Photo source: CBC News Toronto
When a person is diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, often the first thing that is prescribed is a change in diet.
Any disease of the gastrointestinal tract affects a person’s ability to properly digest food, and Crohn’s disease especially can prevent a person from getting the necessary nutrients to properly function. With the list of approved foods comes a list of banned foods, and things that the body cannot risk having in its system. At the top of the list of banned foods is alcohol.
For many, the dietary demands of a gastrointestinal disease far outweigh the consequences of not being able to consume alcohol. The change is necessary and rarely optional. This doesn’t change the fact that they are giving up what is for all intents and purposes one of the central tenants of being an adult. They are facing more than just a dietary restriction—their social lives and lifestyle are being threatened. The more an individual appreciates the flavors, varieties, and social aspects of drinking, the more that they are affected by the restriction.
When Ted Fleming went in for a routine doctor’s appointment, his mind was most likely on what brewery he would be visiting next, and not the massive lifestyle change that was coming his way. He was 28-years-old at the time, in good health, and working as an engineer. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and had to be hospitalized for damages to his gastrointestinal tract, and with no more warning than that he suddenly faced the inevitable reality that his days as a craft beer aficionado were over.
The Search for Near-Beer
Quickly after being diagnosed, Fleming began to miss the taste of beer. He set out to try all of the non-alcoholic “near beers” that major brewing companies produced. The few available choices left him frustrated and disappointed; none of them lived up to or even came close to the flavors that he was seeking. He knew that there were some good options out there, but they seemed to be far out of reach.
The idea to go into a near beer business came out of his own desire to have a centralized site for all good near beers available. He began placing orders and building a website that marketed these beers for individuals who, like himself, wanted a good beer but were otherwise unable to have one. To his surprise, there was a considerable niche for non-alcoholic beers, and he began to foster an online community of individuals who were seeking good near beer.
These people came from all different walks of life, and wanted non-alcoholic beer for a variety of reasons. Most were seeking his near beers for medical reasons, but many were also ordering for their pregnancy, for being a designated driver, for religious reasons, and for those simply looking for a healthier alternative to beer. Fleming got to know the community he was forming and discovered that most people just wanted to share in socializing and drinking with their friends, and that notion brought Fleming a lot of clarity.
When first starting to source near beers as a business, Fleming said: “I didn’t understand that was what we were doing, but as we went on, that became an important part.” There are those who enjoy the craft, and those who enjoy the variety, but all who flock to breweries tend to do so for the social experience. This moved Fleming to shift his business into near wines and near spirits as well, opening the doors for more social opportunities for those who cannot have alcohol.
The business itself was thriving, and the community of individuals searching for non-alcoholic beverages grew to be larger and more connected. At the center of it all was Fleming, who found himself saying that “it’s funny such a negative thing like a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease would lead to something so positive. It’s hard not to look at that in a special light.” But his journey would not stop at sourcing near beers and other beverages. The calling came through his online community, the fans, who were all asking the same question: when would Fleming make his own?
From Sourcing to Producing
Fleming began making preparations for his greatest undertaking yet. The idea was strong and focused, but making the leap from concept to finished product is challenging for even experience entrepreneurs. Fleming knew what he wanted to accomplish, and he even had a centralized audience for it, but he knew that he wanted to offer the best, and he knew that he didn’t have all of the required skills to make the entire thing happen on his own.
As it so happens, he didn’t need to. A company called Food Starter caught wind of Flemings idea and decided that they would help lift his vision off the ground. Food Starter’s executive director Dana McCauley met with Fleming and told her how Food Starter could help. She describes her work by saying: “I help people with fantastic ideas figure out how to bring them to market, commercialize them, and become the next big thing.”
By partnering with Food Starter, Fleming found himself with access to shared production spaces, marketing gurus, and all of the entrepreneurial firepower that he himself lacked. McCauley knew that part of Fleming’s struggle would come from a lopsided skill set, something that was evident from the start when Fleming pitched a name for the product that McCauley knew would never work.
What Fleming lacked in entrepreneurial insight he made up for in a very important way. What ultimately led McCauley to Fleming’s idea was his personal investment in the product. McCauley said that what really drew her to Fleming was that “he had an incredible empathy for his target market, because he is the target market.” And this was enough for McCauley, who knew that the key to any successful startup was simply finding a niche market that a major company had not gotten involved in yet.
Fleming and his team called their finished product Partake, a word which encompasses the social aspect and inclusivity of non-alcoholic beverages. The product has already hit the shelves in Ontario, and Fleming hopes to see it become available from coast to coast in within the next few years. Fleming also makes the beverages available on his original site, the place where it all began.
McCauley believes that the success of Partake Brewing was perfectly timed, and that it would not have been possible without the shifting interests of the general public. As society has leaned towards supporting local businesses, craft breweries, and small batch brewing, people like Fleming have become able to turn their passions into a profitable venture. Add to that the specialized nature of Partake, and it is easy to see why Fleming was able to take his idea and turn it to the community that he himself built.
The journey is just starting for Partake, as Flaming made an appearance on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, a television show in which entrepreneurs pitch their products to venture capitalists. The show will announce whether or not Fleming gets a deal, but regardless of the investments being made into his company, Fleming is moving full steam ahead. By constantly searching for advice and questioning his community of near beer-lovers, he has plans to continue to offer new and exciting brews over the next few years.
As he himself said, it is hard not to look at Partake’s success in the light of his Crohn’s disease diagnosis, and to smile at having taken something difficult and turned it into something wonderful. Fleming will spend the rest of his days feeling fantastic about having created both a product and a camaraderie around his beer, and is excited for other people to enjoy it as much as he does.