Size your audience, know your audience, listen to your audience, love your audience. It’s really all about them creating a brand they love, a great product they need, and solving a problem they have.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Loren Brill Castle.
After beating cancer in her early twenties, Loren Brill Castle made it her mission to eliminate processed foods from her diet. When she couldn’t find great tasting cookies made from better ingredients, she set out to make her own — and it led her to create Sweet Loren’s, a clean food company whose first product line is refrigerated cookie dough made with simple ingredients, free from the Top 8 Allergens and plant-based. Loren is an entrepreneur, visionary, and true change-maker working toward a brighter future for the food industry.
Loren is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a BA in Communication. She is a certified Hatha Yoga Instructor, attended the New School for the Master Class in Cooking, and attended the Natural Gourmet Institute. Loren was born and raised in NYC, and now lives in Los Angeles, California, truly living the healthy lifestyle.
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”?
Thank you for having me be a part of this series!
Growing up, both my parents were entrepreneurs. They were my role models. They were passionate, hardworking and they made the world a better place.
I grew up in NYC and was exposed to a lot at a young age — fast paced lifestyle, diversity of people, great food. Both of my parents worked a lot, but even with busy parents, I remember dinner time was special. My mom always made it home for dinner with me and my two siblings for a sit-down dinner together as it was important time for our family to connect. She always provided us with fresh, nourishing food options and we were never allowed fast food or soda. My whole family has also always had a sweet tooth, especially for dark chocolate and homemade, great quality desserts. I would experiment when I was little, cooking always making chocolate chip pancakes or scrambled eggs for my siblings and myself. I remember trying to bake a cake and though I was terrible at it because I wouldn’t follow a recipe, my mom was supportive, kind and encouraging and would say “oh just needs a little tweak!” I have always loved food, and had a creative side, but I never thought about being a baker. At 14, my mom got cancer and was sick for 12 years. That’s part of why health and wellness are so important to me.
Before I went to college, I was passionate about health and wellness and became certified as a yoga instructor. Then I studied abroad in college my junior year in Florence, Italy and Amsterdam, and I fell in love with all the fresh ingredients they use in their food. I worked at multiple different places throughout those years that also fueled my passion, from a family-owned chocolate shop in Florence to a bakery in NYC. I have always been drawn to things that make people really happy and feel good, whether that’s yoga and working out, or appreciating the importance of sharing good high-quality food.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
It’s not just one! It’s a few “ah ha moments” that all came together. When I graduated college, ready to take on the world, my life took a turn I could have never anticipated. Not only was my mom still sick, but I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 22, just a couple months after graduating college. I was incredibly fortunate to have access to the care I needed. The doctors were tremendous in helping me beat Hodgkins lymphoma, but I was surprised that we never discussed the importance of nutrition and the role of food, exercise, and meditation in getting and staying healthy. This led me to take a close look at what I was putting into my body and my own research into nutrition and wellness. My food philosophy to care for my body and efforts to prevent cancer from coming back include lots of whole food and minimally processed ingredients. However, I’ve always been a believer in moderation and knew that a healthy lifestyle did not mean giving up dessert. I set out to find sweet snacks and treats that would meet my food standards but couldn’t find anything made with good, clean, recognizable ingredients that was also delicious. Everything I found was highly processed, containing a long list of unrecognizable ingredients and additives. There was no delicious treat with ingredients that met my standards, but my cravings for something sweet wasn’t going anywhere!
This was my first ah ha — — why doesn’t this exist? So, I decided to try to make my own. I studied nutrition and went to a natural culinary school. Then I began making recipes in my home kitchen, baking for my family and friends. After a lot of trial and error, people around me started to rave about my treats, especially my cookies. This was my second ah ha — It is possible to have a delicious treat that has all clean ingredients — something so good that everyone will love. I investigated the cookie dough category in supermarkets and thought, there’s only 2 players who own this, why isn’t there a brand that stands for better-for-you ingredients in this category? I must not be the only consumer looking for a brand I can trust! And that was the biggest ah ha moment — — when I found the open white space. I decided to start with cookie dough, and that’s when Sweet Loren’s was created!
