Taste: First and foremost, taste is king with any food item. Your product has to taste good. You can only convince people so much with elements like function, value, or nutrition. Ultimately, people want to eat things that taste good.
Asa part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing That’s it Founder and CEO Dr. Lior Lewensztain.
He knew early on that he wanted to help people live healthier lives, but realized while in medical school that traditional medicine wasn’t the way to do it on the grand scale that he was envisioning. While completing medical school, Lewensztain became confident that the best way to harness nutrition as preventative medicine was not through localized medicine, but through a nutrition company that could deliver it to the masses. Soon after earning his M.D., Lewensztain enrolled in an M.B.A. program to acquire the business skills to execute his plan. Upon graduation, he jumped straight into research and development, working to uncover the best way to utilize the health benefits of fruit in a delicious and convenient format. Lewensztain immersed himself in every element of the process: from finding the farmers who grow the fruit, to shelf life testing and the manufacturing and drying process, all the way to working the farmers’ market stand, giving shoppers their first taste of the brand’s initial three Fruit Bar flavors.
Today, Lewensztain is the CEO of That’s it. Nutrition, where he and his team continue to expand the That’s it. portfolio and revolutionize the whole foods category as we know it today.
He was born and raised in Los Angeles, where he resides today with his wife and two young daughters. All four Lewensztains consume their recommended fruit servings each day.
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”?
While I was growing up, my family always had a deep appreciation for cooking and food. My parents regularly exposed me to new cultures and culinary pallets, and there was always a very exploratory attitude around the food that we ate. Even as a kid, this made me really consider the impact that food has on our bodies and everyday lives, and made me interested in how we could expand our approach to what we put in our bodies.
I also knew from a very young age that I was going to be a doctor. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in medicine and wellness, and had a real desire to help people. As a kid, I assumed that the best avenue to do so was going to be by practicing as a doctor in the traditional sense. However, as my medical career and my exploration into food and nutrition developed and eventually merged, it became clear that the best way to make that impact was going to be by creating a platform to bring food as preventative medicine to the masses.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
I was in medical school when I learned that only one-third of Americans get the recommended amount of fruit that they need in their daily diets. I was shocked by the fact that so many people were missing out on such essential nutrients, and it felt incredibly obvious to me that something needed to be done to shift this alarming trend.
At the same time, I was learning a lot about the medical system in this country, and couldn’t help feeling like it leaned toward overly-medicating people, rather than focusing on more natural, preventative measures that could be taken on the front end. At this point, I became hyper-focused on the idea of food as preventative medicine, and started looking at what was being done, or needed to be done, to make this concept more mainstream. I recognized a clear gap in the market immediately: options for simple, healthy, convenient and delicious ways to get your daily fruit servings (without any of the typical added sugars, purees, juices or concentrates) were actually incredibly limited.
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?
We made so many mistakes in those early days, from packaging and recipe issues to learning the hard way what a pallet is and what is required to load said pallet onto a truck, but the one that my wife likes to remind me about happened when our daughter was two years old. We were at a trade show in Palm Springs, and a few hours in, I realized that there was no more effective way to get attention than to fill up her tiny hands with all the That’s it. bars that she could carry, and have her go around and pass them out to anyone who would take them. (I found quickly that most people will accept anything from an adorable two-year-old.) I maintain that this was one of our most effective marketing strategies to date, but my wife still reminds me that exploiting our toddler to generate sales is something that will be frowned upon in the future.
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?
Something that I see a lot with entrepreneurs is a rigidness with their initial concept, and an inability to accept feedback and adapt accordingly. I can understand the resistance — starting a food company can be emotional, and opening yourself up for feedback feels incredibly vulnerable. Having to pivot away from your original concept, even slightly, doesn’t feel great either. However, it’s an essential part of the process. A lot of times it can feel more instinctual to keep your blinders on and stay firm that your concept is perfect and that you’re not going to stray from it. In some cases, this kind of blind confidence can be an asset, and sometimes it works. But a lot of times, an unwillingness to adapt will be what keeps new companies from ever really getting off the ground.
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?
Right off the bat, food entrepreneurs need to think about testing and scalability.
Testing your product should be one of your main focuses in those early days. You need to get it in the hands of potential consumers, see their reactions, listen to the feedback, and be willing to adapt based on that feedback. When we were getting started with That’s it., I would go to different farmers markets around Los Angeles to sell our bars, but also to do testing and collect feedback. You learn an incredible amount from actually watching your target market taste your product for the first time.
In terms of scalability, so many food brands today are naturally getting their starts in kitchens or garages, and then expect to jump straight to taking their product to the masses. But getting a food product from your kitchen to large-scale distribution requires really thinking out the different stages. What’s your formula? How’s your supply? Are you considering the manufacturing perspective?
Keeping an eye on this scalability element was critical to That’s it.’s success. We hadn’t been in the market for long when Whole Foods came on as our first nationwide retail partner, and we had to go from zero to 100 nearly overnight. Luckily, we had planned and hoped for this, and had strong partners in place on the production, supply and raw materials side. It still took many sleepless nights, but with the structures already in place, we were able scale our production up to where we needed it to be in order to meet the rapidly-growing demand.
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?
There’s a huge difference between a great idea, and a great idea that’s realistic. The constant struggle of the entrepreneur is the balance of the two. Of course, all entrepreneurs are dreamers, but there needs to be a firm base in reality in order to actually make anything happen.
