Scaling a Food Brand: Case Study on Tahini [Food & Beverage Marketing, Part 6]

Looking for advice on scaling a food brand? Amy Zitelman, co-founder of Soom Foods, a tahini company, stops by to share Soom’s journey from a kitchen startup to a widely distributed product.

We talk about:
• innovative marketing strategies
• Amazon marketing and fulfillment
• getting on shelves in Whole Foods
• traditional PR like Forbes “30 Under 30”
• rebranding
• navigating the competitive retail landscape
• and so much more

Amy emphasizes consumer education, versatility of tahini, familial ties to tahini expertise, and strategic partnerships. We delve into establishing relationships with chefs, scaling the business, strategic entry into the grocery sector, leveraging retail channels like Amazon, and adapting to customer preferences.

The discussion also covers leveraging social proof, influencer marketing, new product introductions, content creation, and the significance of consistent promotion.

Amy underscores the importance of perseverance, understanding the target market, and recognizing the value of influencers in building a successful brand in the food and beverage industry.

Want more niche marketing insights on Food and Beverage Marketing?

This episode is Part 6 in a multi-part series on food product marketing and sales. To continue learning on this niche, visit:

Watch the Podcast Interview on Scaling a Food Brand: Case Study on Tahini for Food and Beverage Products (Part 6 in the Series):

This episode on scaling a food brand, a case study on Tahini, covers all of the following and more:

Note: These timestamps correspond to the video version of the episode

0:00 Introduction to Soom and Amy Zitelman
2:22 Introduction to Tahini and Tahini Products
8:11 Initial Brand Development and Identity
12:21 Scaling into Restaurant Niche
16:05 Expanding Distribution to Various Cities
17:50 Transition from Restaurants to Grocery Sector
22:09 Strategy for Getting into Whole Foods
23:12 Impact of COVID on Consumer Behavior
23:48 Rebranding and Packaging Refresh
24:17 Managing Rebranding Process
27:31 Importance of Retail Channels for Growth
29:18 Leveraging Social Proof in Penetrating Grocery Markets
42:41 Diving into Amazon and Search Keywords
45:50 Repurposing Past Earned Media for Relevance
51:54 Scaling and Delegating Responsibilities for Growth
56:46 Exploring Digital Advertising Strategies
59:28 Educating on Versatility Beyond Hummus: Brand Campaign Opportunity

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About Host John Bertino and TAG:

A decade spent working for marketing agencies was more than enough to know that there are too many bad agencies and not enough objective marketers within them. John launched TAG in 2014 with the mission to provide brands unbiased guidance from seasoned marketing professionals at little or no cost.

TAG advises brands on marketing channel selection, resource allocation, and agency selection to ensure brands invest in the right marketing strategies, with the right expectations, and (ultimately) with the right partners.

TAG represents 200+ well-vetted agencies and consultants across the United States and Europe.

John’s professional background and areas of expertise include: Marketing Planning, Earned Media, SEO, Content Marketing, Link Acquisition, Digital PR, Thought Leadership, and B2B Lead Generation.

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About Our Guest Expert: Amy Zitelman

Soom Foods is a purveyor of globally inspired pantry staples. As cofounder, VP of business development and now CEO, Amy have evolved from a naive entrepreneur to strategic company leader.

Utilizing interpersonal communication skills, Amy:

  • develops and maintain relationships with key stake holders.
  • manages sales and marketing strategic development (short and long term)
  • oversees finance, operations and logistics, directly working with Soom COO
  • upholds a work culture consistent with our company’s mission and values.

Forbes 30 under 30 class of 2018, food and beverage category

Soom Foods has been mentioned in publications such as New York Times, Washington Post, Food & Wine, Forbes, and Cooking Light.

Soom Foods

Soom Foods is a sister-owned company that wants to bring the taste and versatility of the best tahini to your kitchen!