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?
At my first factory, one of the owners wore glasses. One day in the factory, one of the lenses in his glasses went missing. We were worried it may have fallen into the cookie dough that we were running on the production lines. I must emphasize this was not a small amount of batter. It was 1,200 pounds of cookie dough. For several hours, with gloves on my hands, I had to sift through the entire production line of cookie dough, every inch of it searching for the missing lens just in case he dropped it into the dough!
Well, we couldn’t find it. But now we had to throw out the entire 1200 pounds of cookie dough too and run the cookie dough production all over again. Later that day, believe it or not, he found the missing lens — — under his desk! I may have cried before I thought it was funny! It was less a mistake and more of an unfortunate circumstance, but I learned that there will always be adventures, and something will inevitably go wrong. I learned you have to be willing to do anything. Nothing is above you or below you. You have to have a sense of humor too, and just have fun with the adventure of building a business from scratch. As I look back at that time, I had so much energy and excitement. Nothing was going to stop me then ….and I still feel that way now 8 years later.
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?
A common mistake is being so confident in your idea and your own viewpoint that you launch without involving the customer. While most entrepreneurs are smart with intuition about what their customers want, it’s best to do as much testing as you can before you launch to ensure you maximize the product. Sometimes the flavors you love are not what is going to work in market. Or the packaging may be beautiful, but it’s not something that works at retail on shelf. Be open to things you couldn’t predict or anticipate and remember, you’re creating this product for other people so welcome their feedback as to how it can improve.
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?
First, find something you are so passionate about, or dare I say, you are obsessed with. If you love something, you’ll have the stamina and understanding it takes to make an excellent product. Once you do have the product, it’s important to listen to your customer. First step is to work on your recipe or product, test it with as many people as possible, friends, family, friends of friends — absolutely anyone so that you can gather insights and feedback to improve. Study the industry. Understand the landscape you are in, so you can find the white space and have a differentiated edge. The best place to start is by finding the problem in the category that needs to be solved. Just get out there and talk to people, share the product, listen and learn and gather enough info to tweak the product and understand where your product can add value to the category. Make friends in the industry so people can help you, so you aren’t alone. I know people say this a lot, but you need to be tenacious, passionate and care deeply about the product you are making. You must work hard for it every day.
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?
You have to put your ego aside. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Know them well. Surround yourself with as many skilled and talented as possible. You can be a great visionary, but maybe not great in finance. You can be smart in numbers, but not good at managing people. You can be creative but not good at strategy. That’s okay — just know those strengths and weaknesses and partner with the right people.
Also find a mentor or advisors you can trust. At the very beginning I was a one woman show and didn’t have that team with the strengths I needed. Once a week, I met with an incredible female business mentor, Daniella. Not only did it give me insight and experience I had not yet learned, it helped me get out of my head, see things differently, and set and keep goals. She helped build my confidence as a first-time entrepreneur. Eventually I could hire a team and fill in the gaps. The mentor was really an important piece of my growth and the company’s growth. I highly recommend surrounding yourself with more accomplished, experienced people and soak up all you can from them!
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. A consultant needs a vision to fully execute their services. If you hire a consultant, your vision should be crystal clear. I didn’t hire a consultant early on, but I imagine if you have a clear vision and need someone to help you invent your new product, then it could work out. My idea and vision were not clear enough when I first started out. My process in making my own recipes helped me find opportunity in the space and build a clear vision. Looking back, I don’t think working with a consultant would have brought me to the recipes we have today. Hiring a consultant can be very expensive and there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to create exactly what you envision. Lastly, I wanted our recipes to taste homemade, this was another factor in developing the recipes on my own. A small budget and a scrappy attitude did the trick for launching Sweet Loren’s.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
It depends what the business is and the money you need — if the business needs a lot of cash to get started, and you can’t afford to start a business without it, clearly you need to consider venture capital or some type of financial funding. If not, I think bootstrapping is the smartest in the beginning until you know what works in the market and maintain maximum ownership of the company. To raise money, you need to have conviction on why you need that money. And when you take it, there’s a timeline and pressure to pay off loans or maximize investments. In that case, you have to find the right partner who can really add value and problem solve and get the right team — if you do find a financial partner that brings a lot to the table, that could be a superpower for you. That said, it’s important to remember that no one is going to work as hard as you to start and run your business. You just need to be clear with yourself and with your partners in communicating what you need, what you’d be willing to give up, what kind of partner you want, and what the exciting goal is.
