Cindy Poiesz and Mickey Burnett from Evolve Brands join us on AAI today. Evolve Brands prioritizes eating nourishing food that can sustain you in between meals, or more mindful snacking. Cindy & Mickey school us on all things plant-based snacks and what the consumer REALLY wants.

Learn how Cindy got started and how she and Mickey are scaling Evolve to become a household brand. Listen in for a glimpse into startup life. Additionally, they explain how changing packaging and the form of your product can change the demand.

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TIMESTAMPS

What is innovation in the snacking industry? – 00:46
Innovation is authenticity – 02:07
How Evolve Snacks got started – Cindy’s story 03:46
How did Evolve Snacks grow? – 06:41
How Packaging and Form can be innovative for the snack industry – 10:02
The challenges of having a small CPG company – why it’s hard being small – 14:05
Why networking is essential – 14:52
How being small allows for more agility and quick decision making– 18:10
Always listen, to consumers, customers, and retailers – 21:21

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Josh Barker [0:00]: Welcome to Ask an Innovator. Today, I’ve got Mickey Burnett, he’s the VP of Marketing and Sales for Evolve Brand Snacks. And we’ve got Cindy Poiesz. She’s the Managing Partner of Evolve Snacks. Welcome, guys. This is the first episode, I’ll say, that I think we’ve interviewed two people at once.

Cindy Poiesz [00:31]: We’re two peas in a pod.

Mickey Burnett [00:32]: We love being the first.

JB [00:33]: That’s good. That’s awesome. So I’ll hit it right off and ask you guys the question. What is innovation to you guys, and then we’ll bleed that right into and talk a little bit about Evolve Snacks?

MB [00:46]: So, you know, I find innovation really about finding that unmet consumer need. That want and sometimes they don’t even know that they need that really solves a problem. Whether it’s a service or a product. It doesn’t have to be like new and I think as we were talking before the podcast. It doesn’t have to be like a crazy new iPhone.

I think it’s, you know, evolving, no pun intended, evolving things that are already out there. One of the examples I like to use is like the beef jerky industry. Nobody knew they needed gourmet beef jerky or healthier beef jerky. It was a category that was flat and stagnant. Then you had brands like Country Archer and Crave and things like that come out. And really drive innovation in the category and really invigorate a category that maybe was primarily store based to being across and having really nice presence across all channels of trade.

And I think for us, innovation is really a being a plant-based snacking company with our brands, Supernola and Gorilly Goods. I think plant-based snacking is really an innovative space that’s going to grow over the next 10 years. We’ve seen stats that in the US, it’s going to be anywhere from a $23 to $25 billion category. In the next nine years and globally by 2028. They’re saying it’s gonna be a $73 billion category as consumers start to really monitor this 80/20 lifestyle of being very active and very healthy.

And how can they replace some of their traditional snacks with things that are better than right and feel better about what they’re putting in their body?

CP [02:07]: Yeah. So for me, I think true innovation is something that really advances society forward. You know, when I think of innovation through the years, I think of those things that really changed everything. And everyone’s life somehow. So when we apply that to what we’re doing for us, it’s, you know, the way that we do things here, we’re trying to change CPG companies at the core. So we’re trying to do everything the right way for a ground up. And that obviously includes our products, but it includes the way that we do everything, the way that we think about everything, trying to really innovate and influence others to do the same throughout the whole process.

MB [02:43]: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think one of the things is authenticity is a point of innovation in the category right now and in the food space. I think having a founder that has a real story on why they got into things, how you produce things, how you treat your employees. You know, in our plants we use 100% renewable energy. We upcycle, recycle, and compost, for instance.

I think that’s one of the things that you’re seeing a lot of the smaller companies and the up and coming snacking companies in our space. They are really driving authenticity and consumers are starting to latch on. So whether it’s philanthropy or how you make the products. And as Cindy said, that’s something all of those components, we’re trying to use those three pillars on our business. Whether it’s philanthropy, sustainability, and transparency. That’s how we’re building the business. But I think that’s a big space that’s going to continue to grow with consumers and their need to know the supply chain and that there’s a clean supply chain. And also, how are you treating your employees and all those things.

JB [03:34]: Yeah. That’s not only what you’re producing is how you produce.

MB [03:37]: Yeah, exactly.

JB [03:38]: Yeah. That’s great. That’s great. Now you mentioned Cindy’s story. I love love, though, if you go into a little bit of your story.