Soom Tahini is a silky-smooth butter made from sesame seeds. It is commonly used in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines but is so versatile you can use it to make any dish better!

Soom is the preferred tahini of Award-winning chefs and home cooks. Need some inspiration? Check out their FREE recipe library with over 100+ recipes on SoomFoods.com.

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Connect Socially with Our Guest Expert:

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Transcripts of Scaling a Food Brand: Case Study on Tahini for Food and Beverage Products (Part 6 in the Series)

Note:

This transcript (of the video version of this episode) has been provided to assist you in finding extra information specific to your needs and goals. We have not edited it line by line for grammar, spelling, punctuation, or spacing. Please forgive errors. Feedback welcomed at social@theagencyguide.com.

Chapters

0:0:00 Introduction to Soom and Amy Zitelman
0:2:22 Introduction to Tahini and Tahini Products
0:8:11 Initial Brand Development and Identity
0:12:21 Scaling into Restaurant Niche
0:16:05 Expanding Distribution to Various Cities
0:17:50 Transition from Restaurants to Grocery Sector
0:22:09 Strategy for Getting into Whole Foods
0:23:12 Impact of COVID on Consumer Behavior
0:23:48 Rebranding and Packaging Refresh
0:24:17 Managing Rebranding Process
0:27:31 Importance of Retail Channels for Growth
0:29:18 Leveraging Social Proof in Penetrating Grocery Markets
0:42:41 Diving into Amazon and Search Keywords
0:45:50 Repurposing Past Earned Media for Relevance
0:51:54 Scaling and Delegating Responsibilities for Growth
0:56:46 Exploring Digital Advertising Strategies
0:59:28 Educating on Versatility Beyond Hummus: Brand Campaign Opportunity

Long Summary

In this podcast episode, Amy Zitelman, the co-founder of Soom, a tahini company in Philadelphia, shares the inspiring journey of the brand from a kitchen idea to nationwide distribution. Amy delves into various aspects of Soom’s growth, such as influencer marketing, brand building, and navigating the retail landscape. She talks about the origins of Soom, the versatility of tahini, and the company’s growth strategy.

Amy discusses her family’s entrepreneurial background, the inspiration behind Soom, and the importance of consumer education in introducing tahini to the American market. She emphasizes early interactions with renowned chefs and restaurants like Zahav in Philadelphia, highlighting the role of influencers, consumer trials, and the uniqueness of tahini in both savory and sweet dishes.

Amy elaborates on the grassroots efforts she employed to get Soom into restaurants across different cities, focusing on the value of B2B relationships and partnerships with influential chefs.

The challenges of managing small restaurant accounts at scale and transitioning to working with distributors are also explored. The conversation sheds light on brand development, marketing strategies, and the rebranding journey of Soom.

Amy’s authentic approach to consumer education, building relationships with chefs, and evolving Soom’s positioning in the retail market are emphasized. Listeners gain insights into growing a niche food business, leveraging influencer marketing, and aligning with local influencers like chefs.

Throughout the discussion, Amy’s passion for tahini, commitment to quality, and strategic decision-making come across vividly, showcasing Soom’s evolution as a pioneering player in the tahini market. The episode serves as a valuable resource for food and beverage entrepreneurs aiming to carve their niche and build impactful brands in the industry.

Amy also touches on cash flow management, supply chain challenges, entering the grocery sector, leveraging social proof, and expanding product offerings to tap into new market segments. The benefits of tahini as a healthier alternative, its versatility, and health benefits based on sesame seeds are highlighted in the podcast.

Amy discusses challenges in marketing tahini, leveraging influencers, traditional media coverage, managing inventory, and scaling retail presence. The conversation dives into evolving influencer landscapes, social media marketing dynamics, and strategies for effective branding, emphasizing persistence, product-market ft, and aligning with influential figures for brand visibility. Strategies like brand ambassadors, digital ads, and educational efforts for consumers are also touched upon. The discussion concludes with advice for aspiring food brands, underlining the significance of passion, patience, understanding target markets, leveraging influencers, and being prepared for challenges in the entrepreneurial journey.

