Stand out/stand above packaging, branding and marketing design is critical. Do not settle for anything here. If your packaging doesn’t scream out for people to stop, look and pick it up, you may not succeed. Take our Maple Craft Syrup packaging for example. The label says maple syrup, but it looks like a flask that liquor would come in. And the bottles are each hand-dipped in wax, like a fine crafted liquor bottle might have. It’s attractive, different from the competition and causes people to pick it up to take a closer look. Your packaging and branding will make your products taste better…ok, maybe not really, but perception is EVERYTHING!
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Ackert, Founder and Chief Maple Officer, Maple Craft Foods.
Entrepreneurial, well-seasoned product marketing and sales leader with deep understanding of what it takes to build a brand, sales strategy and organization, and to keep customers happy. Described as a tenacious, funny, passionate, creative, and motivated pusher of the proverbial envelope, Dave has always been particularly interested in brands that help families live happier, healthier lives. To-date, Dave has successfully created or grown four innovative brands in the technology and food spaces, leading them to and through successful exits.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Sure. Growing up, my parents both worked full time in the insurance industry. They both love to cook and are very good at it, and to a certain extent their passion and skill has trickled down to my younger brother and I. They always let us help, and like many families, much of our quality time was spent in and around the kitchen and food. Whether it was after school while they were still at work, or on weekend mornings before they woke up, we were allowed and encouraged to cook, for ourselves and for the family. Throughout my childhood, our house was the one where my friends would hang out. I was always hosting parties, and cooking for everyone, and starting in middle school, I was also the one who would organize field trips and excursions for school and community clubs and organizations or just for groups of friends. It is clear now, that this was the beginning of my entrepreneurial spirit taking flight. There was lots of strategizing, planning, organization, budgeting, scheduling and executing involved with these projects and events. I certainly never thought about any of it as ‘work’. I enjoyed it, and still do. I’ve always enjoyed the challenges involved with creating and selling products that make people smile and form wonderful memories. Whenever grown-ups would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was either that I wanted to be in advertising, or that I wanted to own a restaurant. As it turned out, I majored in Marketing and Business Administration in College, and while the first half of my career was centered around Advertising, I guess it’s no surprise that I’ve ultimately ended up as an entrepreneur in the food industry.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Maple Craft Foods was born out of tragedy. It was a couple of years after the unthinkable tragedy here in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Like so many others, I was in a deep funk. It was hard to stay focused, let alone be excited about going to work. The Seattle-based tech start-up that I helped create was just acquired by Time Inc., one of the oldest, stodgiest media companies, based in NYC. It would have been hard for me to get excited about working there in the best of times. I had been working remotely, from a home office for years. Our house was the one in the neighborhood with a swimming pool, so my wife hosted swim lessons for neighbors who also had young children. The kids would learn to swim and the moms would get a little break and commiserate by the pool. It was a necessary form of therapy for all….until the ice cream truck showed up, usually right before dinner, and only stocked with really unhealthy artificially flavored/colored choices. Arguments between kids and their mom ensued, and I witnessed these stressful encounters and the smiles disappear week after week. One day, I was in the kitchen and noticed a half of watermelon on the counter. I decided to liquify and turn it into a frozen treat to offer the kids as a healthy alternative that would make everyone happy. The first time was a complete failure. It turns out that frozen watermelon juice doesn’t taste so good on its own! Undeterred, I tried again, adding some homemade maple syrup, and hit pay dirt! Next thing I knew, kids were knocking on the door asking if I had any more, and two neighborhood dads, a branding & design guru and an attorney, encouraged me to turn it into a business, and offered to help me do it. That’s how Maple Craft Foods was born.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is hard for me because I think I’ve lost my sense of humor when it comes to making mistakes, because mistakes cost money, and when you’re bootstrapping a new/young start-up, you can’t afford mistakes! Our first product was an organic, maple-sweetened frozen treat. It was a great product that got picked up by Wholefoods very quickly. But I severely underestimated the complexity and costs associated with making, storing and distributing a frozen product, especially in New England where we only have about 6–8 months of warm/hot weather. It wasn’t scaleable or profitable and we spent a lot of money and lost a lot of time (and time is money!) learning this lesson and pivoting to other products.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Overhead. Spending precious start-up funds on equipment and facilities is a pretty common mistake. This money often comes from personal savings and/or friends and family, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. A much smarter approach is to contract with co-packers and other service providers. Another common mistake is to not price your products appropriately for the long haul. It’s critical to understand what kind of margins your customers will require, and how much distributors and brokers will cost you down the road, at the onset.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
