A product with a meaningful point of difference from the consumers’ perspective. This point of difference may be a better tasting product, a healthier product, a plant-based alternative, a lower-priced product, a product that solves a problem that current market offerings have, and so on. The key is that this difference is valued by the consumer, not based on the entrepreneur’s assumption that the product difference is valued.
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 Chris Glab.
Chris is Co-Founder of wildbrine, a producer of naturally fermented, krauts, kimchis, srirachas, and salsas located in the heart of Sonoma County, California. Wildbrine is passionate about the impact of fermentation on food, experimenting with all the ways the natural transformation process of fermentation works, and discovering new ways to deliver deliciously nutritious fermented products to consumers. The company is intensely committed to every step of the creation and production process, from fermenting vegetables to using organic ingredients to answering every customer’s questions. In 2021, wildbrine will launch “WildCREAMERY,” a line of plant-based dairy alternative products, including the company’s popular cashew-based cheese. Founded by Chris Glab and Rick Goldberg in 2011, Wildbrine is widely recognized as an innovator in the fermented foods and plant-based marketplace.
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”?
Iwas born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and was always a bit of a science geek. As a young adult, I attended a science and engineering prep school, took sustainable agriculture classes in college such as soil and plant science, and found my still-favorite book “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee. My schooling was all science-driven as I attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and received my Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from Kettering University. I later added a Master of Business Administration from the University of Michigan.
Growing up, my home was filled with the culinary delights of my Eastern European ancestors who were grounded in cooking traditional peasant food — from Polish Sausage to dishes made from foraged mushrooms to pierogi to paczki. These recipes were passed down from my grandmother to my mother, who throughout my childhood cooked traditional foods often in our home. Those culinary traditions were passed on to me. I essentially became the science-loving foodie of the family.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Our co-founder and my longtime friend Rick, was “chief mentor” for teens at the Ceres Community Project, a local Santa Rosa, California-based nonprofit whose mission is to restore locally grown, organic whole food to its place as the foundation of health for people, communities, and the planet. Rick’s role was to help develop large quantities of naturally fermented kraut for the organization’s client base of cancer patients. The krauts were a hit, so much so that Rick and I helped Ceres sell the products to a few local stores to raise funds for Ceres. When the kraut retail sales initiative stretched Ceres’ resources beyond the scope of the Ceres mission, the executive director asked if we wanted to take over the project. We said yes, as we thought this would be a fun venture. The a-ha moment came when we expanded the line to four krauts and a couple of kimchis to demo at the 2012 Natural Products Expo in Anaheim. We were surprised at the national interest level in these naturally probiotic, great-tasting krauts and kimchis made in the traditional way.
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?
Our wildbrine tagline is “Fermentation is Wild.” Well, let me tell you, the traditional method of wild fermentation is wild and sometimes unpredictable. In a nutshell, wild fermentation involves fostering good-for-you micro-organisms (mostly lactobacillus in our case) to do the work of adding flavor, providing natural food preservation, and adding probiotic benefits to food products. When Mother Nature is a key part of your process, you do have some volatility. The good news is that fermentation is always safe with the right controls, but it can result in variability in finished product. And everybody knows that Mother Nature always has the last laugh, like that one research and development recipe of “authentic, aged kimchi” that cleared out the test kitchen!
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?
I have seen many budding CPG entrepreneurs with an idea, but they are unwilling to do “whatever it takes” to move the idea forward. They look to use investors’ money to take a risk. They don’t have the appetite to manufacture their own product to insure proper execution, quality control, food safety, and market responsiveness. Some look to use co-packers to minimize their risk, but by not going “all-in” with “skin-in-the-game,” they sacrifice control of the execution. The best way to control the direction of your big idea is to be sure that you are always your brand’s biggest cheerleader. You need to show up for your brand every day and believe in the idea so much that you are willing to take the necessary risks — both financial and sweat equity — to maximize execution.
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?
