Susan Niczowski: A Fresh Perspective
As Summer Fresh celebrates its 30th year in business, its founder and president, Susan Niczowski, discusses her earliest food memory, balancing sacrifice with success and the endless appeal of hummus.
With more than 85 products spanning dips, salads, hummus and snacks, it’s likely you’ve experienced Summer Fresh foods. When Susan Niczowski founded the brand 30 years ago, she created 17 salad recipes. Not only are those recipes still going strong in their products today, but the brand has become a staple in Canadian stores and fridges alike.
“I’ve always had a passion for fresh, prepared foods. My father was into photography, and he would take pictures of me roasting fresh green tomatoes on the barbecue at three or four years old,” Niczowski says. “I wanted to create fun specialty food items, and I wanted it available to general consumers in everyday retail stores. Food’s all about breaking bread together, health and wellness.”
Niczowski attributes her first food memory to her father, later describing how he would cut up various types of meats for charcuterie boards or offer breads with different mustards and horseradishes so she could taste the difference in each.
The next step in Summer Fresh’s foundation came when Niczowski was in Mexico as a teenager and discovered the term entrepreneur. “We flew home, and I had to look it up in the dictionary. I didn’t realize I was going to be an entrepreneur until many years after graduating from school,” she continues. “I felt there was a need in the market for fresh, prepared gourmet foods that are all-natural with no preservatives and are good and easy for you. Who has the time after working a 10-hour day to go home and cook? It’s important we feed our families and ourselves good, nutritious foods.”
Summer Fresh filled that gap, offering a range of products Canadians could eat, safe in the knowledge that they were equal parts tasty and healthy. It’s a business Niczowski built with the support and help of her family. “My mum stood by me 365 days of the year. My sister, being a microbiologist, was able to manage the plant aspect of it. You have to focus on your strengths and then surround yourself with people who can help with your weaknesses.”
After three decades in the business, the passion that drove the business initially is still going strong, and Niczowski is still as excited about the ingredients Summer Fresh uses, making a point to not just taste but use the products every day.
“We try to treat and teach everybody to have respect and be part of the Summer Fresh family”
Hummus is a particular standout. “Hummus isn’t just a dip you eat with crackers or vegetables. I put two tablespoons into my salad every day. It’s a great source of protein, which is important for fuelling your body. Hummus in North America is consumed as a party food or snack, but, across the world it’s eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner,” she continues. “You can use it as a marinade, as a potato topper, on a burger. There are endless ways to serve it.”
It’s a passion for food she also ensures her employees are sharing. “I’m a true believer that you should love what you do, because it’s like playing,” she says. “We try to treat and teach everybody to have respect and be part of the Summer Fresh family.”
That’s not to say the success has come without sacrifice, though, and Niczowski is open in discussing the struggles that come with starting a business and the balance you have to strike. “When my friends would go out to dinners or parties, I had to either be in school or work. They couldn’t understand why I had to cancel or join later,” she shares. “Once you got married, you have to have an understanding with your partner that you’re a career woman and want to do something for yourself, and sometimes that means not being home for dinner. There definitely has to be an understanding.”
There’s also a philanthropic side to Summer Fresh, with the company working with a number of hospitals, retirement homes and organizations, so they can give back. Even in the pandemic, Niczowski explains how the company donated thousands of pounds of products to frontline workers and people in need and even sent their employees fresh fruit boxes so they didn’t have to wait in line at the store.
This effort of giving back is built on the belief that everyone should be able to eat good quality food and is rooted in her parents’ personal experience in Macedonia. “My parents grew up in Macedonia during the civil war and ended up living in foster homes in Poland,” she says. “The Canadian Red Cross were able to locate them in Poland. It gave them an opportunity to grow and get an education. That is why giving back to the community has always been one of the forefronts of our family.”
Today, you’d be right to call both Niczowski and the Summer Fresh brand a success. For Niczowski, it’s just par for the course. “I never think of myself as being successful. I’m only as successful as my next sale. I just think about how we’re going to move forward.”
INTERVIEW BY ESTELLE ZENTIL