Brief Summary

Amy Zitelman, co-founder of Soom tahini in Philadelphia, shares the brand’s journey to nationwide distribution, discussing influencer marketing, brand building, and retail strategies. She emphasizes consumer education, partnerships with chefs, and the importance of quality.

Topics include grassroots efforts, B2B relationships, rebranding, and challenges in scaling. Amy highlights tahini’s benefits, marketing challenges, and provides advice for aspiring food brands on passion, patience, and leveraging influencers.

Tags

Amy Zitelman, tahini, foods, rebranding, retail marketing, consumer psychology, packaging, product placement, major retailers, authenticity, sustainability

Transcript

Introduction to Soom and Amy Zitelman

[0:00] Welcome back. In this episode, we sit down with Amy Zitelman, co-founder of Soom, a Philadelphia-based tahini company that’s seen remarkable growth through a mix of grit and DIY marketing efforts.

Yes, I said tahini, as in sesame seed paste that’s used for hummus, soups, vegan desserts, smoothies, among other things.

We’ll discuss how Soom scaled from an idea in Amy’s kitchen to distribution in thousands of retail outlets nationwide.

We’ll cover influencer marketing all the way from free…

All the way from harnessing free UGC to celebrity chefs adding Tsum to their menu and eventually their cookbook.

Tsum’s grassroots door-to-door restaurant solicitation efforts all the way to getting featured in Forbes. Quite the journey.

Speaking of Forbes, what is the shelf life on that PR you received years ago?

We’ll talk about it. Discuss Amazon marketing and how key it was as to Amy’s growth, packaging, rebranding, recategorization at retail, and lots of discussion about getting into retail and staying there.

It’s all in this jam-packed episode of the Niche Marketing Podcast.

If you want more niche marketing content on food and beverage marketing, then hit the like button, hit subscribe, and we’ll pop back up in your feed, so you know when a new episode comes out. Don’t forget, this episode is part of an 8, 9, 10-episode series, and we’ve linked that above so you can see the playlist full of all the other episodes about food and beverage marketing. Now, Amy Zitelman.

[1:23] Music.

[1:36] And we’re back with another episode of the Niche Marketing Podcast.

I’m your host, John Bertino, founder of The Agency Guide.

If you need a better marketing agency that better fits your needs, niche, expectations, and budget, please contact The Agency Guide.

We can help you out. Well, today I’m joined by my co-host, Stephen Picanza.

Stephen, welcome to the show. Glad to have you back. Oh, thanks, John. And did you call me a co-hast?

I might have called you a co-hast. I’ll take co-host. Sure. Co-host, co-hast, whatever you want.

Co-host. We’re just happy to have you. Thanks for having me, guys. Yeah, my pleasure.

And of course, we have Amy Zitelman from, did I pronounce your last name correctly? You did, long I. Okay, just making sure. Long I. From Soom. Yep. Amy, please tell the audience.

Introduction to Tahini and Tahini Products

[2:17] a little bit about Soom yourself, how you got started, and we’ll take it from there. Okay, gladly.

So, Soom Foods is a company. We sell tahini and tahini products.

For those of you that are not familiar with tahini, tahini is an ingredient made from 100% roasted and pressed sesame seeds.

It’s probably most familiar in the American market because it’s used to make hummus.

You can also use it to make salad dressing, sauces, and what’s amazing about good tahini is it’s versatile for sweet ingredients.

[2:45] Sweet recipes also. So, I like to, yeah, I like to describe it as thicker than olive oil and thinner than peanut butter but can be used for both savory and sweet recipes.

It’s really a magical ingredient. So, we sell tahini. We also sell a chocolate tahini spread, and we have a new line of snack bites that are made with dates, tahini, and oats.

And normally you’d have additional context for our conversation because I could have brought samples, but I forgot them.