CP [03:46]: Yeah. So my background is actually in finance. I spent five years doing corporate investment banking for energy companies, actually. So oil and gas companies, you know, some of the very controversial things. But I always was sick like growing up, I was always sick. And so it all kind of came to a head when I had this really intense job and I was just a mess. And I realized I need to really get a handle of my health and figure out what’s going on.

Doctors could never really tell me. And back then, like food sensitivity, testing wasn’t a thing. So I had to just figure it out on my own. So I started really listening to my body, which is something that I always suggest to people figure out what my body likes and what my body doesn’t like.

Then once I figured that out, my problem was snacking, you know. I would have all my food at my desk every day. By three o’clock I would be starving because I ate all my food and I needed a good snack that I would want to reach for ahead of everything else. That gave me all the nutrients and all the energy that I wanted that just had everything in one bite.

So I started making it for myself and then I just became obsessed with superfoods and different healing foods of different cultures. And really just getting into it. I always liked baking and this was really my you know, my passion project for myself and I never thought it would turn into something like this.

But you know when you follow your passion you kind of go a little crazy.

MB [05:04]: I think I always find some of the best founders or innovators or people who didn’t plan on starting a company when I first met Frank, um Cindy, who I met through our other partner, Frank, who I used to work with years ago. I liked it. She didn’t have an idea of like, I’ve got to start a company and do this. It was for her own needs and realized that she talked to her friend group that it was something that other people were onto, and she started, “Okay, well, I’ll keep my day job. Let me try it at a farmers market.”

And so I think there’s such an authentic story about how that came about. It was very organic. It wasn’t okay, I’m going to start a CPG company and I’m going to be super powerful and now I grow this business I’m going to lead the industry was like. I just want to make a change for the better, for myself. And then Cindy, she always says that, I’m probably putting words your mouth but I know you always say that, you know? Wow, how can I help other people? People started tasting and saying plant-based organic can be good.

Plant-based can have all these unique ingredients. You don’t have to just have three ingredients in a product and say simple ingredients. It’s great for you. You can have nine to 11 ingredients in products. Every ingredient can have a purpose and everything can taste great. And you can feel good about what you put in your body.

JB [06:10]: So Cindy, were you literally like in an apron in your kitchen just making these things?

CP [06:14]: I was. Yeah, and I have pictures to prove it.

JB [06:17]: Really? Oh, nice. We should post that on the website.

CP [06:20]: They’re not very attractive.

JB [06:23]: Oh, that’s awesome. So from there it really, how did you take the next step? So everyone was really excited about it and was like you were sharing with different people. And they were tasting and saying how good it was? Did you just say, I think now’s the time then for me to start something or did it take some push? How did that come about?

CP [06:41]: Yeah. So I was in LA at the time doing farmer’s markets. And that’s when I realized, you know, wow, people are really responding to this well. This is really checking off all their boxes that they’re looking for. They’re coming back and buying it again and they come back every week. Everybody always asked me you know, I want to take the leap, but how do you actually do it. And for me, that story’s a little bit different than most people, I didn’t expect myself to ever take the leap.

My dad was diagnosed with ALS. It kind of changed the way that I thought about everything, and really drove me to discover my passion. You know I wanted to move home and have the free time to be able to spend time with my family. And through that, it allowed me to do this. So you know, kind of turning a bad situation into a good one. It turned into what we have today.

JB [07:29]: Yeah, that’s good. And I know you guys are just following that trend beautifully of the market. Because the market right now is really trending towards being very aware of what’s in our food, right? Of looking at it and saying, I mean, we’re all getting more aware with more information, the internet, and all that stuff. Now we can actually say, this is bad and this is good and we need it. We need to improve our lifestyle. And so this just sounds like a natural thing that the market sounds like really adopting to.

CP [07:53]: Yeah and so much of business is timing, too. The brand that we purchased, that’s a part of our portfolio, Gorilly Goods. They were really ahead of the trends when they started six years ago. And it really took time to get to the point where it is today where mainstream consumers are ready to adopt that. But so much of it is timing. Right time right place, too.

MB [08:16]: Yeah. And I think I think continuing, there are so many more categories out there, that still we’ve got some things in our pipeline that are in snacking and variants of snacking. That can be plant-based that can be organic, that people still haven’t maximized yet. And if they’ve done it, there’s some that they’ve done that just don’t taste good, too. I mean, I’m sure you probably tasted some. You know, we always try to put, you know, healthy food in my kids’ mouths, and sometimes there’s like, Oh, that’s terrible.

