TUSTIN If you haven't heard of poutine, Stephen Armstrong and Robert Kelle bet you will soon.
Poutine, which originated in Quebec, is french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. And the indulgent dish is increasingly making its way from Armstrong's and Kelle's native Canada to California – along with some $45 billion in goods traded annually between the two places.
“We're riding a good momentum,” Armstrong said. “But there just hasn't been a group devoted to this.”
That's why the Tustin residents recently founded MAPLE (an acronym for market, access, promote, lead, enable) - The Canadian-U.S. Business Council of Southern California. The nonprofit aims to promote trade and investment between Canada and Southern California.
Armstrong and Kelle want to reach companies in all industries, whether they've done business in Canada, have personal ties to the country or none of the above.
They plan to do that for paid members through newsletters and networking, market research and quarterly meetings with experts on everything from tax credits to cross-border shipping.
“Canada is this well-kept secret,” said Armstrong, who owns a marketing firm. “We want people to know, if you're going to grow, your neighbor to the north speaks English, they have a good banking system and there is a lot of potential to explore.”
Armstrong grew up in Toronto, while Kelle grew up on a tobacco farm in the nearby town of Tillsonburg. But the pair didn't meet until five years ago, at an event with the group Canadians in Orange County.
Kelle, who runs a management consulting firm, helped launch that group, thinking it would create a business network. But it took on a social life of its own, he said, growing to some 600 members who meet several times a year to celebrate events such as Canada Day.
With encouragement from the Consulate General of Canada in Los Angeles, Armstrong, Kelle and five other board members in February launched MAPLE.
They see potential for local businesses to attract investment from and expand to Canada – in particular with medical devices coming out of Orange County, biotech products from San Diego and entertainment and startups out of Los Angeles.
And while it's early to tout success stories, they said initial response has been encouraging.
“Right now, connections are being made between members,” Kelle said.
One of those recent connections is with Mike Walker, who's helped secure seven patents as vice president of research and development at Omni-Lite Industries in Cerritos.
Today, the company makes aircraft fasteners, automobile fasteners and sports components that are shipped worldwide, including a shoe line used by Olympians since Michael Johnson in 1996.
Omni-Lite recruits workers out of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, the same mechanical engineering program from which Walker graduated. And the public company trades on a Canadian stock exchange.
Walker said his native country seems to remain “under the radar” for many Southern California businesses, making him excited to see what MAPLE might do.
“I think there's definitely opportunity for them to provide that connection to people,” Walker said.