Greta and Janet Podleski have some very voracious fans. The Polish sisters, who hail from St. Thomas, relish the thought that their popular books of low-fat recipes, including such tempting fare as Celine Dijon Chicken, Veal of Fortune and The Way We Stir, are helping improve the diets of Canadians.

"I'm trying to get them on Oprah," says Linda Ratcliffe, a graphic artist in Coquitlam, B.C., and an ardent advocate of the sisters' approach to nutrition. "Their books have changed my life as well as hundreds of others through our Weight Watchers network."

Recalling picking up the Podleski's first volume, Looneyspoons: Low-Fat Food Made Fun as a "lucky find" at a local bookseller, Ratcliffe says that the humour used to advance the healthy eating message in their books is a huge plus. "They're not talking about rabbit food. Every recipe is a great meal idea with common ingredients, and scrumptious. Our family enjoys Wok in the Pork and the Great Pretenderloin. We're shedding pounds and have never eaten better. I have to tell the world."

In rags-to-ricotta fashion, the Podleski sisters say they can't believe that more than 10 years have passed since they wrote and self-published their debut cookbook on a shoestring budget. "We were broke back then, with just $1.17 in our bank account," Greta says. "But we were determined to see this book made."

Photo courtesy of Crazy Plates
Janet, left, and Greta Podleski are delivering tempting low-fat cookbook fare to some voracious fans.

That perseverance paid off: In Canada alone, Looneyspoons has sold more than 850,000 copies and continues in perpetual reprint.

In 1999, they produced Crazy Plates (selling more than 350,000 copies) and their follow-up Eat, Shrink & Be Merry hit bookshelves in 2005. They've been featured on The Today Show, CNN and Canada AM.

Anne Garner is another devotee, though her admiration is stirred not from bean salads but by book sales.

"They strike a chord with many Canadians," says the cookbook category manager for Indigo Books & Music Inc., the Toronto-based book retailer. "Distinguishing them from most other cookbooks is their humour, cartoons and catchy and humorous titles. Their ingeniously designed books catch the customer's eye, and the sisters like to do personal book signings.

"They're a fun duo whose energy and passion for food is infectious - which translates into vigorous book sales and a sustained No.-1 popularity ranking among cookbook titles," she says.

Teaming with David Chilton, author of the bestselling The Wealthy Barber, a financial planning tome, which teaches how to become wealthy with a healthy fiscal regimen, the Podleskis continue to keep the pot boiling, moving beyond a meat-and-potatoes menu for future growth.

"We're leveraging the Crazy Plates name to expand our presence into other areas," Chilton says.

First, the company leapt into the frozen-food business in 2001 with the introduction of Crazy Plates Meal Kits, based on the books' recipes. The line of frozen entrees includes Stir Crazy, Mission Impastable and Worth Every Penne. The three serving kits sell for between $6 and $8 each.

"Now we're excited by our recent launch of Crazy Plates frozen pizzas," Chilton says.

Sold exclusively through A&P/Dominion/Food Basic supermarkets - currently only in Ontario - the pizzas, which have a suggested retail price of $6, have a variety of toppings and names such as Wise Guy and Kickin' Chicken.

Grant Lovig

"But the key here is the crust," Chilton says. "Ours is a multi-grain thin-crust, not white dough. And sales have been great."

But one who is skeptical that cookbook conquests and frozen-food fortunes are a natural mix is Grant Lovig, president of Edmonton-based Company's Coming Publishing Ltd., a self-publishing star with a cookbook series surpassing 23 million copies in sales since its founding in 1981 by cooking legend Jean Paré.

"We tried the packaged food route in the mid-1980s," Lovig says, noting the line of cookie and muffin mixes, salad dressings and mayonnaise was positioned in the mid-market. "Though sales topped $1 million, operations were halted in less than a year due to the high cost of establishing the product line in the face of stiff competition from large competitors - those with far deeper pockets than ours."

Instead, Company's Coming is kneading a different destiny for itself.

Says Lovig: "We are now marketing a new line of branded Company's Coming Sure Grip kitchen utensils, together with the production and distribution of metal bakeware, and other cookware and cooking-related textiles."

The company also plans to introduce an array of small appliances - slow cookers, blenders, hand mixers and food choppers under the Company's Coming brand.

"We believe these initiatives maximize the leverage of our well-established name. The strategy is to branch out from book publishing because in Canada, relying solely on book sales for recurring revenues is, at best, high risk," Lovig says.

Writing cookbooks can provide a good platform for entry into the food and food preparation-related marketplace, says Ashwin Joshi, director of the MBA program at the Schulich School of Business at Toronto's York University.

"Books help facilitate the evaluation of your product by consumers and validate your position as a trusted supplier," says Joshi. "But because these markets are also very mature - essentially oligarchies dominated by a few mammoth players - ultimate success for the small independent is rare.

"If you want to beat out McCain's Pizza, you have to convince consumers your product is superior," adds Joshi, who is also an associate professor in marketing. "It's not impossible, but expensive. There are marketing and high distribution costs in addition to huge listing fees exacted by the major grocery chains to claim your spot on their shelves - it's daunting."

Joshi says his hat is off to Crazy Plates and Company's Coming. "They seem to be doing things right to beat the odds."

Although the Crazy Plates Meal Kits and pizzas haven't yet reached her local supermarket (A&P has a gradual rollout of the line), Ratcliffe says her Ontario friends have tasted the Podleski sisters' products and love them.

"I can't wait till they're available here," she says. "If they're anything like the recipes in their books, they're sure winners. And that gives me another reason to call Oprah."

(Jack Kohane can be reached at kohane@businessedge.ca)