I meet so many people who say, “I have a great recipe for X, and I’d like to start my own business.” Start by making that recipe and sampling it with your friends, their friends, casual acquaintances, new acquaintances, and, if you really want criticism, people who are not your friends. Refine, improve, iterate.
Then do your homework and make sure you understand the market and your product inside and out. You must figure out if your product will fit in the competitive marketplace. First, make sure that your product meets the “must-have” thresholds to even be considered by retailers and consumers. Is it priced appropriately relative to the competitive set? Does it have an acceptable shelf life? Does it meet other expectations of the target market such as sustainable packaging and organic ingredients? Secondly, your product should have a point of difference versus current competitive offerings that is important to the consumer, as well as significant enough to justify its purchase. Lastly, be sure your product’s point of difference is difficult to copy, creating a barrier to entry.
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?
It’s a little bit like that big project in college — the hardest part is taking the first step. You must dive in and just keep going. You may start by making a sample product and taking it to potential consumers for their feedback. Your first few questions will turn into thousands more that all need to be addressed. For example, you may start with one question — Is my new BBQ sauce smoky enough? That will lead to questions like: Is it sweet enough? Is it spicy enough? Is it thick enough? What is the price? Can you make money at that price? What is the size? Where will it be shelved? What are the food safety requirements you need to address? Keep going. You will be surprised by what you didn’t consider, don’t know and need to know and address, but you’ll be satisfied and less anxious to know that you’re making progress, resolving issues before they become problems, making your product better, developing a confidence in your idea, and managing risk. There might be a tendency to say, “I don’t know how to do that!” when addressing an issue outside your comfort zone — there will be many. I guarantee you every entrepreneur has encountered that. Keep digging and diving in. Talk to folks with the experience to help guide you. Then tackle the issue yourself. It will make you more confident, more fulfilled, more knowledgeable, and in the end, your product will have a better shot at success!
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?
Strike out on your own. If you have a good idea, it is in your head, not a consultant’s. Go as far as you can on your own, which saves you money and gives you valuable experience and knowledge of your product. Only involve “consultants” when you reach a dead-end and/or need specialized expertise (for instance, a microbiologist to help understand food safety risks and proper programs to manage them). You need to know your product inside and out and do as much as you can yourself. Even when you get to the point where you need an expert, roll up your sleeves and work side-by-side with them. You and your product will be better for it.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I do not think it’s necessarily an either/or but more-so an “if or when” question. Go as far as you can by bootstrapping. If you need venture capital (VC) money, wait as long as possible. A VC group will want you to have skin-in-the-game, so they know you are all-in and truly have a passion for your idea. And, by waiting as long as possible, your company will have a greater value, and you will get more money per share of ownership you sell. My business partner and I have been extremely fortunate. wildbrine is our second company. We started another business, G&G Foods, from scratch in 1990. We bootstrapped both companies through sweat equity, credit cards, small local loans, and cash flow management without taking VC money. We may get to a point with wildbrine where partnering with a VC group might make sense if we have a huge opportunity that requires a huge investment and bootstrapping is no longer enough, but we haven’t yet.
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?
Generally, IP protection in the food business comes from trademarks, meaning ownership of unique words and/or symbols associated only with your product. For us, it’s wildbrine®, and the graphics used to communicate the brand. These words and graphics should communicate your product and its point of difference. So, pick a brand name that is unique and communicates the benefits of your product. Work with a trademark attorney to register it. Then — you own it!
I recommend taking on manufacturing yourself because no cares about your product like you do. This is the only way you can ensure your product’s food safety and consistency, as well as provide the ability to turn on a dime to adapt your current offering or make new products at any time.
