Jay Whitney of FoodStory Brands: “Build a three year roadmap on scaling the business”

Build a three year roadmap on scaling the business. We often build a “three-year roadmap” for new brands/product launches, so we can strategically plot out the game plan to scale after proof of concept. This starts with the key plan of growth, based on a well thought out channel and distribution strategy. We factor in […]

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Build a three year roadmap on scaling the business. We often build a “three-year roadmap” for new brands/product launches, so we can strategically plot out the game plan to scale after proof of concept. This starts with the key plan of growth, based on a well thought out channel and distribution strategy. We factor in key supply chain stages to ensure volume capacities to match anticipated growth levels along with redundancies. We establish the sales strategy for expansion with target customers by channel along with key broker or distributor networks. We draft up product line extensions, so we are ready for innovation at the appropriate stages.

As part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jay Whitney, the CMO of FoodStory Brands, an Arizona-based, family-owned company which brings accessibly-priced healthier food and beverage options to American and Canadian tables. Prior to driving FoodStory Brands’ marketing strategy for its national labels Fresh Cravings, Cocktail Artist, Homestyle Harvest Jurassic World Chicken Nuggets and Vero Amore, Jay served as president, overseeing the company’s speed-to-market innovation strategy. Previously, Jay was the executive vice president for a privately-owned brokerage firm, Next Phase Enterprises, and vice president of strategic brand partnerships for LazyTown Entertainment. He has also worked with such global brands as Coca-Cola and NASCAR — creating iconic, collaborative moments for both — and was part of the instrumental team which brought the Panthers NFL franchise to North Carolina. Jay graduated from Presbyterian College, at which he played basketball, and currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona, with his family where they lead an active lifestyle enjoying desert hikes, trail rides, and skiing.

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”?

Absolutely! I grew up the youngest of three in Charlotte, North Carolina which is “basketball country” and the sport ran deeply in our family. My grandfather played at Northeastern University, my dad played at UCONN, my older sister Debbie was a high school star, so naturally my love affair with basketball consumed my childhood. It certainly helped that I come from a long lineage of tall, athletic and lanky men. I devoted almost all my spare time to practicing and improving in the driveway, local parks, YMCAs and wherever else I could get in a game. By my senior year in high school we went on to a 24–3 record and I was blessed to get a full 4-year scholarship to Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

We had been quite fortunate to build a high level of trust with buyers at the largest merchants in the world who would lean on us to solve pain points or find white space solutions. We always sought to provide value, regardless if it led to a purchase order, and if the opportunity presented itself, the dream was to convert one of these assignments to launch our own national brand.

Our “ah ha” moment happened when we received what we considered to be the perfect assignment from one of the nation’s largest retailers. It had a very specific request: help us revitalize refrigerated salsa in our fresh produce department. This was the moment that Fresh Cravings was born, and in just 45 days we finalized a nationwide launch of a line of refrigerated salsas. We went on to grow Fresh Cravings into one of the leading refrigerated salsa brands that can be found in over 12,000 grocery stores. Of course, it’s enabled us to continue to scale our speed-to-market model launching additional brands and licensed food programs like chicken nuggets, Italian biscotti, cocktail mixers, and more — offering authentic-tasting, better-for-you versions than what is currently available.

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 were one of the first companies to bring authentic French Macarons to the US Market. We partnered with a family bakery in Nantes, France and had their product imported here to the US for a seasonal rotation. We marketed these under a new brand we developed called “Sweet Offerings.” We didn’t do our proper due diligence early enough, so when we went to secure the domain, we got a big surprise. There was an inactive website for unsavory types with questionable content. Fortunately, we were able to purchase the site from the original owners and reset the domain so we can focus on our wonderful Original French Macarons. The lesson here is to run a thorough, forensic level due-diligence protocol when it comes to researching brand names, domain names, slogans, trademarks, social handles, web search, etc.

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?

The most common mistake we’ve seen made, and we’ve even made ourselves, is not ensuring that the product architecture fills critical need-states for consumers and that there is a clear basis of differentiation of your product architecture in its competitive set. Product architecture, to us, is defined by the sensory food experience, attributes, ingredients, callouts, price/value comparison, branding, packaging, category, merchandising location, and more. Personally, I believe it’s critical to ensure a solid foundation is first established in the product architecture.

The second most common mistake we see is a lack of marketing support to build awareness for the line in a way that leads to conversion, sales, and repeat purchases. Getting the product to shelf is only the first step and too often we see brands stop there.