So oh, cool. You’ll better understand in a few days. Well, now we have an excuse to bring you back just so you can bring us some products.

[3:18] I had no idea that you could do savory and sweet, right? Because you always hear about the savory, the hummus and dressings, but the sweet is interesting.

Yeah, exactly. Anything that you would put peanut butter in or for a chocolate spread Nutella, you can put our products in.

Actually, Animo, which is right in the area where we are, they’ve been buying soon. Shout out Haddonfield, New Jersey.

Yeah, we love Haddonfield. They’ve been buying Soom for God years.

Amazing organization. And we sell them both buckets of our tahini because they make hummus and they make salad dressings, but they’ve also bought our chocolate spread for years and they use it in some of their smoothies. How cool. I had no idea. Yeah. So how did you get into this, Amy?

So, I’m the youngest of three sisters and my oldest sister studied business.

My middle sister, Sister Jackie moved to Israel, actually, and married a tahini expert.

And I, graduating from UD, really just needed a job.

But I also happen to study communication and like talking to people. So, I thought, sure.

You know, we figured what we found was that Jackie’s husband, Omri, distributed and they really loved in Israel and in lots of places across the Middle East.

Really delicious, high-quality tahini. They use it for so much than how we use it here.

Over there, it’s called tahina. We can talk more about the difference tahini coming from Greek culture and cuisine.

[4:38] And when we surveyed the American market, we realized that hardly anybody knew what tahini was. This was back in 2011.

If they did, they would only use it to make hummus and they couldn’t name the brand name that they had sitting in their cabinet or fridge.

And so most people would run away and be like, there’s no market here.

But I think people that are, you know, entrepreneurially inclined see an opportunity.

So, both of our parents are entrepreneurs. and so that kind of probably runs in the blood. Yeah, we were just really passionate to make tahini a more popular ingredient in the American market. Yeah.

I mean, 2011 is when…

[5:16] I’m sorry, what happened in 2011? The idea came about. Yeah, and it was just like sitting around the kitchen table on a Sunday afternoon.

Well, it’s funny. Our sister Jackie used to text me and my oldest sister from like these obscure warehouses in the desert.

And we’re like, what are you doing? She’s like, oh, my boyfriend, the desert in Israel.

And she’s like, oh, my boyfriend sells tahini and I like to help him like with the business.

Like, you know, and so the idea, the light bulb side kind of started then.

Then my oldest sister Shelby lived in Israel for a year. She’s the one that graduated from Wharton, studied business, and, you know, she understood more about tahini, more about how it’s used, the, you know, culture and cuisine and inspiration behind it.

And then, yeah, we just, those kinds of things layered over me graduating from college.

We then went to Ethiopia where most of our seeds grow in 2012 for continuous market research. We just like built from there. I think also culturally around this time, the Mediterranean diet became like the thing to do. Right.

Right. And to some extent, it still is. And like the high level of a bite of centennials who live to 100 that live around Mediterranean.

And so, like, I think it was a combination of, you know, it was you guys who were having the right conversation and the right societal changes happening.

[6:34] And then, boom, you just kind of created a company?

Or, like, what was that first step from, you know, the kitchen table to where you are now?

Yeah. Well, it was really that first import. So, like, as a company, we’re much more saturated and secure operationally, I would say, than even marketing-wise. Like, none of my sisters or I fell with, like, marketing in our DNA.

We have different skills that we brought to the business.

[7:00] Ironically, since our mother was a marketer, like, she had a corporate gifts business, which is now swag, you know, back in the day.

And so, like, she understands marketing and always asks us the right questions.

And that was not the piece that ft right for us.

But operationally is where we were just putting one foot in front of the next.

So, I then lived in Israel for a year. I then moved back to the Philly area, started working on that first import.

And working on a list of restaurants, ice cream shops, smoothie shops, falafel stands, small markets, you know, anything that I thought we could sell tahini to, because I believe and still do that, we can sell tahini to anybody, anywhere.