It’s important to understand the competitive landscape, and figure out where your product can fit in, and what needs it would fulfill. Those that can separate their emotional connection with their product or idea while performing this analysis, will have the best chance at success. Be sure to solicit, and be open to ALL feedback from friends, family and most importantly, prospective consumers and industry experts. Speak with prospective wholesale customers and prospective consumers. Speak with co-packers, suppliers and other entrepreneurs who’ve already been down the road you are about to embark on. You need to know what’s wrong with your product or idea. You need to understand why people will never pay that much for your product, or why you should be charging more. You need to understand all of the regulatory requirements, and other hidden costs and obstacles that will need to be overcome. The more of this that you can figure out before you get too far down the road, the better chance you have at making sound decisions about if/how to move forward.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
Look for mentors and trusted advisors. Listen to their advice in order to make your own informed decisions. Getting started is hard, and can be intimidating. If you have a great product, it should end up speaking for itself. Job 1 is to see if other people will get excited about it enough to want to help you. The most important thing to remember when asking people to help you, is that the worst thing that could happen is that they say ‘no’. You have nothing to lose by asking an acquaintance for their opinion and advice, and maybe for more if they love what you want to do after hearing about it, tasting it, etc. Try to identify people whose expertise compliments your own. This initial team you need to build is critical. You don’t need three idea people, or three social media experts, or three legal experts or three design experts. You need one of each who are really good at what they do, and who are willing to help you.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I don’t think an invention development consultant is necessary when it comes to food innovation.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
There is no one size fits all solution to funding a start-up. Everyone’s financial situation is unique, as is everyone’s appetite for personal risk. Bootstrapping until you’ve achieved not just proof of concept, but significant sales/revenue results is ideal, if you can. It will be easier to raise money, and at much better valuations, if you wait….so long as you have financial proof that you are executing.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
If I were to file for a patent, I would hire a good patent attorney. Same goes for a trademark. For sourcing, whether ingredients or contractors, there is no substitute for getting to know the supplier, for tasting the ingredients, and for speaking with their current AND past customers. Be sure to understand their capacity for being flexible. As a start up, you will need flexibility from your partners. Ultimately, you need to trust your feelings after you’ve done this leg work, and ask yourself, honestly, do they ‘feel’ like the right partner?
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Does your product fulfill a need? Is there actual demand from people who are ready and wanting to buy it? Our very first product came about as a result of neighbors actually knocking on our door and asking us if we had any more of the prototype we had handed out! Same with our second, and best selling product, our award-winning Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup. From the very first test batch, and through the entire first year, we couldn’t make enough of it, fast enough!
- Are you all-in? Are you willing and able to take on tasks and play roles that you’ve never performed before, and to learn about things that you may not enjoy learning about? Yes, you will be the CEO of your new venture, but what that really means is that you are the Chief Everything Officer! I’ve been at this for about six years now, and I still get my hands dirty (sticky to be more precise!) in the kitchen, I still fall asleep in front of the computer while catching up on bookkeeping and other mundane tasks, and I do everything else in between!
- You need to surround yourself with experts that you trust. Who’s going to help you with legal questions and advice on company structure, trademarks, etc. Who’s going to advise you on financing, banking and accounting stuff? Who are you mentors with relevant experience? Who will be helping you with food regulatory issues? Who is an experienced, amazing branding and design expert that will help you?
- Stand out/stand above packaging, branding and marketing design is critical. Do not settle for anything here. If your packaging doesn’t scream out for people to stop, look and pick it up, you may not succeed. Take our Maple Craft Syrup packaging for example. The label says maple syrup, but it looks like a flask that liquor would come in. And the bottles are each hand-dipped in wax, like a fine crafted liquor bottle might have. It’s attractive, different from the competition and causes people to pick it up to take a closer look. Your packaging and branding will make your products taste better…ok, maybe not really, but perception is EVERYTHING!