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?
Patents: I have never done this, so I won’t be much help here as you can’t patent a recipe, just keep it top secret! But for everything I didn’t know, I googled it, I talked to as many people as possible, and just did whatever I needed to do to find answers.
Raw ingredients: I relied on the factory to help source ingredients. I went to trade shows, talked to any and everyone, met suppliers, and I told as many people as possible what my story was and vision for the brand so that they would understand what I was trying to do and help in any way. My advice is to do all those things and a ton of research. Get samples of raw ingredients, play around with them, make sure the ingredient is great quality and tastes good, and is from a company that feels trustworthy. For instance, not all oat flour or chocolate is created equally! I personally have tested dozens of them to find the perfect ingredients for Sweet Loren’s — meaning taste has to be incredible, clean ingredients only, and from a supplier I can trust.
Manufacturer — I googled the hell out of everything, and I had no friends in the industry when I started. I just did a lot of research. This step is really important, you must trust your manufacturer, have a good contract with them, make sure they are reliable and high quality, find one that really wants to help you grow and help your brand and business. The right manufacturer is the one that cares enough to help you tweak your product and can grow with you. At this point, I have been at 4 factories so it’s okay to switch and grow over time! The first one I found was just to make the smallest amount of cookie dough possible to get me started because I couldn’t commit to large orders when I was just starting out. Then I switched to a couple of other factories, and now, that we are made in a gluten free and allergen free factory, we had to find the perfect factory for us that we could trust.
Retailer — distributor: I launched directly. I literally went door to door, and asked people how to get into places. Whole Foods was the first store that agreed to carry Sweet Loren’s. Initially I paid someone who worked at the factory to deliver to Whole Foods! Once we got into more Whole Foods, their distributor UNFI started carrying us. Publix was next and we got into all stores shipping direct so I didn’t need a distributor. The same thing happened when Kroger started carrying Sweet Loren’s.
I brought on an amazing VP of Sales that had years of prior experience and she helped me navigate how to set up national distribution once we started getting serious momentum. If you can become friends with people in your industry, this can be extremely valuable for introductions to a supermarket buyer. Otherwise, you can bring on a broker to make introductions or visit the retailer’s website and figure out how to submit samples. Don’t stop until someone takes a meeting!
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need to Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- For the most part, the food and beverage industry is made up of just a handful companies- global conglomerates that don’t have health and wellness as their mission. Find the thing that you can offer that they don’t. Understand what they offer and what they don’t and prove how you will expand the category, add incremental business — not steal share. If you can show you can grow a category and bring new people to it, why wouldn’t a retailer want to carry you?!
- Find one or two retailers to develop a strong partnership to start and focus there to grow. Find ones that believe in you, give you a chance and put enough shelf space and more SKUS, and grow there. The ones that partner with you and give you feedback- they want to see you succeed. Then you use that learning and success and build your case to sell to others. This way you can focus to start and have a chance at growing the business. I was so grateful Publix and Kroger launched us nationally and into conventional because that gave us enough business to get our COGs down and also was a proof point that once we did well there, we could succeed anywhere from a natural store to a very conventional one.
- In food or beverage — it has to taste good and your brand has to build loyalty. Nothing you do to market it successfully will matter in the long run (and sometimes short term) if your product doesn’t taste good and really solve a problem. Whatever you do — succeed there. Your product won’t work unless the customer comes back again and again because they find so much value in what you create and love your brand. If you make something that’s easy to copy, customers will not be loyal to your brand and could easily switch to another product that solves their problems.