The clearest way to ensure that a great idea can be translated into a profitable business is making sure that there is a need state and real world application for the product. Once an entrepreneur has identified a clear need state, and developed a plan for how his or her product can be impactful in filling that gap, the path to translating it into an actual business will be far smoother.
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 really encourage against leaning on development consultants in the early stages of building your business. Striking it out on your own is the only way that you’re going to learn. I believe that making your own mistakes, learning from them and taking those lessons with you is essential to the success of any CEO or entrepreneur, and therefore to the company that they are running. I’ve definitely made some mistakes — some more expensive than others — but I’ve learned from every one of them, and have been able to make sure that they don’t happen more than once.
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 really depends on what your end goal is. If you have a great idea, but are more interested in seeing if you can create the concept, make some money, and then maybe get out in a few years, then VC might be the best avenue for you.
I wasn’t willing to give up control of my company. I didn’t want to just be along for the ride — I wanted to steer the ship and really see what I could do with it. It’s definitely aged me, but I can’t tell you how much I’ve grown as a person, and how much I’ve learned along the way. It hasn’t been easy, but I wouldn’t change it.
Bootstrapping is hard. Don’t kid yourself about that. It’s a lot of sleepless nights, and everything is on you. But if you really want to experience the journey, if you want to have true control of the direction that your company goes in, if you want to be involved in every step, decision and process along the way, then it’s worth figuring out how to make it work.
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?
I think that oftentimes, food entrepreneurs can get so caught up in getting their product off the ground that they can forget to do their diligence on some of the more “mundane” logistics. Right off the bat though, it’s important to take care of things like getting legal advice, filing a patent if needed, and buying the domain for the website.
I also can’t stress enough the importance of finding the right partners on the manufacturing and supply side. It was really important for us to find partners who believed in what we were doing, and recognized that we were on to something special. Especially in those early days, when the demand to be nimble and pivot at the drop of a hat is at its highest, it’s critical to be working with partners who are invested in your success, rather than those that see you as just another number in their queue.
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.)
1. Taste: First and foremost, taste is king with any food item. Your product has to taste good. You can only convince people so much with elements like function, value, or nutrition. Ultimately, people want to eat things that taste good.
2. Find the void: You have to find the hole in the market and identify a clear need state. Finding a real gap in the marketplace and developing a clear plan for how your product can add value is what is going make it possible for you to connect with consumers and create opportunity for the longevity of your product.
3. Transparency: Transparency is key these days, and it has to carry across all areas of the business. Consumers want to understand the sourcing of the raw materials, how they’re being marketed to, and how what they’re eating was processed. People are looking for total authenticity, which is something that we’ve had to integrate into all layers of our business — for example: adding an ingredient locator to our website so that visitors can see exactly where our ingredients come from.
4. Simplicity: Consumers are really looking for simplicity in the products that they eat. They want to be able to pronounce the ingredients, they don’t want their snacks to contain 30 different items. It can be surprisingly complicated to keep things simple, but it’s something that has become more and more important to consumers over the past ten years. That’s it. was unknowingly way ahead of the curve here when we started out almost a decade ago, and it’s now known as the cornerstone of our company.
5. Scalability: Having a strong ability to scale as needed is important, because you don’t want to have to limit yourself by what you’re able to produce. This applies being able to scale up the amount of product, but also with the possibility of extending into other areas. We, of course, started with fruit bars, but always knew that we wanted to keep the door open for areas like chocolate and vegetables — which is something that we’ve been able to execute with the right scaling structure in place.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
I think that it comes down to making sure that your product connects with people emotionally. Yes, we are a food item, and yes, it’s a simple product, but That’s it. has really been able to strike a chord with people emotionally, which is what turns consumers into loyal customers. We’ve seen this especially within the food allergy community. Parents of children with food allergies worry about every little thing that goes into their kid’s mouth — but they know that they can trust That’s it. They know that their kids can freely enjoy anything from our line, without having to worry that they’re going to be exposed to something that is going to create a scary, adverse reaction. That’s the kind of thing that really resonates with people on an emotional level, and keeps them coming back.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Recent data has indicated that the statistics are even worse today than when I was in medical school, with only one-tenth of Americans now getting enough fruits and vegetables in their daily dietsThere is clearly still a lot of work to be done, and the need has never been greater. However, I am confident that That’s it. is making progress in our mission to make solid nutrition more readily accessible to people on a large scale. It’s incredible to think about the positive impacts that would come as a result of more people getting all of, or even more of, their essential nutrients. I truly believe that getting more people to live healthier lifestyles will make the world a better place, and it’s something that we will keep a laser focus on
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.
I would love to bring more attention to the importance of starting nutrition education much earlier in life. If we could start educating and engaging kids on the importance of making healthy choices from a young age, they will be so much better equipped to develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle in adulthood. We’ve started doing a lot of work with K — 12 school systems in an effort to bring more momentum to this movement, and are excited to see where we can take it.
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 have to choose Elon Musk. Although he can be a very polarizing figure in the press, I am absolutely fascinated by his ability to change entire industries in a shockingly short amount of time. In less than 20 years, he has taken the space, energy, transportation and banking industries — four industries that haven’t been able to accomplish any great transformations in decades — and turn them completely on their heads. I believe that anybody who is able to accomplish that in such a short amount of time has to be one of the brightest minds that we’ve ever seen.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.