Christian Horner was influenced from childhood by two seemingly diverse interests: food and firefighting. “Every single morning, we woke up to that buzz of the coffee beans,” Horner said, remembering his mother. “And then we knew that's when the ovens were going on, and that's when she was going to start cooking.” Kristina Goodwin was a self-taught cook and fine food caterer, and her son helped her with food prep from the age of seven. But Horner was also enamoured by the fire hall across the street. He grew up dreaming about becoming a firefighter and eventually saw this as a viable job. The 24-hour shifts would allow him to pursue one passion while keeping up with the other on the side. “I started a career with Toronto Fire in 2008, and I was catering at the time as well,” said Horner.
Fire in the Kitchen was launched in February 2009. Inspired by his mother’s ingenuity—she once mixed burger meat for a large corporate event in wheelbarrows—Horner took some positive feedback and came up with a business idea. When catering a birthday party for a friend, guests were blown away by the rub he used on chicken wings. His friend asked for the recipe and Horner said, "You know what? I'm going to market this. I'm going to start a spice company.” That was the entrepreneurial spark that’s led to an entire line of rubs plus a marinade.
The specialty seasonings venture had humble beginnings, like so many other small businesses. Horner approached his local butcher with a sample of his first product. He laid it all on the line and said, "Ali, I've come up with a spice rub. And I don't know what I'm doing here, but I'd love you to try it. And if you like it, maybe you'd think about selling it?” Two days later, the butcher asked for a case of One Rub.
"Don't be scared to be yourself, and don't be scared to show vulnerability and say, I don't know what the hell I'm doing here. I really need some help"- Christian Horner
In the first two years, Horner was able to double his business earnings working with smaller shops. Grocery retailer Longo’s was his first major deal. “Our focus was direct-to-retail,” said Horner. “We just found that there was more margin, more money . . . We didn't have an infrastructure set up for fulfilment on the online side.” Fire in the Kitchen now has a website, but Horner remains dedicated to retail, drawn to the tangible nature of walking through an aisle and interacting with products. It aligns with his hands-on philosophy of building trust. He told us, “I think that would be my key to success, is build a relationship, not just a service contract.”
Recently, the company got seven top-selling products listed with Metro through a local vendors program. Horner relates that one of the first questions he was asked was about GS1: “They asked me, ‘Are you GS1-registered? Are you GS1 compliant?’ And I was thankful, I said, ‘Yes, I am’.” Horner acknowledged that having an existing relationship with GS1 Canada allowed him to list with Metro. “I understand and realize the value of GS1,” he said.
Horner left the fire department in September and is dedicating his undivided attention to growing his company. He’s thinking about the future of his business and hopes to recapture some of his former markets and build on current momentum. Plans include getting back into the US and expanding to the west and east coasts of Canada, where Fire in the Kitchen has minimal distribution.
From the early days in his mother’s kitchen to listing products with major grocery retailers, Horner has relied on a love of food and confidence in his product. Even at the fire hall, he says, “I was the Fire in the Kitchen spice guy, and everybody would sit me down and ask me about the business, ask me about the spices.” His enthusiasm and dedication, not to mention lessons learned over the years, make Horner a small business success story.