And I think there’s still space out there, whether it’s kids or there are variants of snacking that we’re looking at as we grow, to drive growth. And I mean, our goal was not to have two brands. Our goal was to build a plant-based organic snacking portfolio of a company. And I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to come work with Cindy and Frank was, it wasn’t just like Gorilly Goods and Supernola. Yeah, yes, we are leading with Supernola and Supernola is going to be our lead brand. But as we look, you know, two to four years out, we’d like to have three to four total brands that have this same mission that are very mindful in their approach from the manufacturing, to how we treat our staff, to how we give, have philanthropy in all our brands.

And I think there’s going to continue to be a lot of space to provide great products with great authenticity and a great story that consumers want to hear about. I mean, it’s such an Instagram world that people are so intrigued by stories they want to know more and if you kind of fit that notch for them of being authentic and having a great story they want to follow you and want to support you.

JB [09:45]: So for those you know, I love that, you’re building a portfolio of these different healthy snacks. What are some of the other things that you guys are seeing on the horizon as you’re talking about, you know, you’re leading with some two of your core products? What about the other couple of ones? Can you talk a little bit about those? Are those open knowledge yet?

MB [10:02]: I will talk about what’s kind of out there. I mean, our stuff is still pretty new. So, you know, there’s basically one category but I think plant-based for us and what we’re seeing is that we don’t make a bar. And but we want to be in the single-serve snack section which is primarily bars right now. And what we’re seeing is that being a cluster that has multiple usage occasions, a bar is a bar you sitting either at home, you eat it in the car, you can be at different places, but it always going to be like a bar.

Clusters you can eat, like, you know, in a car, you can eat them on the road and on the train if you’re commuting. But they also can be put on milk, almond milk, things like that. They can be put in yogurt. So there are multiple usage cases, I think you’re going to start to see like what we’ve done that the bar fatigue is going to start to benefit different forms. And I know that’s so simple that basically it’s broken up clusters instead of a bar, but we hear from retailers and big retailers who tell us that there’s bar fatigue right now, so many competitors, because there are so many.

There are so many co-manufacturers that can do that out there. It’s an easy thing to turn on. What we do and the way we make stuff we don’t roast, we don’t bake, we dehydrate, and that’s actually new as well.

And I think the way, especially that we’re doing Gorilly Goods and Supernola, there’s nobody really doing that. And for the size of our company, it’s really weird that we have this massive dehydrator, you can drive a truck into. We can build it but it makes it very flavorful. It makes it very soft from a Supernola perspective, the longer you keep it in, then it makes it really crunchy, but it keeps the flavors in there.

I think the form is going to continue to be a small innovation that people can take advantage of in the space. I think there are some pack types that are probably there’s pack type innovation in the space that can be taken multi-packs that you can get them in boxes now. But what’s the next step of that? What’s the next evolution? So I think, you know, plant-based, they’re still cool plant-based things we see out there that are growing and you’ve seen some pretty cool plant-based competitors. But I think there’s a lot of, I think the sky’s the limit right now.

JB [12:05]: What do you guys see in the next couple of years in this snacking industry? Obviously, plant-based. What else? What other trends do you guys see in the snacking industry?

CP [12:14]: Well, I mean, you have to say Keto right now because that is the big trend right now. But I’m not sure if that I consider that a fad and in my kind of mindset. So those are things, you know, you take advantage of when you can, but you don’t bet your whole portfolio on it. But plant-based meat right now is crazy. And you know, they’re raising so much money. There are so many competitors, the big guys are getting into it, too, because they see the importance of it. But the small guys are really growing and finding those different unique things that people never even thought about, you know, like plant-based seafood. Who would have thought about that and then shining a light on the sustainability impacts that that has?

But then in snacking, I mean, you’re seeing global flavors a lot. You’re seeing some really interesting flavor combinations out there. And that’s kind of where we play where we’re looking to play too. Kind of giving people that wow factor that when they take a bite, their eyes light up and they say, Wow, I didn’t expect that. That’s really kind of what we’re going for ourselves.

MB [13:15]: Yeah, I think if you look what my big CPG experience, as you look five years ago, the consumer is really going out on an edge from a flavor perspective, it was coconut. And that was edgy. And that was really trying to get consumers out of their comfort zone. I think we’re kind of moving past that. I think, you know, that was four or five years ago, and consumers are expecting things like goji and having lemongrass in there as a backup flavor and having different things like that.

So I think there’s, as Cindy said the global flavors and the unique flavors. I think people want to be adventurous and it shows. The palette of the US is changing the really kind of embrace that. I think, you know, that it’s slow. I mean, it’s glacial, but I think, we’re going to see a lot of movement that way as well.

JB [13:59]: What are some challenges you guys see in the marketplace?

