After Being Diagnosed With Cancer, She Created a Cookie That Would Help Her Eat Cleanly and Satisfy Her Sweet Tooth. Now Her Products Are Sold in 25,000 Stores. Loren Castle explains how she founded and grew Sweet Loren's, an allergy-friendly baked goods company that started in her New York City apartment and is now selling nationwide.
In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what's your business?
My name is Loren Castle and I am a born and bred New Yorker. My company Sweet Loren's creates delicious, better-for-you baked goods. We're sold in over 25,000 supermarkets. What makes our cookie dough special is not only the incredible homemade taste, but the fact that it is convenient and easy to bake, and all of the products are gluten-free and plant-based, made with only simple clean ingredients, and free of the top 14 common allergens.
What inspired you to create this business?
I was inspired to start Sweet Loren's after surviving cancer in my early twenties. I found myself searching for ways to satisfy my sweet tooth with ingredients I actually felt good about. Great-tasting, clean food became essential to my health, well-being and recovery so I took cooking and nutrition classes so I could take care of myself and make delicious, healthier food. But, as someone with a big sweet tooth, there was nothing on the market that tasted great and was made of simple ingredients. So, I started to make my own cookie recipes. When family, friends, and strangers at parties couldn't get enough of my cookies, that's when I knew there was a bigger need than myself and I was inspired to start Sweet Loren's.
Were there any moments when you knew you were on to something?
I've had many "aha" moments over time. My first was when I created my original chocolate chip cookie recipe (after hundreds of failed attempts), alone in my kitchen saying in my head, "This is a perfect cookie." My picky younger sister was the next "aha" moment when I saw her gobble the whole cookie down. I knew we could win over even the pickiest of eaters. I then won a charity baking contest for the Lower East Side Girls Club and the judge was a famous pastry chef (Gina DePalma who sadly since passed from cancer) came up to me and said "you need to do something with this." That was another "aha" moment from someone outside my family that I looked up to that validated the need for a concept like Sweet Loren's that stood for using stricter, cleaner, better-for-you ingredients — and could still compete on taste.
How did you find your way onto store shelves?
I got a meeting with a buyer at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods Market in NYC, probably the busiest Whole Foods in the country. I didn't have a packaged selling product yet, but I brought several flavors of cookies I freshly baked that morning. He called me the next day and told me he and his team had never tasted something so good and wanted my cookie dough as soon as possible! I got into Publix stores after my second meeting with them - that is what launched Sweet Loren's not only nationwide, but into mass conventional grocery stores. The next major milestone was getting into all Kroger supermarkets. I told the buyer we had warehouses across the country, a full team, and our factory could handle any volume (none of which we had exactly yet!), but I knew if he gave me the chance, I wouldn't mess it up. That's when I hired Yvette, our VP of Sales (still with me seven years later!) and she helped make sure our execution in these stores was the best it could be.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you pivot to overcome it?
My biggest challenge was getting those who weren't gluten free, dairy free, or clean eaters to try our product. Some people assumed it wouldn't taste good and would be chalky, crumbly, or resemble saw dust like most other gluten-free products. We overcame this obstacle by tweaking our packaging so that "gluten-free" and "dairy-free" are small callouts on the bottom of the package versus being very big on the packaging; something you might only see if you're looking for specific allergen claims on the pack. We also made sure our logo and picture of the cookie were incredibly appetizing — showing how delicious our products are and how you can rely on the Sweet Loren's brand for great tasting food. Period.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?
If you can bootstrap it, I highly recommend it! Be in control of your own future and be on your own timeline. I recommend being as scrappy as possible to get your product as far along as possible before bringing in investors. And when it comes time when you need investment to keep up with demand, I'd make sure to spend time building a three-year plan so you are focused and know exactly what you're going to do with the money. It will help you answer questions confidently, stay focused once you do have the money, and get the most out of your money while raising. I would recommend starting with friends, family, or angel investors; these are people who trust you, love the product or purpose of the business, and just want the best for you. If you're ready to raise more money and have more accountability and advisory help, start to network for the best funds that specialize in what you do so they can be helpful beyond just writing a check.
What is something many aspiring business owners think they need that they really don't?
A lot of money, a lot of marketing, and a big team. You can do a lot with a little when your product, story, and packaging are truly amazing. There are scrappy ways to market and stand out, and if you hire really talented people and create great systems, you'll be surprised how few people you might actually need to bring on. Not taking a lot of money was actually the best thing for me and my business. It helped me stay on top of every dollar spent; focus on margin; make sure we were staying focused on our plan; only hire the best we could find; and not get distracted by shiny objects like fun new projects that weren't in our plan or budget. I grew my business based on two product SKUs, not 100, which helped us stay focused and profitable over time.
Is there a particular quote or saying that you use as personal motivation?
"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." — Wayne Gretzky. This quote inspires me daily. I have it on my bookshelf in my bedroom. Take the shot if you want something. Even if it doesn't work out, you will learn from it and do better the next time. We just got into Sprouts and H-E-B supermarkets — it has taken seven years of meetings and not giving up. Now, finally a yes! Don't take no for an answer; keep taking those shots and keep showing up with a positive attitude and positive data on your product. One day you'll be big enough or powerful enough that they can't ignore you, and you will get your yes.