I had the opportunity to speak with Co-Founder and Chief Food Officer of Grainful, Jeannine Sacco, on her career path, and changing the food industry.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
As Chief Food Officer, my areas of focus are Current Core Line extensions, Product Development/Innovation, and Manufacturing Scale-Up. I am a culinary trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America and have my BS in Hotel Administration from Cornell. Cooking has been a staple in my life ever since I can remember. At Grainful I create new recipes for our core line that reflect today’s trends in the food industry, sourcing active ingredients that I think the consumers will gravitate towards as well as specifying which culinary cuisines and flavor profiles we should be focused on. In addition to our core line, I continue to work on innovation for future product lines for Grainful. Once we create a new item, I oversee the scale-up process at our manufacturing plant.
How did you get started with your business?
We knew we wanted to create meals using gluten-free grains. Oats have been something we’ve been using in development for a while and felt they were an underutilized grain. The whole oat groat has a similar texture to brown rice; however, it is a complete protein. It is a versatile grain that can be steamed or act as a substitute for risotto. We set out to create frozen meals that were not only healthy, convenient and flavorful but ones that everyone can enjoy and afford.
What has helped you succeed in your industry and on your business path?
From a culinary aspect, using fewer sub-ingredients and focusing on a primary ingredient to get the most out of the flavor, color, and texture is key to us. Our culinary foundation was built out of clean ingredients. If you can’t pronounce it, you won’t find it in our ingredient statement.
Different flavor profiles, cuisines, and bold flavors have also set us apart from the rest of the heard. We aren’t afraid to step out of the box and create an entree that you wouldn’t easily be able to create at home for yourself. We have a wide variety of cuisine profiles in our product mix. We believe it is important to have familiar flavor profiles as well as ones that you would be more likely to find on a restaurant menu and less likely in the frozen food aisle.
What was a mistake you made in business and what did you learn from that mistake?
There is no playbook for being an entrepreneur in the frozen food category or for any food category. Everything you do has some level of risk attached to it. We launched a dry product line a few years ago. It wasn’t doing well and tried everything we could imagine to make it successful. In the end, we made the difficult decision to discontinue the product line. In hindsight, we should have reacted more quickly to shut the line down and move on. Now we are much more aware and aggressive in our decisions when it comes to what we focus on.
What surprises have you had along the way? What have you learned from those surprises?
When we first started out, our first co-manufacturer went out of business overnight. The transition from one co-man to another can take 6+ months before you execute a trial run let alone a live run where product can be released to market. We had to act fast. We were very lucky to find a partner that could bring us in and produce for us within weeks of first speaking to them. Long story short, don’t put all your eggs in one nest. You have to have a backup plan.
What advice do you have for those just starting out in your industry or for other entrepreneurs?
Stay focused on building your core line and brand. It’s easy to get distracted with line extensions and new product lines. Building velocity is number one.
And never stop creating and putting ideas into a pipeline bucket. You want to have your finger on the pulse of what is trending and happening in the culinary world, so when you are ready to pull the trigger for a new product you have done the groundwork and can go straight to the kitchen.
What helps you stay passionate about your goals? What are your upcoming goals?
I am always staying in touch with what’s happening in the culinary world. I draw inspiration from so many different aspects of my day to day. Whether it’s subscriptions to newsletters, attending conferences, dining out, social media, or simply going to the grocery store and seeing what seasonal produce is out. Most of my recipe ideas for our Core Product line came from me creating it at home first and then working on it over and over. I am a creature of habit. In the winter, I love cooking one-pot meals on Sunday and being able to eat the leftovers for lunch or dinner for a few days. Once I am hooked on something I aim to perfect it. Tuscan Bean and Kale is a perfect example of this.
My upcoming goals are to see how I can drive revenue for the company in a way we aren’t currently. Building sales and brand awareness apart from the grocery store shelves and getting our products into people’s hands and mouths.
What key factors help you position your brand? What makes your brand unique?