And so those were the first steps. And then we worked on that first import.

And then we started, literally, I started walking the streets selling.

And I want to get more into exactly that. But before we do, let’s talk about how you originally built out the brand.

Now, I know you went through a rebranding at some point, so you can segue into that if you’d like. Yeah. But at first, what was it called? Was it Always Soom? It was Always Soom Foods.

And how did you develop that brand in the first place, both identity-wise and messaging-wise?

Initial Brand Development and Identity

[8:07] And what does the name mean? Soom means sesame in Hebrew. So Soom Foods. When we started, we didn’t know if it was just tahini, sesame products, like where it could kind of go.

We also had some historical knowledge that double O’s are like very popular, like Google and Yahoo.

I don’t know. It helps from a naming perspective. It rolls off the tongue easily.

It’s hard to hear, though. I have to say, like when I’m on the phone, I’m like, I’m Amy from Soom.

I’m like S as in Sam, O, O, M, you know. So, it’s still a foreign word, and it’s not even a real word.

The word in Hebrew is Soom. So Soom Foods, that’s where the name comes from.

I worked with my sister’s friend to develop a logo, and it didn’t have a lot of meaning.

And we did not create brand messaging, and I did not have a clear brand identity.

It was just me, like, posting about what I was doing. Like, one of our first Instagram posts is a picture of an 11-pound bucket, one of our first products, and my 11-pound puppy. And I was like look, my puppy is the same size as my puppy.

I mean, there was no strategy here at all.

What the strategy always was. You’re authentic, though. Yes, it was very authentic.

[9:10] It was always consumer education. So, whether we had the brand voice or the image or the identity, which we didn’t yet, we always like the foundation is consumer education and mostly that sharing recipes or standing in person and explaining what tahini is.

So, consumer education, I would say, has been the strategy, the brand strategy since day one. Is this a true statement that by educating, you’re inspiring trial usage?

And once you have a trial, are they repeating? Are they coming back for more?

That’s a good question. Yes, it still takes a long time for them to come back for more.

You know, like most people, it still takes a long time for them to even go through an 11-ounce jar.

But yes, it’s a driving trial.

I have to say, though, still our largest bridge is hummus.

So, most people are buying tahini for the first time because they saw a recipe for hummus and they’re finally like, I’m going to make hummus by myself instead of buying it at the store or a salad dressing.

One of the two more common uses of tahini.

Now, though, over the past decade, because we pushed into influencers and this was when Instagram 10 years ago, you could still send a sample to anyone, and they would post about it and tag you.

So, we’ve been working with some people who have become great influencers now for nearly a decade. But the trial, yes, the consumer education is not just the trial.

It’s the to use it more, but still mostly people are buying it for the first time.

[10:35] Hmm. Okay. And so, let’s go back to you just built the brand.

You’re a friend or sister who built the logo, I believe it was.

You’re out there hitting the streets, pounding on doors.

Were you just cold calling or cold walking into these businesses trying to get them to try it out? Tell us a little bit more about it. Yeah.

[10:53] So, yes, I mean, we got really lucky early on.

We had the opportunity to talk with a chef here in Philadelphia named Mike Solomon of his business partner, Steve Cook.

Yeah. They have an Israeli restaurant called Zahav.

Yeah. Very, very popular. One of the top restaurants in all of Philadelphia.

In all the country. Yeah. I mean, it’s really top of the line.

And when we met with him through the Jewish community and just being able, you know, just through networking, we told him our idea to bring better tahini to the American market.

And we asked him similar questions that we were asking consumers, what tahini do you use? And he couldn’t name the brand name.

And he also said it was bad tahini. So, by forging a relationship with Mike, Chef Mike, Steve, and then really set us up for a channel that was in my mind, but I didn’t quite understand its opportunity. It’s those falafel stands. It’s the restaurants.

