 when she returned to the workplace after raising her three children. The company name and trademark came from a nickname she’d been given because of a headdress that she had hung over her desk when she worked in the Westlake First Nation offices.

Having had a mother who was “a true pioneer woman,” hunting, fishing and preserving berries and vegetables, Melcosky was inspired to base her specialty smoked salmon on a family brining and smoking recipe. She includes a secret ingredient, and marinates the sockeye and keta salmon in Okanagan wines, “as a marketing tool.”

Ellen Melcosky
Ellen Melcosky, owner of Little Miss Chief Gourmet Products Inc.

Unable to get a bank loan to start Little Miss Chief, Melcosky’s husband and some friends invested in the company so that she could do things like order packaging. Initially, Melcosky marinated and smoked the wild-caught pacific salmon herself in smokers she had set up in her back yard “to feed all the neighbours,” she says.

Soon afterwards it was being made in a commercial plant on Vancouver Island, which produces gold foil pouches of the salmon that are shelf-stable for at least five years. The packages are sold in cedar boxes decorated with traditional designs by Indigenous artists, and include a card of native legends that tell Melcosky’s personal story.

“I am really proud to be a First Nations’ woman in business and I've always identified myself that way,” she says. Little Miss Chief is registered as an Aboriginal company in the Aboriginal Business Directory, part of the Government of Canada’s Canadian Companies Capabilities database, and listed with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

By 1998 Melcosky was benefitting from assistance from the TCS, and had her first exports to Spain. Sales followed in various other markets including Poland, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

“The TCS has really helped me over the years. Any time you need advice you can just call. If they don’t have the answers right in front of them they sure find them in a hurry,” she says. “As a small business, I would never have been able to be an exporter without this kind of guidance and help.”

She advises other Indigenous businesses to contact and keep in touch with the TCS. “They're there to provide a service. Keep your name out there, let them know you're interested in pursuing markets in various countries, you're able and you're knowledgeable.”

Melcosky’s business style is deeply personal she says. She travels to trade shows, offering generous samples to potential customers, and invites distributors for meals in her home.

Products sold by Indigenous businesses attract consumers because “it’s something we grew up doing—we can tell people about our experience of how we lived,” Melcosky says. “Nowadays people around the world are interested in this. They want to go back to the land; they want to learn the old ways.”

Melcosky recently enlisted the help of an agent to follow-up on interest coming from Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan in her distinctly Aboriginal products. The international appeal of her salmon is that “we represent natural products,” she says, calling it “gourmet survival food.”

Jeffrey Lang, a Senior Marketing and Trade Officer for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in B.C. who provides export market development support to Little Miss Chief, says that Melcosky’s salmon “is a high-value food product,” and there’s a great tale behind it. “There’s added authenticity when you tell that story about who owns the brand.”

Lang notes that AAFC works with the TCS in Canada as well and around the world to promote the Canada brand for such products. “It’s something we try to leverage and build on.”

He says that sometimes small companies looking for export opportunities in different markets “want to hit all of them up at the same time.” But it’s important to be strategic, target a small number of specific countries and take advantage of the TCS and other government programs to help bring products to international markets.

Little Miss Chief is “staying committed to what makes them unique,” Lang remarks. “They see a niche, they believe in their product. That’s important for international buyers,” he says.

“They’ve got a great recipe, it’s tried and true and it’s been around for generations. They’re proud that they're Aboriginal, they're proud that they're a woman-owned enterprise and they promote themselves that way,” Lang says, adding that’s part of the consumer appeal. “You’ve got a great-tasting, high-quality product from Canada—and it happens to be woman-owned and minority-owned.”

Now 70, Melcosky still visits grocery stores and wineries to do promotions and can often be seen in her traditional dress. “I always make sure I give a personal touch. My company is me; it’s like a dream,” she says. “When I started my business I decided I’m proud of who I am. And hopefully my customers like who I am.”

While planning to increase her overseas presence, she expects to retain the “flavour” of a small business. “Little Miss Chief has never developed into a million-dollars-a-year business,” she comments. “There are a lot of big fish companies out there, and a lot of them don’t like me because I’m always in their face. I’m not going away anytime soon.”

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