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.
Samantha Abrams encountered an experience many graduates go through: after finishing college with a major in theater arts management, she searched for a job but "nothing really felt right."
Then, in 2009, her boyfriend of a year, Ian Gaffney, proposed -- but not for marriage. He wanted to start a business together.
"I remember when Ian kind of proposed the idea of business, I was like, 'Wow, he must really like me, because he wants to start a business with me,'" Abrams recalls. "This business has been a huge part of our relationship, but it's worked, weirdly."
That business, Emmy's Organics, now sells coconut cookies in more than 12,000 retail locations nationwide, including Wegmans, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Hannaford and Costco. The business has grown about 40 percent year over year, with its focus on health helping the company stand out.
The cookie industry brings in about $26 billion annually, and the market is mostly controlled by brands owned by Campbell's, Kellogg and Mondelez. All the while, consumers are increasingly looking for snacks with healthier ingredients, which puts a brand such as Emmy's, whose dehydrated cookies are free of gluten, dairy, soy and importantly, preservatives, in a desirable position in the marketplace.
But, the founders of Emmy's, a certified B Corp, weren't thinking of consumer preferences and the market when they started out in their home kitchen. Gaffney just wanted a treat that wouldn't upset his stomach, as he had developed digestive issues. (This was before the gluten-free craze really hit.)
"He actually made this recipe as just a need for himself, and he taught me how to make them one night," Abrams says. "That was really how our company started."
Neither had much business, manufacturing or even baking experience. They just thought it'd be great to put the treats in a bag and slap a label on it. Fortunately, in a case of right place, right time for Emmy's, the market for gluten-free products exploded.
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Once they had their product, Abrams and Gaffney, who reside in Ithaca, N.Y., would bring cookies to local health food stores. They also got space at the Ithaca Farmer's Market, where they would sell cookies in bulk and get feedback from customers. All the while, they moved from their kitchen to Gaffney's mother's (whose nickname is Emmy), then to another relative's house "until we were busting at the seams."
"Baking, calling, packaging, everything. We were working constantly," Abrams says.
The couple ventured to New York City with sample bags with price sheets in hand to try to hock their products to independent health food shops.
"We didn't make appointments. Knowing what we know now, I can not believe that this worked," Abrams says. "But, it's that pure naivete of just let's go for it. I think it really helps."
In a sort of lucky break, they had a friend who worked for Whole Foods, but in the body department. Still, the friend walked the Emmy's founders through the process of submitting their product to be sold in stores -- Whole Foods only allowed new products to be sold on a store-by-store basis. They got into some locations, and would fulfill orders by sending boxes of clear bags of cookies with labels printed with a home printer.
"We were sealing them by hand. We were scooping the cookies with ice cream scoops and Ian was trying to scoop so fast and trying to do so much that he gave himself carpal tunnel," Abrams says. From that point forward, the company purchased equipment to package cookies.
Eventually, Emmy's web presence helped it get the attention of a broker, who helped get the brand into more shops. The Starbucks partnership came in January, and marked the first time Emmy's was sold nationwide.
"It's a dream come true, because we were nationwide kind of, but in pieces," Abrams says.
Click through the slides to see Emmy's Organics ingredients for success -- and what you can learn from them.