Distributors generally will not pioneer your product. They expect you to come to them with retailers already carrying or committed to carry your product. Find retailers to carry your product and then distributor(s) will come on board. To find retailers, pound the pavement. Visit your local stores and talk to department heads. Ask who to see to present your item. It does not hurt to have a sample with you; win over that department manager and they can work behind the scenes for you. Also, go to retailer-attended food shows and sample your product. There are local ones in every market as well as national ones like Natural Products Expo East and West. Be creative. Food retailers love food. Exhibit at a local farmers market. Retailers attend these as consumers and farmers market shoppers have a lot of influence. If your product is great, they will spread the word for you and possibly ask the local store to carry your product. Things can snowball if you have a product that is particularly special.
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.)
- A passion for the idea. An entrepreneur must feel so strongly about their product that they are willing to “put a lot of skin in the game”. A passion for the idea or product means that you are a zealot– you make the sales calls, are intimately involved in the manufacture of the product, consistently hammer home the benefits of your product to everyone, and have an unwavering commitment to the principles behind the product to all stakeholders, especially customers and team members.
- A product with a meaningful point of difference from the consumers’ perspective. This point of difference may be a better tasting product, a healthier product, a plant-based alternative, a lower-priced product, a product that solves a problem that current market offerings have, and so on. The key is that this difference is valued by the consumer, not based on the entrepreneur’s assumption that the product difference is valued.
- Market-based pricing (not cost-based). Many start-ups price their product using a cost-based approach at start-up, when raw material costs are high due to small-quantity purchases and efficiencies in manufacturing have not yet been achieved. This often results in a consumer price that may be much higher than alternative products already on the market. Product pricing needs to be affordable relative to the market alternatives. This may require pricing at an initially unprofitable level with the faith that efficiencies that reduce costs will come. If the product is premium-priced based on costs that just can’t be lowered further or a premium positioning, careful thought must be given as to how much the consumer values the point of difference and the premium the consumer will pay for this difference.
- Clear product positioning & communication. All aspects of the product should consistently communicate what the product is and what benefit(s) it delivers. All key aspects of the business — the brand name, the product description, the package design and graphics, the marketing materials, the price, the promotion program, and the written and verbal communication, — all must work together to consistently communicate the product’s positioning.
- Assembling a team of culturally like-minded people. By instilling a consistent culture, a passion, and consistent communication of product benefits and company culture, an entrepreneur can empower an “army” of team members with a like-minded approach. This has a multiplier effect in achieving success. If all team members have a like-minded mindset and approach, the entrepreneur does not need to be involved in every decision in the execution of the plan. With the same set of principles and mindset, every decision in the execution of a product plan will be made from the same set of principles, without entrepreneur micromanagement.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
First, an entrepreneur must have a passion for their product and its superiority over anything else on the market. Passion is infectious. Second, the product must be the kind of product in a category where the consumer has strong feelings, essentially fostering their own passion.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have a responsibility to and, importantly, a big opportunity to “do the right thing” for the ~100 people who work in our company. That might be supporting their development and career advancement, financial help in a time of need, a surprise gift for an employee’s child who just graduated high school, or a spur-of-the moment surprise bonus for a job well-done.
Doing the right thing also relates to morally grounded decision making. Hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions, are made in our business every day; some are simple, some more challenging. Some decisions may be financially costly or involve “taking a hit” in the short-term for the greater good of having done the “right” thing.
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.
For me, it is all about the old phrase, “Think globally but act locally.” Great movements are the sum of many small movements working in concert. All of these small “local” acts of humanity and morally grounded decision making add-up and have a multiplier effect. They build a foundation of trust and example-setting. They influence 100 people. Each of those 100 people influence many more. I believe we all can have a big impact by acting locally in an empathetic, morally grounded way.
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.
Jerry Seinfeld. Through his comedy and “a show about nothing,” he has shown that he is a genius at making something special from everyday happenings and created entertainment that is “about nothing” — now that’s branding!
Additionally, and importantly, we have set up two legal entities that own wildbrine and our two manufacturing facilities. These two LLCs are named Vandalay Holdings LLC and Festivus LLC. Need I say more?
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!