Values — You have to ask yourself what are your values? How is your product differentiated because of your values? With Love Crunch, our granola was born out of love, and symbolized our love, but it also reflected our values of giving back. That’s why we created Bite4Bite, a program that for every bag of granola sold, donates the equivalent to food banks across North America. So far, we have donated more than $16 million worth of food.
Persistence — It goes without saying when you are starting a business, you have to be prepared for a lot of ups and downs. When we started our toaster pastry plant, we had just 6 months to get it up and running. And we had obstacle after obstacle. But if we didn’t launch in 6 months, we would have lost the shelf space. So, we couldn’t give up and had to come up with all kinds of original and innovative solutions that allowed us to open on time.
Taste — Taste is paramount, end of story!
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 Arjan Stephens, General Manger of Nature’s Path Foods and President of Que Pasa Foods. Arjan believes our forks and wallets are powerful tools for change, and regenerative organic agriculture is the catalyst that will transform the world for the better.
Since 2011, Arjan has led the launch of over 100 products at the company, growing the product fleet to more than 350. Arjan also launched major brands within the company, including Love Crunch, Qi’a, and Nature’s Path Sunrise cereals. He led the acquisition of Que Pasa Foods, expanding the brand to the USA and significantly increasing sales in Canada.
Arjan and his wife Rimjhim are the proud creators of the Love Crunch brand. Originally created as a favor for their wedding guests, Love Crunch granola was such a hit that Arjan working with major retailers, made it an official Nature’s Path product. This indulgent, premium granola, now expanded to granola bars and cereal, revolutionized the granola market when it hit store shelves in 2010. Arjan also created the Bite4Bite program so that for every bag of Love Crunch sold, the equivalent is donated to food banks across North America. To date, this program has donated more than $16.5 million USD worth of food, ensuring that food-insecure communities have access to healthy, organic food. Love Crunch granola is emblematic of how Arjan combines his business skills and passion for innovation with a compassion for community.
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”?
Igrew up in the food industry, and a passion for healthy organic food is literally baked into my DNA. My parents are serial entrepreneurs. My father Arran started the first vegetarian restaurant in Canada in 1967 (The Golden Lotus). He followed that with one of the country’s first natural food stores. He and my mother Ratana founded Nature’s Path in 1985, North America’s first — and largest — certified organic breakfast foods company.
Both my parents put their heart and soul into their businesses, and they never hid their worries and their challenges from us kids. They always invited us into the conversation and wanted our input. We always felt we were part of the businesses, respected contributors and thus inspired us to be entrepreneurs.
They also raised us with a sense of social responsibility and taught us how important it is to always give back. Those values still infuse my approach to business today.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
My AHA moment had to have been my wedding. I had seen for years the power delicious food holds, how it can spread joy and bring people together. But at my wedding, I saw the direct effect of something I had created. My wife and I created our granola out of passion to create something truly decadent and delicious, and people loved it! That was an AHA moment because it taught me that I had the ability to predict what people would like to eat. There were close to a thousand people at my wedding, and they all loved our granola. Everyone asked where they could get it, how they could get some more. That gave me the confidence to bring Love Crunch to market, and to then bring dozens of subsequent products and brands to market.
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?
One of the funniest things that happened to me when I was starting out was in my early 20’s. My dad had sent me to help start up a new plant in Ontario. I really wanted to prove myself, that I wasn’t just The Boss’ Son, so I was working really long hours, literally sleeping at the plant, on a little cot in the office.
One night, I ordered pizza for dinner, and the pizza delivery guy called when he was at the door. I ran outside to pay him — in a t-shirt in the middle of a Canadian winter — and promptly locked myself out of the plant!
I convinced the pizza guy to drive me to the nearest motel, where I had to talk myself into a room, and promise to pay for it the next day.
Lesson learned — always check to see if you have your keys before you close the door! Which may sound obvious, but really, it’s a lesson about slowing down for a second, checking yourself, and making sure you’re prepared for a situation, even when the pressure is on. You don’t want to be caught outside in the middle of winter in a t-shirt!
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 mistakes I see people making are trying to capitalize on a trend without developing the best product. If everyone’s eating Keto, you can produce a Keto product and get it to market quickly, but no one’s going to eat it if it doesn’t taste good. Taste is king.
You also have to think about how you can differentiate in a crowded market. Something has to set you apart. You have to offer something unique.
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?
First, ask yourself are you fulfilling an undefined niche in the marketplace. If the answer is yes, then prototype the product. Bring it to your friends and family, so they can taste it and give their feedback.
Bring it to farmers’ markets, foist it on strangers, try to get as much feedback on your product as you can early on, and keep testing it before you put your whole life’s savings into it.
And finally, come up with a good brand name that reflects your products and values and your mission.
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?