[11:45] The falafel stands were not, right? Because our tahini was too expensive, and they were buying the tahini that they were already buying.

There was an opportunity for people who were buying tahini, but care about the quality of their ingredients and the types of businesses that they work with. So, they started buying Soom.

But yeah, what we did was at first, I would talk with everybody.

Then I realized it’s probably more efficient to focus on who’s already using tahini and just getting them to switch.

And then slowly, slowly, like consumer education. You don’t need to educate them on that.

Exactly.

Scaling into Restaurant Niche

[12:15] Yeah. I mean, we and so chefs became that for me because a lot of people, consumers weren’t.

And what I learned from selling to Mike and Zahav so early is that a restaurant could use 40 pounds a week where a consumer wasn’t even finishing one pound a year, you know.

And so, it just showed this amazing opportunity for volume, wholesale, and then also the influence and inspiration that chefs had had over the last decade.

They greatly contributed to the brand credibility and our need for consumer education.

So, it became this really lucky scenario that we worked with the types of restaurants that we worked with.

And I want to stay on the restaurant thing for a minute. Okay, so you sound like you had a great first hit by working with Sahav, but Sahav, correct?

[13:04] But how did you scale the getting into the restaurant niche?

Or did you? Did you mostly just work with Sahav and one or two others?

Or did you get a lot of additional restaurants? And if so, what was the strategy to do that?

[13:16] So we started working on additional restaurants and the strategy was the same.

Like I would literally pack a duffel bag or a wheelie bag full of tahini and I would make a list of a dozen restaurants and I would go and knock on the door and hand a sample of tahini to whoever would take one. Slinging tahini from the streets of Philadelphia.

[13:34] Better tahini than other things. Right, exactly. But the amazing thing about tahini, or sorry, the amazing thing about Philadelphia is its location.

So, I was able to, I’m from Maryland. I know the D.C. market.

I was able to make day trips to D.C. and able to meet New York.

And so, I started creating these small target lists of restaurants that I wanted to use it.

And I’d get five or six together and I’d try to organize their deliveries.

[14:01] I mean, like I would, you know, stitch them up a little bit.

I’d get this restaurant, that restaurant.

Once you have a handful, then it warrants me driving to New York the next week to deliver the product and make a few more sales. And did you schedule meetings ahead of time or just start, you just walked in the door?

We try, I tried, but mostly chefs don’t want to.

It’s too busy. It’s one of the hardest people to, you know, to get to schedule a meeting with to hop on a Zoom.

Exactly. That’s not happening. Exactly. And most of the time I was greeted by the hostess, and they were like, you want to talk to the chef?

Like nobody talks to the chef. The chef is like the king of a restaurant. Yeah, sorry.

That’s not going to happen. And I was just like, I was kind of naive, but I was very sincere and authentic. I was just like, look, if they try it, great. I’d left a little note, said, if you’ll try my tahini, great.

Let me know what you think.

And then chefs started texting or calling after they tried it.

Some met with me. They were wonderful and gracious.

And they would even have me, I’d tell them to open up the tahini they were using and open up soon.

And we’d taste it on the spot together. That’s good, right? And it was like…

We were batting a thousand. Like our tahini was just better than what was available.

Yeah. So, it was fun. And did you build like a one sheet, or I think a fresh sheet as it’s often referred to, collateral and things like that?

Or did you just drop off the product and the phone number? Yes, definitely.

[15:15] I’m sure I could find it. A sell sheet, probably a little postcard about me and my sisters, you know, a few small things, maybe a recipe as well.

I mean, especially for cookies and I know that they’re already using it for hummus. So, we definitely use choose collateral, but I mean like done on word by me with like bubble art, like word art or whatever.

Like I did not invest in the branding at all because what’s interesting too is once we got our footing in the restaurant industry, they don’t care about the brand.

