Peter Neal, of Neal Brothers Foods: On business, a new non-alcoholic beer and battling back from severe depression
OTTAWA -- Peter Neal is a guy with an electric energy.
He lights up a room, and within moments of entering it, has people laughing.
Neal’s an ebullient and successful entrepreneur, who, with brother Chris, runs a prominent Canadian food company.
Neal Brothers Foods had humble beginnings more than 30 years ago. It all started in their mom’s kitchen, where Chris and Peter made and sold croutons.
The brothers sold their hockey card collection to fund the business. And with hard work, and expansion, the company has been, in hockey terms, a ‘breakaway’ success.
Together, Chris and Peter Neal developed, and grew, a product-line of “better for you snack options”, distributing many of the most popular products on Canadian grocery store shelves.
You have likely snacked on their chips or salsa.
The brothers love their beautiful families, and each other.
They are close. Peter affectionately describes his brother Chris as “the better half of the Neal Brothers.”
He also credits Chris with getting him through a recent mental health crisis.
Even though Peter Neal knew he had everything to live for, he stopped wanting to.
“Last Fall, I slipped into an extreme bout of depression and was suicidal for a few weeks,” says Peter Neal.
“It was the scariest time in my life. With the help of my wife, family and huge support from my biz partner, 'big bro' and several other angels, I survived it!”
Peter is always there to help anyone who is vulnerable.
He wasn’t used to being vulnerable, himself.
“A dear friend of mine, six months before I went into depression, had taken her life. And I remember sitting at the funeral thinking, ‘How could someone do that?’ And suddenly, in November, this time last year, I was in that exact position,” he said. “I was delusional. I was completely irrational, and for two weeks I was planning my demise.”
Not long after he got sick, Peter said the brothers lost a product that had long been a star in their line.
“Eighteen years ago we fell in love with this coffee brand, Kicking Horse Coffee. We pushed an elephant up the hill. No one at the time had a grinder. No one at the time wanted to spend more than six dollars for a pound of coffee. So we convinced Canadians to grind their own beans and spend a lot more, and enjoy a good cup of coffee.”
Kicking Horse coffee was sold to a larger company.
“And that company wanted to go with a different distribution company. Unfortunately, we got to the point where it was 45% of our whole revenue.”
Neal said things happen in business, but he felt it was a disappointing, and personal loss. He said the business shock amplified his state of mind.
“That was part of what caused my depression,” he said.
Support from family, friends, doctors and therapists would help Peter heal and feel whole again.
“I came out kind of like a fighting badger having been cornered into a spot.”
And the badger came out of that corner with a new product idea, brewing during Peter’s toughest time.
“I was in incredibly rough shape and one of the things that I wanted to do was cut down on my alcohol.”
Peter was inspired by the sales numbers for non-alcoholic beer coming out of Europe.
“In Europe, non-alcoholic beer as a percentage of overall beer consumption is 13% and we’re still just about 1% in North America, so we see that growing.”
Those stats gave birth to a non-alcoholic beer of their own. Neal Bros Lager is high in flavour and low in calories.
“In mid-August three Neal Bros non-alcoholic beers were launched. Along with the lager, a lime beer and a radler.”
The Neal Brothers would make their beer with the help of a London, Ontario craft brewery; its innovative technology producing flavourful results.
“Instead of boiling off the alcohol, we have the ability to pull the alcohol molecules out, and you still have this incredible tasting beer.”
WHEN YOU ARE GIVEN LEMONS, YOU DON'T JUST MAKE LEMONADE...YOU MAKE LIME BEER
Beer wasn’t the only idea that poured into Peter’s mind.
Biodegradable and compostable straws, cups and cutlery were the next creation.
The Neal Brothers started a new plastic alternative business, using agave waste from their tequila company.
The products won a global innovation award.
While they appreciate the global accolades, these brothers are rooted in community.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Brothers Neal started a PPE company creating jobs for 60 people, selling millions of masks, donating tens of thousands of dollars.
Their cookbook, “GOODNESS", in support of community food centres, “celebrates 37 good food fighters from across Canada—chefs, entrepreneurs, growers, and food activists who believe that good, healthy food should be accessible to all.”
Their latest project is a line of men’s underwear; garments to create a narrative for men’s mental health and suicide prevention.
Peter shares more in his interview on the CTV News At Noon, his first media interview where he speaks publicly, and candidly, about his mental health challenges.
Neal says he is determined to be an open book, hoping to encourage anyone feeling depressed, or suicidal, to ask for help.
He says the pandemic has created countless additional stresses in people’s lives; painful for him to witness.
“Watching friends, businesses, jobs and dreams fall to pieces. Tough stuff.”
“Chris and I are huggers, so this is killing us.”
While he cannot physically comfort those in need of a hug, Peter hopes his words, and story, will help anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“Call someone. Get some help. Get some medication. See your doctor. If that doctor doesn’t work, see another doctor. If that therapist doesn’t work, find another therapist.”
RESOURCES IN OTTAWA
If you or someone you know is in distress, please call one of the numbers below right away (24 Hour Help Lines):
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (For residents of Quebec, call 1-866-APPELLE [1-866-277-3553])
Ottawa Mental Health Crisis Line (English and French) : 613-722-6914, 1-866-996-0991 if outside Ottawa
Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region (English) : 613-238-3311
Youth Services Bureau 24/7 Crisis Line (English and French) : 613-260-2360 or 1-877-377-7775 (Eastern ON)
Kids Help Phone (English) : 1-800-668-6868
Centre d'aide 24/7 (French) : 1-866-277-3553
Tel-aide Outaouais (French) : 613-741-6433
For more resources available in Ottawa, please see Ottawa Public Health's Mental Health and Substance Use Resource List.