For as long as she can remember, Sheena Russell says she has been a stickler for social justice. She grew up in the rural farming community of Fort Augustus, Prince Edward Island, surrounded by generations of family members. Russell says this continual connection to people instilled a sense of accountability for others.
“My three sisters and 90 per cent of my mom’s humungous family still live in that community,” says Russell.
Russell moved away from home to pursue a degree in environmental science at Dalhousie University. She worked part-time as a bartender to pay for living expenses and tuition. One night, in late summer 2008, Olympic paddler Andrew Russell and his buddies showed up at the bar she was tending, looking to celebrate after his return from the Beijing Olympics.
“Andrew left his credit card at the bar, so I had to call him to come pick it up. Coincidence? I think not,” Russell laughs.
The two started dating, fell in love, then got married a few years later. By that time, Russell had graduated and was working for HRM as a waste-management educator and was living in Dartmouth.
“I loved life here! Andrew and I rented an apartment on Portland Street, then bought a house on Victoria Road. Over the years, we’ve made close friends with the business owners.”
Russell was inspired to start her own business and launched Made with Local as a side hustle with a co-worker in 2012. She dreamed of creating products that were as healthy for the environment as they were for the people who ate them. She decided to source only ingredients from close to home such as honey, oats, and fruit.
“I wish I had a more romantic story about how the bars began, but they really were born out of necessity. There just wasn’t anything like them on the market when we started,” says Russell.
The first successful batch of bars was created in the kitchen at Banook Canoe Club and sold at the Alderney Farmer’s Market. As the business started to take off, Two If By Sea Café offered access to one of their kitchens outside of opening hours. For two years, Russell worked her office job by day and baked by night until the business grew into a full-time career.
Russell selling Made with Local Bars at the Seaport Market in 2014.
In 2014, Made with Local took its first big leap. Russell vividly recalls the day she received an unexpected phone call that would alter the trajectory of the business forever. It was from a social enterprise in New Minas called The Flower Cart Group, which runs a commercial kitchen employment program for people in rural Nova Scotia who have barriers to the mainstream workforce.
“They cold called me about outsourcing the production. I remember sitting in my HRM company car, super pregnant with my daughter Ruthie and crying saying, ‘yes, I need help!’”
Russell worked closely with the Flower Cart Group’s team to perfect production of the bars so they could take over, and she could focus on other aspects of the business. At first, the organization was turning out a few hundred bars per week.
Sheena with members of the production team at the Flower Cart Group in New Minas.
“Now they are doing easily 10 or 11 thousand bars a week, and that’s still not enough. The folks at the Flower Cart Group are incredible and we would not be where we are today, without them.”
In the spring of 2019, Made with Local took its next big surge and launched nationally with both Sobey’s and Loblaws. At the same time, Russell gave birth to their second daughter, Thea.
“That was an intense time! We went from being a regional brand to being in 1000 new stores coast to coast!”
To meet demand, Made with Local sought out a new partner who could honour their commitment to social impact and sustainability. They now work with a social enterprise in Toronto for production, which uses ingredients local to them.
“It feels really good to broaden the impact for local farmers and food producers in their community.”
Now that Made with Local had gone national, Russell says the next step is to go international. Plans are already in the works to move into the United States within the next two years.
“We plan to double down on the social impact production model as we grow. That’s the vision, more of what we’re doing but even bigger, on a more impactful scale.”
Russell says, no matter how big Made with Local grows in the future, their commitment to social impact and sustainability will not waiver. She hopes their success inspires more and more business owners to consider how they can impact the communities around them, and vice versa. Downtown Dartmouth has been a big part of her success story, and Russell plans to keep the company headquarters there.
“I am so happy to have landed in downtown Dartmouth, not only as an entrepreneur, but as a mom. It has a strong small-town energy. And we never have to leave. We literally live work and play exclusively in downtown Dartmouth.”
Photo credit for portrait: James MacLean (James Arthur MacLean Photography)