- Focus. It can be really easy to get distracted. You’ll be pulled in a million different directions, often by people, partners, or even customers who have objectives that are different than yours. There will be lots of opportunities that present themselves. I try to always gage opportunities through the ROI lens. And there are two types of ROI that I think about; short term (e.g. sales/cash/revenue); and long term (strategic, branding and other intangible benefits. There isn’t enough time in the day to do everything that needs to get done. Try to spend your precious time moving the needle as much as you can.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Beyond tasting great, and being available at a fair price, a product has to achieve your stated goals and mission. At Maple Craft Foods, our goals are to make it simple and delicious for people to replace processed and artificial sweeteners and flavors with the good stuff that comes from maple trees, to help people foster healthy relationships with food, where it comes from, and with each other, and last but not least…to make people smile. Our mission is also our tagline: Make Life Sweet. Naturally. Our newest product is Elderberry Maple Craft Syrup. We created this product because we saw demand for immune boosting foods increasing at the beginning of 2020. We’ve been taking shots of other Elderberry syrups for a couple of years, and frankly, they don’t taste that great. It was always a battle to force our kids to drink theirs. So we created an alternative that tastes fantastic and where you can get your daily dose simply by pouring Elderberry Maple Craft Syrup over your waffles, in some coffee, milk or tea, or over some ice cream!
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I was hoping you would ask this. If your product/company/existence does not make the world a better place, then why bother? As I mentioned earlier, Maple Craft Foods was born out of unthinkable tragedy. Helping victims and survivors of gun violence smile, was and continues to be a core value, and one of the main ways that we give back. We donate a portion of proceeds to victim, survivor and prevention volunteer organizations with a focus on our youth. And with food insecurity surging during the pandemic, we also run various initiatives in support of Food Banks, providing their clients with better, all natural breakfast options. We also launched an entire “Make Life Sweet” fundraising platform, to help school, volunteer and nonprofit groups raise money by selling our organic and natural products. At Maple Craft Foods, our success is not measured by revenue or profit. It is measured by how much we are able to give back.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We hope to make it easy for as many people as possible to replace highly processed, artificial sweeteners and flavorings with the good stuff that comes from American maple trees. We are working hard to educate and demonstrate the health benefits of replacing processed sugar with maple syrup, as well as the benefits to family farms. Whether used as an ingredient or a topping, the simple step of replacing cane & corn syrup with maple syrup, would reduce sugar consumption by 33%, and add a bunch of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, without sacrificing taste.
There is much work to do, and many consumers to inspire. Natural & organic and fresh foods should not cost more than highly processed, chemical-laden foods. We’re doing our part and will continue to innovate and offer healthier and better tasting food products. But we know that in order for this to become a significant movement, the big food companies will have to lead the charge and the change. We hope to be able to inspire them to get on board, and do their part.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to spend some quality time with Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (Ben & Jerry). I admire these guys for their focus on and dedication to making the world a better place, and to making people smile. They are pioneers when it comes to corporate commitments to sustainability, fair trade, philanthropy and other forms of corporate responsibility. I would really like to explore ideas on addressing the two biggest food & nutrition challenges we face in America…..food insecurity and obesity. Our most vulnerable and at-risk people do not have access to fresh, healthy, natural foods. Instead, they consume junk food filled with highly processed artificial sweeteners, flavors, preservatives and colorings. “Pancake Syrup” is perhaps the worst example. Some of the biggest brands of this toxic pancake topping have spent millions of dollars on long overdue branding updates to help address racism. But if they really cared about the health and well being of their consumers, they would also address what’s going on INSIDE of that packaging. Whether its pancake syrup, ice cream, instant oatmeal, or just about anything else, the simple step of replacing cane & corn syrup with maple syrup, would reduce sugar consumption by 33%, and add a bunch of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, without sacrificing taste. It makes no sense that natural and organic foods cost more than highly processed foods, and I’d love to tap into Ben & Jerry’s experienced, brilliant minds to explore potential solutions to this dilemma.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. You are welcome. Thank YOU!