If you’ve ever bought packaged snacks and glanced at the ingredients list, you’ve probably seen a slew of words that don’t sound natural—things like partially hydrogenated oil, corn syrup, red 40, fruit pectin, distilled monoglycerides. Things that sound more like the creation of a mad scientist than consumables that should go into your body.
and Olga Kerr
are changing that. With Raleigh-based Sweetie Pie Organics
, they are disrupting the kid snack industry in the best way they know how—by bringing healthy, organic foods to children everywhere.
Cantrell, the company’s founder and CEO, is a veteran of the children’s food industry. She worked for Nestle, (owner of Gerber), Organic Products and HIPP, a leading organic baby food company in Europe. Kerr (pictured top) is CMO and a specialist in market research and analysis, public relations, social media and marketing. She previously worked for a skincare company. Both women have MBAs. And both are moms who are passionate about moving the needle on dangerous kid health trends.
“One in four children in the US are at a higher risk to have diabetes by age 12,” says Cantrell. “One in three kids are now obese. Parents are looking for healthier options. They want organic foods for their children.”
The mission of Sweetie Pie Organics is to provide a healthy alternative to the sugar-loaded foods currently available to parents. Three main product lines were launched in April 2014: fruit and veggie purees, snacks and tiny wafers/teething biscuits, and 300 stores (including Whole Foods and Lowe’s Foods locally) around the nation now carry the latter two products in six flavors (The purees are no longer in production). Two of the largest food distributors in the U.S. picked up the line, positioning the company well for future growth.
But launching and growing a new food company requires a lot of marketing and money, especially in an increasingly competitive environment—Dow Jones VentureSource reported that food and beverage startups drew in $1.1 billion in venture capital globally in the first half of 2014, the last period for which data is available. That’s compared to $1.59 billion in all of 2013 and $1.14 billion for the full 2012.
There have been some major acquisitions in the kid food startup space too—in 2013, Campbell’s ac-quired Plum Organics, Danone bought Happy Family Brands and B&G Foods acquired Pirate’s Booty maker Pirate Foods, then General Mills bought Annie’s Homegrown in 2014. A private equity firm invested big in Sprout Organic Foods earlier this year. Because the environment is so competitive, and investment will be needed to scale, the women applied to the local SoarTriangle mentorship program,
Cantrell says $250,000 will be needed for the next phase of the company’s growth.
Impressed by the young company’s growth with a small team and without the help of experienced mentors, SoarTriangle organizers selected Cantrell as one of six female entrepreneurs to receive help over the next year. Intriguing about the company is its niche in toddler food. According to SoarTriangle organizer Lauren Whitehurst, that’s an underserved category—most of the startup activity has been around babies.
But that doesn’t mean sales are where they should be. Where SoarTriangle plans to help, besides with fundraising, is marketing.
"The biggest challenge for any new retail product is once you get in, how to stay in. You’ve got to compete for that shelf space that’s always in high demand,” Whitehurst says. “The way you do that is by sell through. That is really her next big challenge.”
About the products
There's no secret to the women’s products—it's all on the back of a fruit and veggie snack box. There are just three ingredients: banana, sweet corn and blueberry or apple, green pea, pineapple, for example. The ingredients are freeze-dried to preserve nutrition and flavor. They’re also gluten-free, USDA certified, non-GMO certified and convenient, as they come in single serving size packages.
The wafers, on the other hand, are baked with veggie puree with added spices and olive oil—more for the teething toddlers. While they aren’t gluten-free, they still have all of the other claims and they don’t get slimey like traditional teething snacks, Cantrell says. Sweetie Pie Organics has exclusive rights to this product line for the US market for the next three years. A French company developed the product, called Tiny Wafers. That was another draw for SoarTriangle.
After visiting the two women in their Raleigh office, I can personally attest that the snacks are delicious and I’ve now consumed more snack foods for toddlers than I ever anticipated.
“Our product has up to 12 months of shelf life,” Cantrell explains. “And we really make sure it’s a high quality product. We have third party audits, all of them certified. All of the claims we make are verified and legit.”
The challenges of building a food company
A key challenge for Sweetie Pie has been finding co-packers to make the products—Cantrell wanted to work with large established companies that held high quality standards. But most of those required large volume orders that exceeded Sweetie Pie’s demand and financial ability. It took time to find the right partners willing to take a bet on a much smaller company.
Today’s biggest challenge is competition—the women need to figure out how to take advantage of the rights to a first-of-its-kind product in the market.
“In our dynamic market environment, it is not enough to offer a great product/problem solution,” Cantrell says. “The winner also needs to take products fast to market and be able to execute in time and within the budget.”
One way to do that is to both monitor the competition closely and to listen to feedback from customers. That’s Kerr’s job—to talk to moms and to build audiences on all the right channels online.
Through Facebook, Instagram, online distribution channels (Amazon and Zulily), product demos and more, Sweetie Pie Organics takes iteration and improvement to heart. For instance, mothers thought the carrot teething wafers were too savory. So Sweetie Pie is adjusting the recipe.
Mothers also wanted to know more promptly that the snacks are freeze-dried—the women are moving that explanatory picture from the top of the box to the front.
Sweetie Pie Organics is about making food a fun experience—with clean, easy to understand ingredients and bright and exciting packaging. But it has big business goals too. Another line of products is coming soon and the women are working to land larger accounts by targeting the toddler category.
“Retailers are beginning to reach out to us,” added Cantrell. “It’s becoming easier. And the success rate is very high when we talk with a potential retailer. No one has ever said no, they don’t want to try this product.”
The Sweetie Pie Organics founders believe they’re nearing a tipping point. The SoarTriangle program will help Cantrell raise funding—that’s been a restraint to the company’s growth, and grow sales—to stay on the shelves, more product has to leave them.
They’re also hiring in the near future. The women need help with supply chain management and sales in the medical space. And they’re always hiring mothers who support the organic food movement to demo the products in stores.
I wrapped up our interview by asking an all-too-important question—if children have a favorite snack. Surprisingly, they said no.
“The carrot and beet wafers are unique and do equally well,” says Cantrell. “Apple is more the generic, but there is no outstanding favorite.”
More surprising though is another market for Sweetie Pie’s treats. According to Cantrell, “Adults love these too.”