They just care about the quality of the product and the service and relationship that they’re getting out of their vendors because the service industry is very different than the consumer industry. And so we were able to grow the brand off of or with really the restaurant industry.

Expanding Distribution to Various Cities

[16:01] Since we were sold in restaurants at that point, I replicated this across the country.

Like in 2015, I probably went to 15 cities like San Francisco, Portland, Atlanta, Boston.

And I dropped down in a city and I’d bring two dozen jars of tahini.

And I had a list of two dozen restaurants.

And I knocked on doors and handed out samples.

[16:21] That’s fantastic. Because the sample is not a refrigerated product.

You have to be dry good, right?

So, you can theoretically, like you don’t need to have any kind of special preparation. Correct. Right. And in the beginning, it was almost like a B2B play, right? Because you were coming in there, selling to chefs, selling to…

Businesses. Yes, exactly. And not businesses. I mean, when we envisioned starting Soom, our dream was to get Soom on every grocery store shelf.

It’s still our dream. And we’re able to do that more now, 10 years later.

But early on, we didn’t realize the opportunity or the value that the restaurant industry would bring us. We thought B2B meant selling to a grocery store.

And it was this opportunity to reach the restaurant industry where, like before, they were buying more tahini and buying it more often, and they were even more credible and influential than I’ll ever be.

So, it was just a win-win for everybody.

[17:16] Well, really, it’s influencer marketing in a sense at a very localized level, right? Especially when you align with a chef like Michael from Zahav. I mean, he’s a major local influencer.

Who in this market knows tahini better than that gentleman and yourselves, right? Exactly.

And we’re really lucky because that relationship is totally organic.

We’ve never, God bless Mike, I mean, we give him the cheapest tahini, you know, we sell it to him less than anybody else.

And it’s a mutually, you know, wonderful relationship.

Transition from Restaurants to Grocery Sector

[17:46] But it’s just been, it’s been very valuable, very valuable. Okay.

And then before we segue to grocery, which I absolutely want to go there next, tell me about just dealing with small restaurants at scale.

I mean, that has to be tough for a small fledgling business to deal with things like, I don’t know, maybe payment issues or inventory issues.

Can you just talk a little bit about the trials and tribulations of juggling multiple small restaurants and what that’s like and maybe how you’ve managed to do that? It’s the same as juggling small clients, small grocery stores.

The smaller, the harder they are. It’s just the reality of it.

[18:24] But what our strategy was, was once we got a collective number of restaurants in a market, then I worked to bring in a distributor.

So, we didn’t have to sell directly to each restaurant.

We then sold it to a distributor that sold it to the restaurants. And then we’ve worked with the restaurants over the years and their sales team to grow and sell to obviously even more restaurants. So that was an issue.

[18:47] But we just, you know, managed our cash flow and we’re lucky that we didn’t have such big expenses that we needed every small business, you know, to pay exactly on time.

But it’s the same cash flow challenge that I would imagine any inventory-based business would have when you sell to small accounts.

And at this point, you’re still importing from Israel over here or and even today, are you still importing? Correct. Yes. Wow.

So, at one point we were importing in bulk from Israel, selling those buckets and then working with a co-packer here in the States because Israel didn’t have the types of jars that we wanted. When we launched with a more traditional Israeli Lebanese type jar, it was white.

It wasn’t see-through and people didn’t know what they were buying.

Not only did they not know what tahini was, but they couldn’t see what the product was inside.

But Israel wasn’t able to accommodate the types of jars that we needed.

So, we set up this really crazy supply chain to do that here in the States.

But yes, our tahini always still comes from Israel. We also have one manufacturer now in Ethiopia.

So, we get buckets from Ethiopia.

[19:53] But the nice thing about it is we were able to reserve our resources, namely time and money, on selling and marketing as opposed to manufacturing.

So, it’s always been a positive aspect of our business that we’ve been able to align ourselves with professionals that can manufacture the product and we’ll sell it, you know? Okay.

