Create a good product. You’ll go far with a good product that people see as something desirable and want to eat or drink. We saw an opportunity in our category to offer an allergy-friendly (nut-free) chocolate spread that is delicious on its own and versatile in recipes. We had also first-hand experience with friends clamoring for Belgian spreads and tested this demand on a broader scale.
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 Jennifer Lukas-Bourgeois.
LEKKCO’S Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer, Jennifer Lukas-Bourgeois “JLB,” brings twenty years of progressive marketing experience in brand building, managing brand integrity, creating customer loyalty, driving sales and developing successful teams. With a strong background in CPG and sports, JLB helped set the foundation for the launch of Red Bull energy drink in the U.S. and supported the brand’s growth from 1996 through 2014. Prior to that, she worked for ESPN X Games.
In Co-Founding LEKKCO with her Belgian husband Bram Bourgeois, JLB has introduced a delicious Belgian dark chocolate spread with more “better-for-you” attributes than other spreads to the category. LEKKCO offers a diverse all-natural flavor line up made with ethically sourced ingredients. The brand experienced tremendous growth within three years of its launch and is now available in over 2,500 stores nationwide, including Kroger.
JLB is passionate about shaping the next generation of young, and specifically women, leaders. She believes in paying it forward; dedicating time to mentoring and sharing career and business knowledge on career evolution and taking chances — all while striving to keep life in balance as a working mom of two.
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”?
Coming from the family of a small business owner in suburban Chicago, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. As a teen, I loved the movie “Working Girl” where I saw how hard work and smarts pay off.
Starting in college, I took advantage of every opportunity to learn different skills and took on various leadership positions. I still enjoy the challenge of learning something new.
In 1996, I was part of the original crew that helped launch and grow Red Bull energy drink in the United States. Red Bull encouraged its employees to take on new job responsibilities and work cross-functionally to learn all areas of the business. But corporate America often requires you to be “on” 24/7 and I struggled to pursue a successful career that also allowed me to be available and present for our young kids. After nearly two decades in this role, I was ready to walk away with a full backpack of skills for my next chapter.
My husband Bram and I were inspired to co-create our own company built on a foundation of culture, creativity, and opportunities to nurture young talent. It helped that we have a product we truly love — Lekkco Belgian Dark Chocolate Spread. When we launched the company in 2017, it became a marriage of our skillsets, passion for good food, and our family’s blended heritage between Belgium and the U.S.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Lekkco Belgian Dark Chocolate Spread was born from the love of great food. My husband is from Belgium, we would go back and forth many times each year and bootleg “Chicago style” certain food products you could not find in the U.S.
Chocolate spread in Belgium is what peanut butter is to Americans. During visits, we would bring a handful of jars of Belgian chocolate spread back with us to share with friends. Upon tasting it, our friends lost their minds over how delicious it was and the fact that it did not contain any hazelnuts.
With my background in CPG, I knew that the chocolate spread category was dominated by one player that contains nuts. My wheels began turning. My husband and I asked ourselves, “What if we launched our own brand of chocolate spread to the U.S. market?” This “what if” brainstorm began on my in-laws back terrace while we were on holiday overseas. We started researching the category, the consumer base and potential product differentiators. We knew we could introduce healthier attributes of a unique dark chocolate spread to help us stand out on shelf.
On April 1, 2017, we sold our first case to Kaufmann’s Deli in Skokie, Illinois. We are grateful to Judy and Betty of Kaufman’s for giving us that first opportunity. (It’s a must-visit if you’re ever in the area!)
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?
Early on, I was excited to share samples with friends and family. I didn’t think about things like temperature control or shipping logistics. I attempted to send a jar to my cousin in Arizona when it was over 115 degrees outside. Not surprisingly, he opened the box to find it had exploded into a melty mess. We now know to pay better attention to the conditions both where we are and where the product is going and have developed a more sophisticated system.
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?
One of the most important elements of launching a food line is asking for and adapting to consumer feedback. Food entrepreneurs are traditionally very passionate about what they do and bring to market. At times, it’s hard to receive constructive feedback, but I believe we’re all better for listening to it. There may not always be or need to be a solution, but sometimes minor changes can make a big difference in the long run.
For example, at Lekkco we thought we were spot on with our first-generation product packaged in a glass jar. After a small launch into local Chicagoland retail, we learned that store managers don’t really like glass containers because they’re heavy and break easily. If you have a stand-alone display, they cringe when that goes on to the floor, knowing someone will bump into it with their cart.
Another mistake I see is trying to think too big out of the gate– especially where we are in this great test market of Chicago. Many founders want to jump right into the largest retailers. However, you’ve got to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. Start with a small inventory and test. Listen to your consumers and retailers and make calculated adjustments.
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?
Anyone can launch a product. But do your research and set yourself up for success by looking at the category you would play in. Visit the aisle and shelf in different store settings. Who dominates that space and how will your product contribute to the growth of that category? Take pasta sauce, that’s an awfully crowded category today that will require a very different product concept to stand out. A great brand or company always starts with a great product that can help that category grow.
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?
Don’t over-think it early on. Grab a notepad or your laptop and start jotting down your ideas. Who is this product good for? How and where will you sell it? What are your points of differentiation? What is your brand messaging? Let the ideas flow. It’s ok if this process takes time to evolve and research — it could be years.
In any business or industry, you are taking risks in order to succeed. If you have a good idea, test it with your circle and broaden from there. Be open and willing to receive suggestions.
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?
