Stuck in traffic one hot summer day in Miami in 2005, Jennifer Behar came up with an idea for a business. The concept was simple: biscotti and breadsticks, made with the freshest ingredients she could find-Belgian bittersweet chocolate, pure vanilla extract, extra-virgin olive oil and rosemary practically plucked from the plant.
As soon as she arrived home, Behar whipped up her first batch of gourmet snacks. Over the next few months, she experimented with her recipes and developed packaging. When the flavor, texture, look, price, packaging and everything else seemed perfect, she launched Jennifer's Homemade. Unfortunately, she had no customers.
The challenge facing Jennifer's Homemade is common to many start-ups: a great product but no clear method of distribution. In food products, distribution is particularly critical. The gourmet food business, sometimes called the “fancy food” market, continues to grow; Jupiter Asset Management recently estimated annual U.S. sales of $229 billion. Because this huge market is appealing to many entrepreneurs, the increasing number of new ventures trying to break into the business makes it more and more difficult to get the attention of buyers who control shelf space.
Here, Behar shares some of her inside tips on how she built a retail channel for her gourmet products, which are now available throughout the East Coast.
Certainly taste and quality are two elements critical to a food product's success. But often it takes something more to get a consumer's (and a store buyer's) attention. For Jennifer's Homemade, this came from a key element of its marketing plan-giving five percent of the proceeds of every sale to the Daily Bread Food Bank in South Florida. For Behar, this was an easy choice-her passion for giving is equal to her passion for baking. It is also a huge selling point-for a high-price gourmet product ($7 for a six ounce bag of Double Chocolate Chunk Biscotti to $18 for a nine ounce glass jar of Sweet Cinnamon Breadsticks), cause-related giving helps consumers feel good about their purchases.
Behar had no professional baking experience prior to forming Jennifer's Homemade. She made up for that with the packaging, product display and brand management experience she gained as an ad executive, working on accounts such as on Johnson & Johnson Baby Shampoo. For example, she learned the importance of a consistent image across multiple items; Behar's goods are united by simple and elegant packaging. They come in clear cellophane sacks or glass jars imported from Italy. Each is affixed with a beige card with the product and company name in a font that looks hand-written. “As we come out with new products, I'm always mindful that they should have the look and feel of our brand,” she says.
As a new company, Jennifer's Homemade was not a known commodity. As a result, Behar focused on getting placement in South Florida-based stores, on the theory that they would be more open to meeting a local startup. She made a list of local retailers, and stuck with it. With local success, she could then approach national chains.
At first, even the local buyers were reluctant to meet with Behar. Her strategy? Aggressive persistence, knowing that buyers would like her products once they tasted them, and that the packaging would ensure they would display well on the store shelves. “I made phone calls, lots and lots of phone calls,” she says. One buyer told her to drop off product. “I'd call them from outside the store and ask, ‘can I just let you try one?'” she recalls. The buyer tasted the goodies, and she had her first order.
Do your homework
Even with some local orders under her belt, Behar knew she had to be smart about finding a way into national chains. She researched several and found that Whole Foods Market donated a percentage of its profits to charities. That aligned with her cause-related marketing approach. She also learned that Whole Foods promotes local growers and “food artisans.” She contacted the Florida region buying department of Whole Foods, and had no luck at first. “The problem was the buyers kept changing. I'd connect with one and then they would go,” she recalls. But by exercising the same persistence that got her into local gourmet shops, she finally landed an order with the national grocery retail chain.
Nurture the relationship
From Florida, her goods started appearing in Whole Foods around the country. Whole Foods is known for treating grocery shopping as entertainment-with chef demonstrations, cooking classes and book signings. As a result, they invited Behar to explain her baking process when her snacks hit the shelves in its New York City area stores, an opportunity she jumped on. “Whole Foods has been incredibly supportive. When they ask me to be there to introduce my products or to help open a new store, I'm happy to do it,” she says. In September 2006, when Whole Foods opened a store in Coral Gables, Florida, Behar taught a weekend baking class.
Extend the line with distributors in mind
Behar started with biscotti and breadsticks at Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca and Fresh Market. She has built on that success to broaden her product line, since the national stores are always seeking new products. As a result, she recently introduced flatbread products. She has also built her infrastructure to ensure she is able to meet the increased demand; Behar moved out of her home kitchen, rented a commercial bakery, and hired employees-she now has 23 on her payroll.
Generate excitement through promotion
Supporting retailers may require more than shipping product and making a few in-store appearances. For a small company without an advertising budget, public relations and promotion can help generate brand recognition and starts moving products off store shelves. Jennifer's Homemade has been very savvy in this regard as Behar continues to drive demand for her products through public appearances and aggressive PR-she did a live demonstration on the daytime Martha Stewart Show and was profiled on CNBC's The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch.
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