What Drove This Former Schoolteacher to Create a Leading Protein and Snack Bar Company Jola Sonkin had no experience in the food industry. Now, her company's products are sold in more than 20,000 stores.
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.
When Jola Sonkin started GoMacro, a protein and snack bar company, with her mother 14 years ago, the only experience she had was as a public school Latin teacher -- not much to go on when building a consumer packaged goods brand, she said. But instead of being intimidated, Sonkin said she leaned into her ignorance of the CPG space.
"Being a schoolteacher, I didn't know anything about the natural food industry, and daily I was dealing with situations and requests where I had no idea what to do," she said. "Rather than pretend that I did, I was honest and I would ask a lot of questions. I wasn't afraid to ask for help from the person I was trying to sell to, and as a result I built some amazing relationships."
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Now, GoMacro can be found in more than 20,000 U.S. stores, including CVS, Kroger, Sprouts, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. The company said it has grown by more than 500 percent from 2014 to 2017 and that its market share in the natural grocery channel is around 7 percent. It's considered a leader in the bar category.
How did Sonkin and her mother, Amelia Kirchoff, do it?
"What my mom and I did was draw from our experience to create a solution for a problem," Sonkin said. "That's always an opportunity to turn a challenging situation into something positive, and by doing this you naturally stay true to your mission and connect with consumers and feel inspired daily."
The pair's original mission was to heal through food. Kirchoff discovered the importance of macronutrients, which include carbohydrates, protein and fats, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, Sonkin said. After changing her diet, Kirchoff's health improved. She wanted to start eating sweets again, but couldn't find anything on the market that fit her diet, so she started making her own cookies. They proved so popular that Sonkin started selling them.
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She remembers the fear she experienced when making her first sale to a local health food store. "I stood in line with everyone that had their groceries [holding] my mom's cookies," Sonkin said. "I was so nervous and literally shaking, and I just went ahead and told the cashier the entire story of my mom. And I just remember her looking at me and saying, 'I'm just the cashier.'" But at the cashier's urging, Sonkin met with the store's buyer, setting GoMacro on the path to success. She quit her job a year after GoMacro's launch -- at the end of the school year, of course.
"It was out of character for me to enter an industry where I had no idea what the rules were," she said. "If I knew all the rules I would have been intimidated and I never would have taken the leap to walk into that first store and make a sale."