It depends on the individual. If you have a CPG background, look at the white space in your skillset and then around at your connections. Scour LinkedIn and ask people for coffee or a Zoom call. Inquire if you can ask them about their background and journey. It’s common to call upon your friends in the industry who are usually willing to talk. I don’t believe a development consultant is really necessary unless you feel you need it and are coming from an entirely different industry.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
When launching a product or company you need to have some type of start-up funds, whether it’s self-funded or seed money. In the food space, venture capital typically will not look at supporting you until you have a proven product, a solid business model and have hit a certain revenue goal. Bootstrapping is the mentality any start up should adopt and you’ll need to keep your investments to absolutely necessary elements.
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?
In this space, you can’t patent food recipes, but you can patent a brand. If you have a unique brand and name, focus on registering your trademark.
When we launched Lekkco, we enlisted a contract manufacturer by design. We didn’t want to become manufacturers because our priority is building a brand and deploying a great product across the United States. To begin this process, we looked for partners who could grow to scale with us, help us ethically source raw ingredients, and align with our brand DNA. It took two years to find someone who hit all these marks — but we’ve nailed it.
The retail and distribution routes are a bit different, but both give you an opportunity to start small. As I have shared, we are located in Chicago where there are a lot of independent retailers. We were able to start out by making appointments with buyers of certain retailers to pitch our product and ask them for a chance. We find that many retailers love supporting local products and helped open doors for us.
As you start to grow and gather proven metrics and feedback, that’s when you can go to the larger retailers and try to connect with specific buyers for your category. You have to learn the review periods for that category and get on their calendar. For us, fall is a busy time for category meetings. These are very specific opportunities — you get 30 minutes, no more no less, and need to work on developing your pitch.
You can also talk to distributors and ask to be reviewed and included in their portfolio. If you get in with an Albertsons or a Kroger, they work with different region-based distributors. That can help open doors for you as well.
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.)
- Create a good product. You’ll go far with a good product that people see as something desirable and want to eat or drink. We saw an opportunity in our category to offer an allergy-friendly (nut-free) chocolate spread that is delicious on its own and versatile in recipes. We had also first-hand experience with friends clamoring for Belgian spreads and tested this demand on a broader scale.
- Do your category research. Do your homework to identify points of differentiation for your product that will ultimately help to grow versus cannibalize the category. Are there emerging categories based on trends that you can contribute to? Think back to the pasta sauce example — is there room for another option here or is your time and money better served introducing something entirely different?
- Start small then scale up. Start local to test and prove or disprove different elements of your product, which can include taste, branding and your route to market. We’ve always had the vision to scale quickly but took time to evolve our branding and packaging based on small tests.
- Build a strong team. Hard work, talent and resourcefulness are all critical pieces of entrepreneurial success, but another big piece for me has been the team you surround yourself with. When starting a business, you come with your idea and set of skills, but you need to match any vacancies with experts in those areas. We’ve done this at Lekkco where we have a fantastic management team that has each brought a unique skillset to the table.
- Forecast with flexibility. You can write the perfect business plan but inevitably, situations pop-up that you did not plan for and you need to be patient and flexible to address those or adjust the plan.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Do your homework on your product and industry to ensure it’s a viable product or service idea.
You have to have a good product that tastes good and fits a need for the consumer. Then, look at the brand ethos and personality. What will help you connect with the consumer? These are the two strongest foundations.
You also have to make sure that it’s easily available, within a finger swipe away or arm’s reach. From there, create demand and education through sales and marketing.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Our daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade and we’re dedicated to raising awareness of this learning disability. Dyslexia, in short, is a learning disorder that affects the ability to read, spell, write and speak. Dyslexia affects how the brain decodes symbols and patterns like letters, numbers, music notes, and words to understand information. People who have dyslexia are smart individuals who think and learn differently.
One in five people have some form of dyslexia — that’s 15 to 20 percent of the school-age population. Breaking it down into numbers, there are 65.6 million school aged children in the U.S. Anywhere between 9.7–13 million kids have some form of dyslexia. Let that sink in.
Learning disabilities, for the most part, are misunderstood by educational institutions on how they affect the child both physically and mentally, not to mention educationally (how they learn). For the dyslexic individual, we hope by raising awareness, we can help the educational system identify a dyslexic student early on to give them the advantage of the tools and strategies dyslexics need in order to learn.
The Lekkco brand name font is a variation of the dyslexie font, making it easier for dyslexic individuals to read.
We also collaborate with the College of DuPage in suburban Illinois to give young talent exposure to the inner workings of national brand and active CPG workspace. This program serves as a strong talent pipeline for us, as well. Our lead chef and recipe developer, Corina Muhammad, joins us from the College.
Finally, the coronavirus pandemic has been hard on all of us and we were inspired to make people smile in simple ways. In 2020, we launched a “Spread the Love” initiative to surprise and delight people with unexpected deliveries of Lekkco spreads along with a postcard to pay-it-forward to others. After sending back the completed card, we shipped spreads to those individuals and the circle is still growing. We’ve sent thousands of boxes over the past several months.
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.
Increasing dyslexia awareness in school age children is critically important. Math, reading and learning are crucial to life. Even though dyslexia is a learning disability versus physical disability that you can see, it’s omnipresent in the educational system. Growing up with dyslexia plays a role in who you are, how you work and how you develop personal relationships. I would love to grab a megaphone and do more to educate people about dyslexia so those who experience this condition can have a fair shot and be supported with strategies to get through life.
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 the opportunity to have tea with Sara Blakely of Spanx and Richard Branson — they’re friends! I had the opportunity to hear them speak and was so inspired by their start, how they’ve structured their businesses, the risks they’ve taken and how they continue to grow and evolve their businesses.
Personally, I know that Richard Branson is proud to speak about being a dyslexic and how that has shaped him to think differently, which I admire. He is making such a difference.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.