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These Food Industry Veterans Say That Building a Community Is the Most Important Part of a Food Startup

Real Good Foods started selling its chicken-crust pizzas online before making the push to get into stores.

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In this ongoing column, The Digest, Entrepreneur.com News Director Stephen J. Bronner speaks with food entrepreneurs and executives to see what it took to get their products into the mouths of customers.

Courtesy of Real Good Foods

Food entrepreneurs should not be so focused on getting their products into retailers right away, according to Bryan Freeman, a food industry veteran and CEO of Real Good Foods. Instead, they should focus on building a community of devoted customers first.

"You see these entrepreneurs wanting to rush out there and put product on shelves, not having a community or understanding whether what they have is the right thing," Freeman said. "The beautiful thing about where we are today is that, through social media and direct-to-consumer fulfillment, we have an opportunity as entrepreneurs to connect immediately and quickly with people. You know who's buying your food."

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Although Real Good Foods was only founded in April 2016, its products can be found in more than 12,000 stores, including Walmart, Kroger, ShopRite and The Vitamin Shoppe. Those products include frozen pizzas with crusts made of chicken breast, pizza crusts made with cauliflower (a product requested by its customers), enchiladas with tortillas made of chicken and chicken poppers. Freeman said the brand sold strictly in select specialty stores and online, utilizing shipping partners to deliver to customers in two days, for more than a year. It hired people with expertise in social media to build its following and worked with influencers to build its reputation.

"The reason why Real Good Foods is having the success it's having is it took its time and focused on direct-to-consumer first and built its community prior to making a push into retail," he said. "That created a close connection with people who actually care about the brand."

The Real Good Food Company was founded by Josh Schreider, another food industry veteran who had worked with Freeman on other startups. Schreider had owned several pizza restaurants and saw a need for pizza that was high in protein and low in sugars and carbohydrates. He also had a personal need for Real Good Foods' products; he had gained almost 30 pounds eating pizza and bread when he was between businesses.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Real Good Foods

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"I didn’t like any of these non-gluten pizzas, and a thought came to me one night as I was cooking chicken parmesan without the breading," he said. "I ground the chicken, mixed it with parmesan cheese as a binder and to add flavor, and made it in the shape of a pizza. The rest, as they say, is history. I could happily eat this everyday and feel satisfied. The weight started peeling off -- I’m back to 185." It took him about a year to finalize the product.

Schreider added that another component of the brand's success is that it employs former production managers and quality assurance people who monitor the outside companies producing its product. Real Good Foods exercises control over its marketing, ingredients,  packaging and shipping.

That especially helps in today's rapidly shifting consumer landscape, Freeman said.

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"What the consumer trusts and wants today is vastly different from what they trusted and believed in only a few years ago," he said. "So therein lies the opportunity to build something meaningful and durable. We're definitely not living in a static environment."

Stephen J. Bronner

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Entrepreneur Staff

Stephen J. Bronner writes mostly about packaged foods. His weekly column is The Digest. He is very much on top of his email.