I think the best thing you can do is align yourself with other people who are actually “doing it.”
Go to trade shows and introduce yourself to people who are doing something you like and admire. Ask to meet for coffee, so you can share your idea and ask for feedback. Surround yourself with people who know more than you do.
Bring prototypes with you everywhere you go, and HUSTLE. You have to hustle! If you are passionate and enthusiastic for your product, that passion enthusiasm is going to be contagious.
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?
Once you’ve had a good idea and proven its worth, talking to a consultant to help you scale your idea can be incredibly important. Getting help from someone experienced in scaling a side-hustle into a full-scale business can be invaluable.
I also recommend getting help in co-manufacturing and distribution. It takes a lot of capital to create a full-scale manufacturing facility and distribution channels, so outsourcing that expertise is something I would definitely recommend.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
If you’re testing out an idea, bootstrapping is the way to go. You don’t want to do venture capital too early, you have to give up too much of your company when it’s still at the idea stage, so prove your idea first.
Get into retailers, do your own demos, engage your family and friends for feedback, gain some confidence with retailers, and then after some wins, decide if you should put more behind it.
First, you have to show your idea has a lot of potential, then consider taking on venture capital in order to scale it very fast.
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 have experience in filing trademarks and copyrights. The process is pretty straightforward in the US and Canada, and it’s so important to register trademarks for your brand, because you have to protect your brand and make sure that it is original, and relevant.
When sourcing good, raw ingredients, I definitely recommend using a distributor. When you’re starting a business, the cost of ingredients is quite high at first, because you don’t have the economies of scale. You’ll want to get someone to help you navigate this process. As you get larger, you’ll start amassing savings.
It can be really intimidating finding good people. Network with people in the food industry and ask for advice and guidance. I leaned on mentors over the years. There are now food incubators that can help, and now I’ve become a little food incubator myself, paying it forward by investing in a lot of small startups.
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.)
Here are the 5 Things I think you need to create a successful food line:
1. Curiosity — An example of our curiosity has been our use of chia seeds. We were the first company to use them in cereal and granola, and it stemmed from the fact we were curious about them. We were curious about the nutritional benefits of seeds and nuts, and how they could be incorporated into our cereals and add to the flavor and add to the health benefits.
2. Values — You have to ask yourself what are your values? How is your product differentiated because of your values? With Love Crunch, our granola was born out of love, and symbolized our love, but it also reflected our values of giving back. That’s why we created Bite4Bite, a program that for every bag of granola sold, donates the equivalent to food banks across North America. So far, we have donated more than $16 million worth of food.
3. Persistence — It goes without saying when you are starting a business, you have to be prepared for a lot of ups and downs. When we started our toaster pastry plant, we had just 6 months to get it up and running. And we had obstacle after obstacle. But if we didn’t launch in 6 months, we would have lost the shelf space. So, we couldn’t give up and had to come up with all kinds of original and innovative solutions that allowed us to open on time.
4. Profitability — You have to be able to make money on your concept, you have to price it properly. You can sacrifice profitability early on, but if you don’t have a road map to profitability — you’re in trouble. We experienced this with our oatmeal business. We started with a co-packer and eventually brought it in house and produced it ourselves, that was our road to profitability.
5. Taste — Taste is paramount, end of story!
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
It all comes down to chocolate! If you put chocolate in it, people are going to love it! No, I’m just kidding (sort of).
For me, people are crazy about healthy products that don’t sacrifice taste. Seeing someone taste something delicious, and have them realize it’s organic, non-GMO, low in sugar and fat and also DELICIOUS, that’s the best!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We at Nature’s Path (and so also at Love Crunch, EnviroKidz and Que Pasa) strive to always leave the earth better than we found it. To us that means always being organic, always being non-GMO. We also believe in the triple bottom line — People, Planet, and Profits. In the past 11 years alone, we have given away more than 30-million dollars in organic food and financial donations. Our facilities are zero waste certified. We purchase renewable energy credits for all the electricity we consume. And we have made a commitment for our packaging to be 100% recyclable by 2025, and we are already 97% of the way there.
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.
To me, that movement would be converting every farm to regenerative organic. Nothing could have a more significant effect on our planet and on climate change, than regenerative agriculture. And by converting farms to regenerative, we’d also be addressing inequity in farming practices, and boosting the micro-nutrient quality of the soil. We released our first, limited edition regenerative product this year to celebrate Earth Day, our Nature’s Path Regenerative Organic Oats. It was our first regenerative product, but it won’t be our last!
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.
Michelle Obama. I loved her book, and so many of her life philosophies resonate with me. One I really hold on to, is when “they go low, you go high.” Always take the high road. I try to live my life like that, and conduct business like that. And also, I think she would really love our Love Crunch Dark Chocolate and Red Berries granola!