Charles Chang of Vega. (Photo: Shannon Mendes) Charles Chang of Vega. (Photo: Shannon Mendes)

Walk into a Whole Foods sometime soon, and you might be invited to sample the latest in smoothie technology. The twist: you’ll have to mix that smoothie yourself, using an in-store, bicycle-powered blender. Your reward is a gluten-free, sugar-free, protein- and nutrient-rich vegan shake—in your choice of French Vanilla, Vanilla Chai, Berry or Chocolate flavours.

The Bicycle Blender is brought to you by Vega, a Vancouver nutritional and fitness supplement maker that has grown its sales sevenfold in the past five years (it’s No. 95 on the PROFIT 500 this year), thanks in part to the pop-up shops it runs inside busy retailers. The point is to promote Vega One, the protein-rich powdered shake that is the company’s flagship product.

“We just needed to get Vega One into as many hands as possible,” the company’s founder, Charles Chang, says of the strategy. Vega’s first attempt, inside a Vancouver Whole Foods last August, boosted that store’s sales by 700% over 10 days. “It was balls-out the best we’ve ever done,” he says. Since then, Vega has averaged close to one pop-up per week. The bike is key, because Vega isn’t just selling shakes; it’s selling a lifestyle, based on taking control of your diet, fitness and even environmental footprint.

Chang started Vega (then called Sequel Naturals) in his basement 13 years ago to sell a nutritional supplement made of maca, a high-antioxidant root native to Peru. But soon after launching, he met Brendan Brazier, a professional Ironman triathlete who happened to be vegan—a rare combination that required Brazier to pay an above-average level of attention to his diet. Brazier had tried Chang’s maca supplement and saw potential. Now, Brazier helps formulate the supplements and Chang handles logistics.

“We felt there was a market for something cleaner,” Chang says, referring to the products’ lack of gluten, sugar, dairy and other ingredients currently out of fashion with many consumers. “It’s as much about what’s not in the product as what’s in it,” Chang says. Placed alongside other protein powders in the market—with names like Maximuscle, Combat Powder and TestOroid—the pared-down look and tone of Vega’s supplements and snacks appeal to a different customer.

First and foremost, she’s a she—more than two-thirds of Vega’s customers are women—and there are two brands she identifies strongly with: Lululemon and Whole Foods. “We didn’t realize how female-focused it was until we started selling it,” Chang admits.

And just like Lululemon, Vega is in the business of selling more than what’s on the shelves. That’s why the company acted as publisher for Brazier’s first book, The Thrive Diet: The Whole Food Way to Losing Weight, Reducing Stress, and Staying Healthy for Life, and gave it the marketing push to help turn it into a bestseller.

The company also launched, a website that provides free personalized nutritional and fitness advice, meal plans, recipes and videos, all starring Brazier as the site’s host/mascot/personal trainer—a vegan Oprah with a six-pack. Vega’s involvement is clear but subtle; there are links to the parent company, but none of the recipes call for Vega’s products. So far more than 100,000 people have signed up for a free ThriveForward membership.

“It establishes us as a thought leader,” says Chang, and helps differentiate the company from competitors. It also keeps a premium sheen on the company, justifying premium prices. “You get away from the product detail and get into the ‘why,’” says Chang. “How do you want to live, and how do you get there?” In this case, getting there involves a stationary bike in a grocery store.

PRO TIP: “The U.S. is a huge market. It has submarkets. Case in point: There’s more business in California than all of Canada. We identified the key markets—New York, Florida—rather than trying to go everywhere.”

Click here for the complete 2014 PROFIT 500

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