CP [14:05]: I mean, for CPG companies, it’s small. It’s hard being small. Yeah, you know, all the big guys have so much money to pour into marketing and they can make the consumer believe whatever they want to believe whether it’s true or not. You know, we don’t have unlimited dollars to spend to educate consumers. So we have to get a little more creative. But it’s really, it’s hard to be small and to grow. It’s also very crowded.

I feel like the tech boom, a lot of tech entrepreneurs have turned into food now. So now it’s even more crowded. You have all these tech people coming into food, which for some categories is great, like plant-based meat and everything. But for others that can just really crowd it. But I mean, the number one thing is just it’s hard to be small and to grow and to get to the level that we’re looking to get.

MB [14:52]: I think it comes down to attention. How do you get retailers attention? We were joking earlier that just getting them to return your phone call. Like, hey, we’re different. We tell you how we’re different. And getting that five minutes with them. I think it’s also getting the attention of investors. And I think there are some CPG companies out there and smaller startups that have had success, sold them off, and now they’re starting other ones, and they’re getting that attention.

And sometimes, the second, you know, the second course isn’t always as great as the first. But they’re dragging some of that money with them. And I think, you know, just making sure to get the attention of investors and showing, hey, we’re different. We’ve got a growth model, which is a challenge. You know, coming from big CPG never had to worry about but I think, you know, Cindy’s got a great background in that and we’ve got a great strategy.

It’s just making sure that we can find that audience and I think just making sure that we’re continuing to network and I think one of the things that Cindy talks about when she first started is how important networking is. It doesn’t matter that we have our own plant, it doesn’t matter that we have DCs across the country. It doesn’t matter how many brokers we have right now. Networking, honestly, has been our biggest seller.

We’ve gotten some of our biggest accounts, through networking. Not from, and no offense to our brokers, but they came primarily through networks rather than our brokers and our distributors. And we’re able to close them, just through people we’ve met. A lot of times in the startup community, everybody wants to help each other. Which is we’ve found and it’s really new. Big CPG, is like, cutthroat is like, oh my gosh, we’re gonna put our foot on their throat.

You talk to other people in other categories. We sit at these shows, and they’re like, Hey, have you talked to this buyer? And you know, here’s a broker we really work well with, here’s this. It’s really a community that as you network more, you learn more. Whether it’s from brokers and, you know, sales support to investors and things like that.

CP [16:37]: That’s definitely the one thing I love most about the industry is that people want to help other people. You know, if you know where you play, then you can be accepting of others and support others and growing as well and there’s so much room for opportunity. You know, and all the small companies you know, we’re all fighting the good fight against the big companies and trying to do things right. So us banding together is so important and There’s so much of it in the industry right now.

MB [17:01]: Yeah, well, there’s one competitor, a Chicago based company here as well. And I’ve reached out to their founder just on, Hey, how are you structuring your organization? How have you done your recruiting to get young and hungry employees that want to do this kind of startup role? People have been so responsive and so helpful, and they’re like, Hey, here’s the range of everything from here’s how I’m set up. Here’s the range I’m paying people and been pretty open like that. It’s been pretty amazing.

JB [17:29]: That’s awesome. Now, it also sounds like while there’s some disadvantage of you guys being small, sounds like there’s some also some agility you guys have a being small, right?

CP [17:38]: We can make a decision like that.

JB [17:40]: Yeah, exactly. So that’s good. And I imagine too, being able to interact with your customers or potential customers directly. I’m interested to hear from you guys of like how are you guys from a food innovation you started in your kitchen? Giving to other people to taste it? How are you guys continuing to do that and innovate in the foods, space of taste, are you know, are you involving people in tests and usability tests and things like that? I’m interested to hear how that works from a food perspective.

CP [18:10]: Yeah, so the one important thing is we all demo our products. So we’re out in stores sampling ourselves. I think that is the number one way that you can hear consumer feedback about your products, but also about what they want. You can talk to them there. And you don’t, you know, take some people for a grain of salt. But when you hear people start saying the same things, that’s where kind of we look to, to innovate with other products and ideas and putting it into the pipeline.

MB [18:37]: I think one of the things we’ve got going for us too, is we have it’s still relatively small, relatively speaking, but we have a nice, you know, following of consumers buy us online, and we can test things that way so we can reach out to people directly, hey, you bought four times. You know, we’ve got a group of people that buy pretty regularly we can say, Hey, would you try something for us? Let us know what you think.

So we’ve got groups of people that advocate for us. And that we can kind of reach back to even people we know but also people who just buy us. There are folks that buy us on a regular basis, none of us have met, all across the country. It gives us, you know, an audience to try things. I think from an innovation standpoint, you’re asking about how quickly we can change?

