In October, my entrepreneur friend Kailey Gilchrist appeared on Dragon’s Den. Kailey is the sauce boss behind NONA Vegan, a company that makes creamy vegan sauces like Carbonara, Cheesy and Alfredo.
The appearance did not go as she had hoped; Gilchrist was stunned when every single Dragon rejected her pitch for funding. She had fully expected to take some criticism for her business – her expensive packaging and low margins, for example – but did not expect that not a single dragon would like her product.
“I felt completely shocked by their reaction to the taste of the sauces. It wasn’t hurtful and I did not feel insulted, I was just very confused,” she explains. “Their reactions caused me to freeze up. Taste is subjective, so I was not sure how to formulate a response. Since they did not enjoy the flavour, nothing else really mattered.”
My heart broke a bit for Kailey when I watched the segment, so I reached out to her to get her thoughts now that she’s had a chance to lick her wounds. You can watch the segment below; it’s followed by a Q&A with the sauce boss herself!
PT: Tell me about how you ended up on Dragon’s Den?
KG: “Are YOU the owner of this business?!” they ask with wonderment and slight disbelief. “Yes” I respond, usually, unless I’m in an undercover mood. Then the following question, or some variation of it, is posed about 40% of the time: “Have you been on Dragons’ Den?!”
Well, I finally decided to satiate all the curiosity surrounding this query and go on the dang show.
The producers had invited me the previous year but I was unavailable for the audition dates. This year I applied, did the initial audition, got called to ‘Face the Fire’ in the Den, and months later, much to my dismay, they notified me that my segment would air.
PT: What were your hopes and expectations for your appearance on the show, as well as the outcome?
KG: A national television spot?! For free?! I was thrilled at the thought of my little business being broadcast to the entire country – reaching folks that my instagram posts never could. I visualized the best and worst case scenarios in my mind: all of the Dragons clamouring to strike a deal with me vs. critical jabs at my low sales numbers and lack of business training. I was confident, however, that no matter the outcome it would be positive press for NONA.
PT: What was it like to be on the show?
KG: Leading up to the filming date was quite stressful. I had been put on standby – which meant I could be called just hours before the filming or I could have the opportunity to work with a producer for a few weeks prior to the shoot date. My wheelie travel suitcase was packed and ready to go at a moments notice with all the things I wanted for the shoot. There were a couple missed ‘day of’ filming attempts before I was actually assigned a producer and given a date about a week in advance.
Arriving at the CBC studio was very exciting. I have always wanted to be an actor so I dreamt of similar scenarios in the past. In this case however, I was not playing a character as I had imagined. Rather, I was required to present myself, my real self, with vulnerability and truth.
All of the producers, sound techs, stage hands and folks involved with the show were wonderful. I felt very confident tap dancing into the Den (Yes, I tap danced in. It was a creative risk ok?!) I have seen many Dragons’ Den episodes, so arriving in front of the Dragons’ was a bit surreal.
During the filming I had a lot of thoughts racing through my mind. When it started going in an unfavourable direction I thought, “Ok Kailey: Make boring TV so that they don’t air this. Don’t fight too much.” On the other hand, I was thinking, “…but you need to say something back to them or you’ll look like a total pushover!”
PT: What surprised you most about the outcome and the feedback?
KG: Prior to the taping, I had carefully prepared pages and pages of the potential critiques I would receive along with my thorough responses and retorts to each of them. In all of my preparation, I did not once even consider that the Dragons’ would not like the taste of the sauce. It had honestly not crossed my mind. No one on my team who helped me prepare had thought of this as a possibility either. In all our years of sampling the sauces to people, very few people dislike the taste.
PT: How did you feel when you were receiving the feedback? After it sunk in?
KG: I felt completely shocked by their reaction to the taste of the sauces. It wasn’t hurtful and I did not feel insulted, I was just very confused. Their reactions caused me to freeze up. Taste is subjective, so I was not sure how to formulate a response. Since they did not enjoy the flavour, nothing else really mattered. If I had millions in sales I’m sure it would be different, but at my small level, the taste factor stopped the pitch in its tracks. Months later, I still think it is bizarre.
PT: Was there a moment that will stay with you?A worst moment? A best moment?
KG: Telling my story and talking about my mama was great. I am proud of how I presented my story and grateful that they chose to air my opening bit nearly in its entirety.
PT: Do you think that their assessment of your product, and their feedback, was accurate/valid?
KG: Although I am generally very open to criticism and advice with regards to my business, I do not agree with the majority of the feedback given on the show.
Arlene speaks about the alternative food ‘niche’ shrinking — which is simply not true as backed up by market research and numerous consumer studies. I was surprised that she held this opinion as someone working in the food industry.
I do agree that I need to trademark my brand name but I was already aware of other brand names that utilize a similar theme. Italian Nonnas’ are a massive part of food culture so of course there are other businesses that draw on this! …and yes, I did a name search before incorporating.
The comments on sodium content also surprised me. While I agree that everything should be consumed in moderation, the idea of salt being a destructive evil monster is an archaic belief. Also – have you checked out the sodium content in anything on the Boston Pizza menu? Or traditional cream sauces?
PT: How has the feedback you’ve received influenced your plans for NONA and NONA products?
KG: The feedback from the show has not influenced my plans for NONA other than reaffirmed the need for me to lower my costs and increase my margins.
PT: What have you learned personally from the experience?
KG: Going on the show reminded me of the amazing community of friends and NONA fans that support me.
PT: What do you want to tell the world about you, and your products?
KG: I hope that folks take the opportunity to taste the sauces themselves even though the Dragons didn’t like them! I promise they’re tasty!
PT: What is next for you and your company?
KG: We’re doing a bit of a re-group – solidifying our production – and then working on growing! We’ve got new flavours ready to release soon, and new regions to reach!
Pamela Tourigny holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from Carleton University, and has worked in marketing, communications and public relations for 14 years, currently as a marketing and business consultant for food and wellness businesses. She is an Ottawa-based expert on the topics of veganism and ethical consumption, has been vegan for 13 years, and co-founded Ottawa Veg Fest. She likes to run, play ultimate frisbee, hike with her dog, and jump on trampolines. www.pamelatourigny.com