Throw a lot of noodles against the wall! Keep trying different routes to get to the result you want. Just because someone says no doesn’t mean your idea is wrong or you should quit. In the early days, I drove to local stores and talked to managers. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know how the system worked. Some listened, some helped, and eventually, I figured out the path. I learned a lot from those humble store visits and met some good people in the process.
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 Maggie Seng Sadowsky, President of 8 Track Foods. She is considered a thought leader in Natural Foods and a subject matter expert in plant-based proteins. Maggie graduated from The Ohio State University with a BS in Food Science; she is a Certified Food Scientist (CFS) from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) and holds advisory positions with the Good Food Institute (GFI) and US Dry Bean Council (USDBC). Before launching 8 Track Foods, Maggie owned the consulting firm The Culinary Architects, with clients including Conagra, Kellogg and Beyond Meat.
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”?
One time, my best friend and I decided we needed a rainbow to manifest our mission to find gold. We spent hours coloring on the walls and the dresser until my room became another world. We imagined we were in search of a leprechaun to lead us to our treasure. When my mom came in to check on us, she was shocked and decided our creativity was best suited for outdoor play. So, we took our adventures to the backyard. Our imaginations led us to worldwide expeditions with fishing poles made from ski poles found in the garage or magical potions made from the magnolia tree’s blossom. Those younger years led me to my love of science and the curiosity to figure out how to shape a better world.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
At a crowded Natural food show, I was looking for a place to sit. I secured a spot tucked next to a trash can. As I processed the show’s events and my annual trend report, I was interrupted by the custodian emptying the trash bin. Mesmerized, I watched hundreds of beautiful plastic containers and spoons spill into the giant bin. At that moment, I realized we had a huge problem. We focused on creating a sustainable food supply, but we forgot about the packaging. It led me down a rabbit hole looking for a solution to our waste problem. After an abundance of research, it came to me while I prepared chili. After chopping the onion, I realized everything else I used came from my pantry. The answer to our food waste and plastic packaging was simple, a steel can. In the summer of 2019, I started looking for a canner for our first organic products: black beans, chickpeas and kidney beans. We launched 8 Track Foods in early 2020 with the knowledge it would be an uphill climb to get consumers to embrace their pantry to reduce their plastic waste.
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?
If you know me, you know that I love inventing products and solving problems. When I told my colleagues I was starting a company, they couldn’t wait to hear about the next big thing. As I proudly pulled out a can of beans, you can imagine the reaction was less than favorable. I thought they would see the bigger picture (a more sustainable food supply, less food waste, fewer single-use plastics), but they just saw it for what it was on the surface; a can of beans. It made me realize I had an uphill battle. I look back and laugh at that moment. I spend so much time thinking about food. Not everyone knows there are food-waste issues. Sharing my vision will take a lot more than merely creating a product.
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 think the most common mistake is assuming your “recipe” is a product formulation. Making something in your kitchen is not the same as creating a product for sale. You may have the best idea in the world, but can you turn it into a replicable mass-marketed product for the retail market? Creating a product requires an understanding of USDA/FDA regulations, food safety and processing. Let’s use pasta sauce for an example. It may taste great in your kitchen and all your friends and family love it; that doesn’t mean you are ready to talk to a manufacturer about producing it. You need to do your homework first and ask yourself some basic questions: What ingredients are you using? How are you going to source those ingredients? How are you going to process it? Where will it be sold in the grocery store? What is the required temperature state for distribution? What is your pH? Do you want to make any nutrition claims? What is the shelf life? Start by mapping out the hurdles you will encounter and what it will take to overcome them, then get to work on finding out the answers to those questions.
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?
Put your idea through the acid test. Don’t just think about the product. Think about who will buy it, where they will find it and how they will use it. Evaluate every point in the process to see if that will make your target consumer happy when they finally get to take a bite. In the case of the pasta sauce, your consumer may want to find it in the refrigerator section. To do that, you may require preservatives or an adjustment to your pH or a processing kill step for microorganisms. Those safety measures may cause a reduction in product quality or add some ingredients to your product. Are those changes acceptable to your consumer? Know your consumer and where you want to sell it, then go backward to find the solutions.
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?
Most ideas aren’t novel. Find out why your product isn’t in the market. Is it too challenging to produce? Does it require special distribution? Can you make it for the price that the consumer will buy it for? Don’t just start calling people to tell them your idea. Really think about it first. A great idea can be a lousy business. You are competing against companies with millions of dollars to invest in launches (and many of them fail). Why will you succeed?
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?
Before launching 8 Track Foods, I founded a product development consultancy company. There is value in it for existing companies that need to expand their product offerings or deal with technical hurdles. When you are a startup, you need to remember that food safety is priority number one. Consult with a regulatory or product development consultant to make sure your product is compliant with federal regulations. Any mistake early on can be costly and sink a business. However, it is important that you know all the facets of your business since you will be the one growing the company.