We take pride in every entree we have in the market. Clean ingredients, gluten-free are both attributes today that are standard in the industry. They don’t make any of us stand out anymore because all the big box companies aim to offer the same. For us, we want to educate people that grains are healthy and are versatile and can be used in different ways. We want to inspire consumers who are adventurous in their personal lives that they can be adventurous in their meal planning as well. We offer a variety of different flavor profiles to keep our consumers excited whether they are looking for a quick lunch or dinner. We are a fun company and I think that is reflected in not just our recipes but also our packaging. When you look at Grainful, we want you to feel an attachment to us, feel comfort and adventurous.
What marketing advice do you have for others in your industry?
There is a time where doing what everyone else is doing makes sense but not always. We have learned that being bold, breaking the barriers and thinking outside the box has been successful for us from a packaging standpoint. Be creative, don’t be afraid to be different. There is a fine line between going overboard and being edgy enough to get attention. Your packaging is the first thing consumers see and how they perceive you. Make sure your message is clear and you are generating positive emotions from your consumers or soon to be loyal consumers.
How do you build relationships with your customers or clients?
From the client side, we work very closely with our brokers. We speak to them frequently and are in touch with what is happening and how things are going. In the retail industry, change is constant. People are being moved around and one minute you have a buyer you have been building a relationship for months and the next they have been shifted to something else.
From a customer side, we focus on engaging with them on social media, through surveys soliciting feedback, giveaways, you name it. We are always looking for new ways to engage our consumers and hear what they have to say. It’s important to listen to them. We have a great group of loyal consumers who participate in tastings when I am developing new flavors. It makes them feel like they are part of who we are and their feedback influences the decisions we make before we go to market.
Any tips or insights on leadership, communication or growth?
I can’t stress enough, staying focused is important but more importantly, is communication. The wheel is made of many cogs. It is not just one person who is flying solo and making things happen. It takes the entire team working together and communicating on a daily basis to make us successful. We are respectful of one another’s time. We are efficient and agile. We make the impossible happen no matter how hard it is. It’s important to me that we work in an environment where everyone’s efforts are acknowledged, there isn’t one shining star. There are days where you have the weight of the world on your shoulders and it can be lifted simply by a comment, acknowledgment, or a pat on the back. Celebrate the small wins because when the big ones come and they aren’t as often, there is always a tsunami of work that needs to be done following behind.
Tell us more about you. What motivates you? What relaxes you? How do you find balance?
At my age, it is has been really hard trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. One that is sustainable. For the past five years, I have been traveling on a weekly basis. Having any type of normalcy in my eating habits, exercise and downtime was a challenge. Until recently, we changed our co-manufacturer that led to a halt in me having to travel weekly. I finally found time for me and realized maintaining a healthy lifestyle isn’t about going on a diet or working out a minimum of 5 days a week. It is about sustaining a healthy lifestyle. I found a new hobby in cycling classes and attend anywhere from 2-5 days a week. Before, if I missed a day, one day turned into two, two turned into three and then I would just stop going because I would think what’s the point if I don’t go every day? Now my thought process is, if I can get there 2, 3, 5 days a week, that is A LOT more than ZERO. If I miss a week, I start over the following week. And I found I am in better shape than I have been in years.
And eating right and sustaining healthy eating habits isn’t about never allowing myself to indulge. I no longer diet or deny myself to the point that I am starving and unsatisfied. Every weekend I shop for the week and make sure I have plenty of options to bring to work on Monday. I have breakfast, snacks, lunch and more snacks. Anywhere from an apple and peanut butter to grilled chicken, or my own concoction of a trail mix. I am gluten intolerant, so I have to be very picky about what I can eat. I am all about single ingredients: chicken, lemon juice from lemons, fresh herbs, eggs, olive oil. Things that are minimally processed and contain minimal if any sub-ingredients. Similar to how I cook for Grainful.
RARELY do I buy precooked or processed anything. I can’t eat a lot of the gluten-free items on shelf at the grocery store because they have so many sub-ingredients that my stomach can’t handle it. I do have the luxury of having access to a commercial kitchen at work, so there really is no excuse for me not to be eating well! In addition, I make sure I eat a real dinner at least 5 nights out of the week (not pizza or a sandwich or take-out because it’s fast and easy). Something that includes green vegetables, a protein and either a starch or sweet potatoes. It has changed my life. I sleep better, I have more energy and when it’s stressful at work I handle it differently.
Where can people find you?