Third most common mistake we see is lack of fact-based selling and using data/insights as the foundation for growth and optimization. You must know your category data inside and out, or else! We’ve found this to be a make-or-break situation. Everything we do is grounded in data and insights. We have to be able to clearly understand our performance, our competitive set, our SWOT analysis and the macro trends in our category.

Lastly, there are often mistakes made in the pricing of the products. A common mistake is developing a pricing strategy for the first customer. At that account, you may set a proper retail that covers all the necessary variables, and your margin is optimal. But it’s critical that the model will translate to other channels and accounts as you grow and expand. We learned the hard way that we must build out a global pricing strategy grounded in competitive data with all variables per channel factored in. This allows for quicker scale, with sales teams to move forward with guardrails and national price lists.

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?

Here again it comes back to product architecture. First, run a deep dive analysis of the intended product’s category. Make sure it fills important need-states for consumers in that space. Once the idea or initial product architecture is crafted, we always go to purchase intent and validation studies. This enables us to finetune the product architecture before we go to commercialization. We’ve done focus groups, online surveys, double blind sensory tests — it all depends on what the project scope is. But the key is making sure you invest both time and resources up front in validating the product architecture. This will help ensure that the product is going to win and it has a clear basis of differentiation within the competitive set.

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?

Study and education is the key. Study the business or category where the idea would be featured in the marketplace. Dive deep into the current competitors, the way they market their products — including their social media platforms. Make sure to dig deep on the consumer data for the marketplace. In other words, know thy customer inside and out! Visit stores in the department where your items would be sold. Speak to both store personnel and consumers. Nothing is more valuable than getting feedback. Listen to podcasts. Subscribe to all the key trade outlets on industry news and trends. Be a practitioner of your product and the category it lives in. Begin to make connections and network with subject matter experts within the space. Attend trade shows. Essentially, immerse yourself in the world where you believe your idea brings a value. And at the right point, make the commitment to yourself to invest in the business plan to bring the idea to market.

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?

Simply put, yes, it is a good idea especially for new entrepreneurs with limited resources. In fact, we at FoodStory Brands have started to become this kind of resource for food entrepreneurs. From general business counsel, to helping get that napkin sketch into a product, if you find a consultancy that’s a right fit for you, it can elevate your company and bring your idea to life. With that said, it’s imperative to work with people who share the same vision and who will pressure test your ideas to make sure it’s the perfect partnership.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

FoodStory Brands is a family-owned business that was bootstrapped from the very beginning, and we wholeheartedly believe in this approach. Bootstrapping is in our blood and we recruit based on entrepreneurial capacity. This approach has led to us building a team of the most talented, driven, and big-thinking passionate foodies. While bootstrapping could mean less resources and leaner growth initially, it guarantees control and ownership of the company — one you and your team worked so hard to build. But, with that said, only you can decide what’s right for your business, as there are pros to the alternative route, such as giving you more power to scale. Do your research, seek financial counsel (then find someone to poke holes in it to make sure it’s sound advice), and come up with a plan that’s best for you.

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?

For smaller businesses, I do think it’s a good idea to collaborate with a company or a consultant that knows how to do this, ideally all in one. That will free up mindshare, allowing you to focus on your vision and growing your company and brand. If you are able to bring these resources in-house, especially for sourcing, make sure they are the type that will leave no stone unturned and have a very deep rolodex.

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.)

Data must be your best friend and constant companion. The pathway to success begins and ends with your dedicated relationship with data. Data and insights will be critical to developing solid product architecture that ticks all the boxes and provides purchase intent and validation. Data will be the critical catalyst for growth by providing fact-based selling points around your proof of concept. It will also be key to your success with customers and optimization strategies to grow the business daily. Data will give you critical insights into the competitive set as well as key trends for innovation.

We invest heavily in data from Nielsen Household Penetration, Mintel, University Sensory double-blind taste tests, online validation surveys, focus groups, in-house R&D panels, and many others.

When we were ready to scale for expansion, we pulled Nielsen Household Penetration studies to develop our fact-based selling story. We learned we had the Highest 2+ Repeat Purchase Rates in the category and the largest basket building story of any brand. In addition, we learned we had the highest index for younger Millennials with 3+ households. We took this story to new accounts and in less than 18 months, Fresh Cravings distribution increased 200% to over 12,000 stores nationwide. The category of refrigerated salsa is a competitive one with over 240 brands nationwide, and these data points were critical to demonstrating our strong differentiation in the market.