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 on your idea. They’re not mutually exclusive. In my case, the idea was a twist on something that was already mass produced, so I already had a path to production. If you need capital for equipment or want a unique package or ingredient, you need to raise a lot more money. I am still bootstrapping, but I know at some point, I will need greater access to cash to grow the business. There are many sleepless nights fretting over which bills to pay before you get to a positive cash flow. I tried to get money early on, but I realized I would have to give up more of my company than I was willing to this early in the game. Breaking into the retail game can be expensive. You are competing against billion-dollar companies. If you seek VC money, don’t just seek a checkbook. Find a VC that believes in your mission and can help grow your company. Don’t give up too much too fast and remember everything is negotiable. Money comes with strings. Know what those are before you decide to take it.
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?
You can’t patent a formulation, so it’s essential to protect it from your competition. You can do this by only sharing elemental formula composition or keeping supplier contacts confidential. “Black boxing” is an art. Keep parts of the formula visible to only certain people.
As for a manufacturer, the first thing they will ask you is what your volumes are. If you don’t know the answer to that question, you aren’t ready to find a partner. You need to know how much product you require to sell it. It may sound basic, but it is crucial to determine where to get your raw ingredients and who will be the right manufacturing partner. Be realistic when you share those numbers. It can cost you a lot of money in unused inventory if you plan poorly.
The path to the shelf can be daunting. Research the retailers you want to sell your product. What are their regulation and safety requirements? What are their values and beliefs? Who are their distribution partners? Startup companies try to be edgy and disruptive, but large retailers tend to play it pretty safe when it comes to new partners.
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. Do your homework! Know the industry you are trying to disrupt. You have to know where the weak points are in your industry and how you can view them differently than your competition. Have an action plan to overcome those hurdles. At 8 Track Foods, I knew the supply chain and production were the weakest points for new companies. I focused most of my early days securing ingredient inventory. It paid off when the supply chain broke during the pandemic.
2. Be a Misfit. If you are expecting everyone to love your idea, then you aren’t thinking big enough. Don’t expect the world to like you at first. Focus on the consumers who believe in you and your purpose. I talked to many people before deciding to pull the trigger on 8 Track Foods. The truth is most people thought I was crazy.
3. Don’t always Listen. I get a lot of advice. I critically listen to every piece of it and then decide who is dishing it out. If they are speaking from experience, then listen. If it’s fear, move on.
4. Don’t build a product; build relationships. Relationships are the most valuable part of building a business. When the pandemic hit, manufacturers struggled to keep up with the demand and implemented new safety protocols. They prioritized the larger retailers. Thankfully, we had built a partnership with our manufacturer, so they still gave us the line time required to produce. Without that relationship, we would never have survived.
5. Throw a lot of noodles against the wall! Keep trying different routes to get to the result you want. Just because someone says no doesn’t mean your idea is wrong or you should quit. In the early days, I drove to local stores and talked to managers. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know how the system worked. Some listened, some helped, and eventually, I figured out the path. I learned a lot from those humble store visits and met some good people in the process.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Truthfully, not everyone will be crazy about your vision at first. They will tell you it isn’t a safe thing to do. I picked the most unsexy product on the planet, a can of beans, to start my vision. But I know I have a mission to reduce food waste and secure our food supply. Stay true to your mission, be passionate and everything else will come in time. Even if your product fails, you advanced your path to make a significant positive impact.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Since the inception of 8 Track Foods, I wanted to create a better food supply by reducing food waste, single-use plastics and food insecurity. With our canned goods, we can make a real difference by growing our food sustainably, wasting less in distribution, using less plastic and donating to food banks. We are just getting started, but as simple as a can may seem, it can provide nourishment on so many levels.
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?
I want to create a sustainable food system, not a sustainable product. It breaks my heart to think there are people (especially kids) who don’t have access to healthy food, yet we waste so much in our food distribution. The food system is broken. It’s not a consumer problem to solve, it’s an industry problem to solve. Over 40% of the food we grow in the U.S. never gets consumed. That leaves tons (literally) of food in the trash and 80% of plastic waste in our oceans and landfills. We live in a world driven by single-serve convenience and global transportation of goods. We need to stop and rethink the narrative around convenience food and make simple, deliberate daily choices to reduce waste. At 8 Track Foods, we believe that it starts with growing and canning our products here in the United States.
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 say Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air. She is a perfect blend of inquisitor and empath. I love a good backstory to discover someone is more than meets the eye. It would be great to have a cup of coffee with her and discuss how she comes up with those questions that get to the heart of a person.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.