One of the things we’re doing is we’re making in the process of making a change to our portfolio. What we found, as we were talking to retailers is Gorilly Goods has two different pack types. One’s trail mixes and one’s clusters. And they price different and they are in different parts of the stores. Supernola is all clusters and they price with the two groups you follow and they price for the two Gorilly goods clusters.

So what we found is the retailers like okay with these two, go with four other brand items, and they go in different store and they line price here and these other to go in a different part. So we’re actually you know, having gotten that feedback and it’s been, you know, getting not hammered but getting that feedback.

We’re actually taking all our clusters and putting everything under Supernola. So we’re converting crunchy, Gorilly Goods clusters items into the Supernola Crunch and Gorilly Goods will just be a trail mix seed and nut line, we’re very clear from a pricing perspective, very clear where it goes to stores. And now we’ve got a six SKU portfolio that’ll start rolling out in October, that will be really clear. And we were able to make that decision with feedback and we made that decision in 30 minutes or an hour. We kind of sat through it like, okay, here’s what we’re hearing. Here are the implications. Let’s make sure we’re thinking through the process. And we made that change.

We actually took it back to one of the national retailers we talked to, and they’re like, Oh, my gosh, that’s incredible. We made a small packaging change. And they’re like this incredible. And then they took all six of, actually they took five of the six items. So it’s been really helpful to take that feedback. And that would have taken me a year to do a big CPG company. Yeah, we did it. We made the decision. 45 days ago, we just finalized we’re finalizing the packaging this week and next week, and we’ll start producing in late September.

JB [21:01]: Oh, that’s awesome. It now and it also sounds like you’re obviously learning fast being able to adapt fast. So what would be some learnings that really the listeners as they’re listening to this, that you guys have learned doing it with Evolve Snacks that they can apply to their own business?

CP [21:21]: Always listen. That’s my one big thing is to sit back and listen and ask probing questions especially to consumers about, you know, what they want. You know on the surface is something but then what is it deeper below that what is it actually that they want? So, just listening to people and not. The one important thing I think it just in business in general is to not think that you know everything. And if somebody is an expert, you know, question that but then figure out why they are an expert and then trust them in that.

MB [21:50]: I think echoing that, just listening to our retailers too. I think, you know, having come from big CPG like we know everything about marketing and we know everything about sales and innovation. And I think, as we talked to our retailers, we’ve gotten really great feedback and different retailers are very, some can be a little more niche.

We’ve got a great retailer, that’s in the West suburbs of Chicago, and they’re small, one location, they do crazy amounts of our product. They’re always like, Hey, what about this? Having that feedback of how we do things. So we even share with them hey here’s our packaging change, just want to let you know, and they’re like, love it.

And I think we’ve shown big retailers that have 6000 to 8000 stores to one store. I think, you know, finding that, that that sweet spot of that feedback. Another thing is I just like to just walk stores.

Maybe it’s old fashioned I know there’s so much e-comm buying and I know we do well in e-comm and there’s that’s continuing to evolve. But I think there’s so much valuable insights you can learn on your business on tip of the spear innovation trends by just walking stores. And walking everything from Target to Whole Foods to Mom and Pop organic specialty grocery stores and seeing what’s moving off the shelf. Seeing where people are trending. And I think, you know, being a small company that we don’t have the money to do the research like I might have done in my past. So getting a lot of those directional and what you call mother in law research or things like that, just walking stores, talking to people watching.

I’m that geek that’s in the aisle watching people buy to see how they’re making those choices. I think that’s invaluable, especially as a startup. I think if you can get out there and see how consumers are shopping and also what items are starting to make a little hay out in the marketplace. It’s really invaluable.

CP [23:37]: Yeah, the psychology behind what drives people to buy what they buy and do what they do is the most fascinating part to me and I’m that person stalking somebody in the store and looking and saying.

JB [23:48]: I need to watch myself now.

CP [23:49]: You picked up this but then you picked up that why’d you pick up them both? You know, are you shopping for somebody else, is this for you? Why did you pick that over the other brand, things like that.

JB [24:00]: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, listen, and then pay attention. It looks like. So those are the two things that I mean, those are great observations and great points because a lot of people just don’t like you said, don’t listen, and they say they know better. So yeah, you can learn a lot, obviously, from looking at customers. That’s great. That’s great. I appreciate you both your time, and it’s been a great time to talk about plant-based innovation and a snack space. So I’m excited to see where Evolve Brands goes and thanks again.

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