Establish an exceptional brand and product architecture. It’s critical to convert the data and insights into a clearly defined brand and product architecture. The brand architecture are things like the trademark, logo, brand DNA and voice, brand attributes, establishment of social/digital platforms, packaging design, and launch marketing strategy. Equally as important is the product architecture we’ve discussed, because the most critical aspect is that the food experience is exceptional. Above all else, the two most important things are the food and the packaging you put it in. The packaging has to work extremely hard as it’s the only billboard you have at the moment of consideration at shelf edge. It must communicate quickly and clearly the attributes that set you apart from the competition. Of course, if the packaging works to attract trial, then it comes down to a “wow” food experience. We spend a lot of our focus, time, and energy on making sure we’ve got the brand and product architecture dialed in for an exceptional experience. For each of our brands we have a brand book that lays all of this out, and we review each quarterly for progress against the plan.

Prove your proof of concept. By now you’ve got the right brand and product architecture established with a treasure trove of supporting data that your idea will work. The next most important step is to prove it works in the marketplace and that it resonates with consumers. Where you introduce the product into the marketplace should be deliberate and intentional based on the brand and product architecture. In other words, if you’re launching a premium imported cookie, the Value Channel would not be the place to build proof of concept with a launch. Regardless where you introduce a product, the most important aspect is ensuring that you demonstrate incrementality and aggressive sales in the category. This will provide the key data story you need when you are ready for scale and growth.

Our data showed us younger generations are obsessed with transparency and authenticity. We studied categories where there was an inauthentic “food story,” as we like to call them. As it turned out, the #1 brand of Biscotti Cookies in America positioned the item as “Italian Style,” yet the product is made in the USA. We created a new brand, called Vero Amore, and created a truly authentic, imported Italian Biscotti. We decided to prove our concept in the Club channel and have now had several successful rotations from which to build momentum with our proof-of-concept story in hand.

Build a three year roadmap on scaling the business. We often build a “three-year roadmap” for new brands/product launches, so we can strategically plot out the game plan to scale after proof of concept. This starts with the key plan of growth, based on a well thought out channel and distribution strategy. We factor in key supply chain stages to ensure volume capacities to match anticipated growth levels along with redundancies. We establish the sales strategy for expansion with target customers by channel along with key broker or distributor networks. We draft up product line extensions, so we are ready for innovation at the appropriate stages.

Be willing to invest in marketing to build your brand and success story. If you do all the necessary due diligence to create exceptional brand and product architecture, this will give you the confidence to spend marketing dollars because you’ve got high propensity for success with consumers. It will be extremely difficult to build trial and loyalty if there is not a focused, deliberate marketing plan for your products. We invest in both national strategies as well as customer specific shopper marketing strategies. I believe that we live in the best moment in history to build efficient and cost-effective marketing strategies that allow for direct consumer connections via incredible social and digital platforms.

We pride ourselves on the communities we create, prioritizing 1:1 interaction. I personally read all comments on the social channels for all of our brands, as I genuinely want to get to know our consumers.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

The best way to create a product that people are crazy about is through a deep dive on market research and consumer testing. We are constantly watching for trends in consumer behaviors and how that might lead to an exciting new innovation. But once the need is identified and the idea is hatched, we have an intense focus on concept validation, purchase intent studies and of course sensory panels to ensure it’s exceptional.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As a family-owned Arizona-based company, we deeply believe in charitable giving, and our values remind us to remain humble in our approach when talking about it. In recent years, we have worked with various organizations, such as the St Vincent de Paul’s The Dream Center, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, St. Mary’s Food Bank, No Kid Hungry, Warrior Homestead, and many others. One of our most important values is believing that the work we do — and building a new food/beverage company can be a haul — is important because it goes beyond ourselves. Everyone who works for FoodStory Brands understands that our jobs are not merely transactional. The work we are doing makes a difference not only for the American consumer but for our community and those who are in need.

When the pandemic hit, I was proud how my team rallied to come up with powerful ways that we could help to give back — give back to the grocery associates, to frontline medical staff, to Americans who had lost their jobs, to more food banks than before, to homeless veterans, and more.

On a personal note, I am extremely passionate about empowering youth to strive for healthy lifestyles, especially when it comes to eating. As an advocate, I’m able to ensure that our company remains committed to making healthy snacking affordable and accessible for everyone.

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.

We are launching a campaign in 2021 called “Salsabrate(™) The Good” with our Fresh Cravings brand. The intent is to convert our national ad budget for 2021 to give back to local, grassroots unsung community heroes. We want to support their causes with donations across multiple charities, but also to promote their story nationally — creating inspiration and amplification of their good work.

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.

Gary Vaynerchuk. I love his success story, his entrepreneurial tenacity and his incredible spirit of servant leadership.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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