From the November 1999 issue of Startups

Like most college students, Candace Vanice loved french fries, but she worried about the fat content. Remembering how her mother would put an egg-white coating on bread to make it crispy, Vanice tried the same technique with french fries. After a series of experiments with seasonings, she hit upon a winning formula she thought tasted just as good as the french fries at McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants.

Vanice received her patent in 1994. In 1998, she sold $250,000 worth of 8th Wonder Fat Free Fries. This year, the 27-year-old entrepreneur's Kansas City, Missouri, company, Marvel LLC, expects $1 million in sales through major Midwestern supermarket chains such as Kroeger, HiVee and Albertson's.

What makes Vanice's achievement so extraordinary is that the food market is extremely tough to break into, yet she did it without any advertising. Her innovative product, which offers a tremendous benefit--no fat--is part of the reason for her success, but she upped her chances by carefully following a five-step process that can work for any food inventor:

1.Conduct a market test.

2. Line up a food broker.

3.Get a manufacturer.

4.Establish your product in a small market through the use of sampling and publicity.

5. Expand to a larger market.


Don Debelak (dondebelak@uswest.net) is a new-business marketing consultant who has introduced new products for more than 20 years. He is the author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, 800-225-5945).

Chew on this

Vanice felt she had a great product and was confident it could sell. But before investing a lot of money in the idea, she conducted a market test in a local supermarket. She set up a table in the store and offered samples from her own kitchen, then had customers fill out surveys about what they thought of her product. When Vanice received rave reviews about the fries' taste, she had the ammunition she needed to move ahead.

Vanice worked on the second and third steps--finding a food broker and a manufacturer--simultaneously. You need a broker to generate significant sales in the food market. Brokers have key contacts with supermarkets and wholesalers and play an essential role in food distribution. But brokers won't do business with you unless you have a manufacturer, and manufacturers don't want to invest in your product unless you have a food broker. As a result, you need to work on acquiring both at the same time.

Food brokers, who basically act as the middlemen or sales forces for food manufacturers, are generally listed in the Yellow Pages. Large food brokers have offices in major metropolitan areas, while small to midsized food brokers typically cover smaller, regional areas.

Vanice approached several midsized brokers and made presentations. She included samples of her fat-free fries, showed the brokers the results of her supermarket surveys, and made a compelling case that the product would sell if people tried it. She also included her plans to promote the product via sampling and publicity. She signed on a broker and used the same approach to secure a food manufacturer. (See "Fry, Fry Again," at right, for more details on lining up a food manufacturer.)

Promote It

Food brokers and supermarkets are reluctant to carry a product unless it has extensive marketing and advertising programs backing it up. Those types of programs are expensive for an inventor, so Vanice used a sampling and publicity program instead. She not only passed out free samples herself, but also hired sampling agencies to give away the fat-free fries in Kansas City-area supermarkets. (You can find sampling firms in the Yellow Pages under "Food Demonstrators" or "Demonstrators.")

To publicize her fries, Vanice did interviews on TV and radio shows, got coverage in newspaper articles, and held special events at grocery stores. There were several things going for her that helped generate publicity in her initial Kansas City market: She had a unique product, she was only 26 and she was a local resident. The media was happy to pick up her story, and the combination of publicity and sampling persuaded stores to carry her product, propelling her to significant sales in 1998.

You can hire a public relations firm to put together a publicity program for your product, but if you're like most inventors on a tight budget, you'll probably want to start by doing it yourself. Begin by finding out which local newspaper and magazine writers frequently write about local entrepreneurs. Tune in to local radio and TV stations to find out which hosts talk to local entrepreneurs or businesspeople with interesting stories to tell. Once you've compiled a list of 10 people to contact, put together a press kit and send it to every writer, TV producer and radio station host you identify. (See "Cooking Up Publicity," on page 78, for what to include in your press kit.)

Not So Fast . . .

Despite all Vanice's publicity efforts over the past two years, "There are still people in Kansas City who tell me they've never heard of my product," she says. Usually, you need to generate three times as much publicity as you think you need in order to generate interest in a market.

Vanice spent a year in the Kansas City market building recognition before moving to other Midwestern markets. This year was key for Vanice. New entrepreneurs are usually anxious to expand, but the first step is to solidify sales in your first market. Kansas City is Vanice's home, the area where she could get the most publicity and the market where she had the best chance to gain a foothold. If she had expanded too soon, she wouldn't have established a solid sales base. Without a solid base, she would have risked losing everything if she ran into trouble in an expansion market.

Healthy Choice

This year, Vanice expanded into 12 Midwestern states. She went market by market, first lining up a food broker, then running full-scale publicity and sampling programs.

In each market, Vanice used the same introduction strategies she used in Kansas City. Since most consumers don't pay attention to new products, very few will ever create a "buzz." If you want yours to generate interest, you've got to work hard to get noticed.

Vanice is living proof that every market, no matter how challenging, is open to unique, new products. But a unique product doesn't guarantee success. Hard work and a careful step-by-step plan are still crucial to a successful new-product launch. With $1 million in sales in her second year, Vanice is enjoying phenomenal success, and there's no telling how high her sales can potentially go. Her success can be yours if you take the time to plan your introduction strategy.

Cooking Up Publicity

You need a comprehensive press kit if you expect to get publicity. Here's the kit that worked for Candace Vanice:

  • A white folder with a 4-by-4-inch sticker on it with the words "8th Wonder Fat Free Fries," a seal with the phrase "patent-certified process," and a graphic of a newspaper. This kind of professional-looking folder gets attention. You can get the same results with most PCs, a graphics program and a color printer.
  • Testimonial sheets with comments from actual consumers stating how great the fries taste.
  • An informative press release titled "An American Favorite Loses its Fatty Reputation."
  • A color photograph of the inventor.
  • Background on Vanice with information about how she developed the product.
  • A sales flier about the product with cooking information.
  • A comparison chart showing the calorie difference between 8th Wonder Fat Free Fries and other brands of frozen french fries.

Fry, Fry Again

Candace Vanice knew her fat-free fries were a great product, but she still had to find a manufacturer to make them. First, she went to the supermarket and looked for food manufacturers of french fries. But after contacting them, she discovered they required million-pound orders, which Vanice couldn't afford. After a time-consuming and unsuccessful search, she decided to try Mr. Dell Foods, a hash-brown manufacturer in Kearney, Missouri.

Vanice believes finding the right contract food manufacturer was critical to her success. "I was very lucky to find Mr. Dell Foods," she says. "They were able to make my product on their existing line, were willing to make small quantities for my initial testing, and I only needed to buy a $7,000 slicer for them to begin production."

Mr. Dell Foods cooperated because it was a small manufacturer that had built a plant it could "grow into." The plant was too big for the company's current production levels, and they were looking for other food products to make. Be on the lookout for small to midsized manufacturers that aren't working at full capacity. They will almost always cooperate with you if it can boost their plant's production.

Find manufacturers in your state's Industrial Directory, available at most large libraries, or look in the phone book for distributors of production equipment for the industry you're looking for. For example, the Yellow Pages of Minneapolis (where I live) has a heading for "Food Equipment and Supplies," which lists 10 suppliers.

You can quickly find manufacturers who are seeking new business by talking to salespeople at a food-equipment distributor. They know the key contacts at local food manufacturers and know which manufacturers are running below capacity.

Contact Source

Marvel LLC, (888) 333-2173, http://www.fatfreefries.com