- Packaging is critical and part of the psychology of why a customer buys you the first time– it’s your billboard and 99% of your advertising. You are competing with thousands of other products in such a little time, and you have to think of smart packaging to capture attention, be fun and inviting and then tell what your product is. A customer makes an impulse purchase in store in seconds — you have to win here. So there’s lots to think of when designing packaging.
- Size your audience, know your audience, listen to your audience, love your audience. It’s really all about them creating a brand they love, a great product they need, and solving a problem they have.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
I created a concept, but once you get in the market, customers will have feedback on texture flavor, concerns etc. Listen and adapt. If they love you, they’ll help you figure it out. It helps you grow and shape the product. You will get better and better over time. I’ve talked a lot about listening to my customers, but sometimes you must listen between the lines. What I mean by this is they don’t always tell you exactly what they want, sometimes they tell you a problem and it’s up to you to listen and figure out what they are asking for and how you’ll solve for it.
I am lucky, proud, and so grateful for the many fans we have. I love when they tell me how much they love our product and what they love about it, and I also love hearing their questions or concerns. In my opinion, one of the reasons Sweet Loren’s is thriving is because we have wonderfully passionate fans, and we really care what they have to say!
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
There are 4 ways.
- I am committed to continually improving overall wellness of our customers, making people happier, and helping them eat cleaner. Our cookies help bring joy to people’s homes for those who haven’t been able to eat certain foods because of food allergies. I am proud every time I receive a letter from a customer who has told us Sweet Loren’s cookie dough has been “life changing” because now her child with a nut allergy, or her family member with a dairy or gluten allergy can enjoy cookies. Or how an athlete loves our cookie dough because it’s so decadent and delicious, but still lets them have a clean lifestyle where they feel good about the ingredients, they’re putting in their body. I started with cookie dough, but I will continue to work to bring this wellness and joy to people one product at a time.
- My mission is to be a force for good in the food industry — proving that clean ingredients can be more delicious than conventional, highly processed food with additives. While Sweet Loren’s is a small company compared to the giant brands that dominate the industry, we need to realize that good food can come from simple, real ingredients that all can enjoy.
- Sweet Loren’s is making a difference. We are plant-based. We are non-GMO. We source sustainable oil. We are proud to be a part of these things that are making a difference.
- Being an example of a successful female entrepreneur, I have been told I have inspired a lot of women and young girls, and I am proud of that. It humbles me to support other women, to let them know they are capable of anything and shouldn’t be afraid to go after their dreams. And for anyone who has been through a hard time, how to use that for the positive.
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.
This is a great question.
Based on my story, I would start by saying health — overall physical and mental health are everything. It’s foundational to a good life. I want to inspire people to be in love with better ingredients, food that is good for them and the environment. I want them to know that they can take care of themselves, enjoy their day, feel joy, share joy and not feel they are compromising with the food they eat. Imagine how much better our collective overall health would be? How much better the environment would be — if everyone had access to clean food that was sustainably sourced and delicious? Creating a movement of taking care of ourselves and our environment seems like the right thing to do.
And I guess underneath all that, I want people to know that whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever your story and hardship, you can learn from that hardship and turn that into a positive. Fighting through will give you strength and confidence and an appreciation for life. You can control your own destiny. Everyone deserves to feel joy and happiness in their lives. Even if it feels like the odds are against you, with passion, a vision and a lot of hard work, you can make your wildest dreams come true.
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 look up to a lot of incredible women — Oprah, Sarah Blakely — but if I had to say one person I’d like to have a private conversation with, I’d say Richard Branson!
Beyond being an incredibly successful businessman, he keeps himself active and fit and pushes himself to be better and do better. He is incredibly philanthropic. I admire his vision and boundary pushing. He can balance all of this while living in paradise. He lives what seems to be a life filled with family and friends. He is inspiring and it would be fascinating to soak up some of that wisdom and passion and learn how he makes it all happen. And I think we would have fun together! Richard, call me if you’re reading this! 🙂
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.