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Oh, Canada. The home of really good hot sauce. 

This isn’t your average “so a guy walks into a bar” story. Top Shelf Canada—ideated during a late-night pub shift fuelled by mediocre hot sauce options and culinary inquisitiveness—got its start when Founder and CEO, Joshua Lines, wanted an elevated hot sauce option among the standard pub-fare offerings. Working alongside his best friend and one of Canada’s top culinary scientists, Wayne Blythe, to create a hot sauce “for people who don’t do hot sauce,” the pair finalized Top Shelf Canada’s first and core recipe for hot sauce Front Street Heat: a low-spice, flavour-forward sauce that gives spice sufferers a chance to enjoy the flavour and fun of a hot sauce experience.  

Creating a product that is unique in the saturated hot sauce market, Top Shelf Canada sets itself apart by providing complex and layered flavour suited for sauce lovers—and by being proudly Canadian-made. Using roasted red peppers as the base of the flavour, instead of the traditional vinegar-based recipes, Top Shelf Canada products are preserved with natural acids like lime juice and sweetened with (you guessed it!) maple syrup, with no added sugars. After having introduced Front Street Heat to his friends, family and pub-goers, Lines reflects, “The responses were incredible, and I was so excited to see that other food lovers were using my sauce on elevated and complex dishes.” 

Local independent grocery stores were the first to put Top Shelf on the their shelves, with a slow and steady uptick in London’s larger grocery chains following suit with local spotlights on the product. As the brand grew traction and legitimacy in southwestern Ontario, Lines introduced new iterations of his sauces to local food lovers. Knowing that the evolution of his sauces had to remain strong in its origin of good flavour and good ingredients, Lines introduced “Front Street Fire” and “Front Street Inferno” to the Top Shelf lineup, both hotter versions of the classic, well-loved original, so that heat-lovers could get in on the fun, too. Branching into a southwestern Ontario contract with Metro stores, the goal was to continue expansion throughout Canada.  Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic hit right as Top Shelf was picking up its well-deserved steam, so the company struggled with distribution and traction came to a halt.  

When I first started Top Shelf Canada, I knew that if I was going to claim to be Canada’s hot sauce, then I should always be doing something to be supporting Canadians

Joshua Lines, Founder and CEO of Top Shelf Canada

Instead of sitting on their hands knowing they didn’t have much control over what would happen next, the Top Shelf Canada team decided to look to their community and try to help. Connecting with United Way, they developed a local relationship that allowed for the creation of a six-month program where $1 per bottle sold went to COVID-related causes through a national initiative that raised over $10,000. During the final six months of 2022, these donations were directed to the local London chapter to combat homelessness and poverty in their hometown.  

Generating good will and opening doors through community and connection, Top Shelf landed itself a distribution partnership that launched the product line into Sobeys, Metro, Foodland and Real Canadian Superstore. Now available in over 800 stores across Canada, including Whole Foods, Fortinos, Your Independent Grocer West, IDA, Giant Tiger and Farm Boy, Top Shelf Canada is coming up on its North American expansion into the United States this spring, and the team is  only just getting started. 

Top Shelf Canada is a recent i.d.e.a Fund recipient. Supported by a $10-million Government of Canada investment through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), the i.d.e.a. Fund is led by Innovation Guelph in partnership with five Regional Innovation Centres (RICs): WETechAlliance, Haltech, Innovate Niagara, Innovation Factory and TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario. The program helps high-potential ventures access the tools they need to succeed by providing financial and business advisory supports to develop or redesign products, services, processes, and technologies that reduce impacts on the environment and create made-in-Canada solutions. 

Using the funding as a launch pad for creativity and consistency, Top Shelf Canada focused its efforts on product packaging and branding to establish itself as a premium product on every shelf. “The Top Shelf team has set high standards for their products and are consistently meeting and exceeding them as they work on product and packaging development,” says Andrew Leest, Manager of Venture Growth at TechAlliance. “Working alongside the team for their i.d.e.a Fund project, we were able to help develop processes and solutions, and we are so thrilled to be a part of their entrepreneurial journey.”  

Long-time friend, fellow bartender and now Lines’ business and life partner, Adina Melanson, Executive Creative Director at Top Shelf Canada, spearheaded new designs for the brand, working with a design studio to create plastic-free, top-tier glass bottles for the continued production of Top Shelf products. During the initial growth days of Top Shelf Canada, the all-too-familiar startup life of stretching allocated costs limited packaging abilities. With the funding, new team members and deserved traction on the horizon, the new bottles will be hitting the shelves soon. As a company, Top Shelf Canada aims to continue supporting charitable initiatives that help Canadians in need as a core pillar of its company culture and purpose.  

To learn more about Top Shelf Canada, go to www.topshelfcanada.ca 
To learn more about The i.d.e.a Fund go to techalliance.ca/idea-fund 
To learn more about FedDev Ontario, go to https://ised-isde.canada.ca/site/feddev-ontario/en 

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