And every small food and beverage manufacturer listening wants to know what secrets or tips can you give on how to get into the grocery sector?

And I suppose provide those insights through the lens of how you did it and what you’ve learned through that journey.

[20:29] So early on, our strategy was very similar to the restaurants where I really went door to door to local co-ops and small independent markets and sold our product there.

We had the same problems as we had with small restaurants, like they didn’t use as much product and they never paid us, but it was just the reality of it and it was okay, you know.

And then from there, we started to, well, actually, no, in that same vein was how we got into Whole Foods.

Back then, you could go to one Whole Foods, they could kind of escort you into Whole Foods systems through that one store.

And then from there, once you’re approved and set up in the system, you can go to another store and get that person to purchase you.

I mean, back in the day, people like me and people did a lot more than I do because we did not put a lot of effort into retail for a long time.

But they would literally go to the back of the grocery store if they had a good relationship with the buyer and they would help that buyer put in the product for the first time. Because as soon as you were in for the first time, you could sell other places.

So, before we started expanding into grocery significantly, we were probably in like five or six local Whole Foods and like a couple of specialty stores in the markets where I started getting restaurant distribution.

[21:44] So we were maybe in like a hundred or 150 stores from there.

Once the brand continued to gain, gain credibility, actually what happened was my middle sister and I, we got onto Forbes 30 under 30, which was really cool back in 2018.

And did you hire a PR agent for that? No, we actually applied ourselves and a friend of ours that had gotten it the year before, like nominated us.

Strategy for Getting into Whole Foods

[22:06] So once you are in a nomination pipeline, it’s a lot easier.

That’s the secret to getting on the list. um and so then whole foods mid-Atlantic got in touch and they were like why aren’t you in all of our stores and I told them well I’m good question yeah great question but also I can’t distribute to all of your stores so what should I do and they recommended a distributor in the New York area so we’ve been with that distributor now since like 2018 or 2019 we’ve grown tremendously with them from there we got into other closer markets of whole foods and then our growth kind of stalled because again, we weren’t putting that effort into this channel just for additional context.

All this time, because we weren’t in stores nationally, our product had been on Amazon.

So, we’ve been reaching home consumers by them buying Soom on Amazon in a tremendous fashion, much, much more than even selling on our website or selling in grocery stores. And so, then COVID came, and the restaurant industry shut down for three months.

And we realized then and it’s like, OK, it’s now or never. And people.

Impact of COVID on Consumer Behavior

[23:13] In tremendous waves, started buying more tahini. More people, home-cooked, people that never made hummus before were finally making it for the first time.

I think I literally made hummus for the first time during COVID. Exactly.

So, you googled tahini, found Soom Foods, especially because we’re very highly ranked on Amazon, and then checked out with Soom from your Amazon cart.

So that’s what really propelled us into a household penetration that would have cost us a lot of money and had taken a long time.

Rebranding and Packaging Refresh

[23:46] I mean, this is seven, eight years into our business existing.

And then from there, we decided to invest in our rebranding.

So, to finally get the jars and the packaging to look much nicer, we totally revamped our messaging, our image, everything.

I mean, those things had been developing over the years, but this is a true brand now. And that just launched in 2020, the end of 2021.

And we launched Whole Foods nationally on May 22.

So, we’re very new to national retail distribution.

Managing Rebranding Process

[24:17] How hard was the rebrand? end um it was easier because we really understood our identity and we really understood our customers and we just and we also only have one product like if anything the challenging thing about the rebrand was the fact that we wanted it to like be that Sumas more than tahini but at the time we like really were only selling tahini and so like our brand is very much tahini and now that we’re going into snack bites and additional things all those products have tahini as its soul but actually, I think it did a great job.

You know, even when we started Soom, you say like the name, it was really nice because we wanted people to call it Soom, not Tahini.

Like, hey, grab that jar of Soom and pick up the Soom at the store.

And I think our rebranding helped us do that. So, it was a wonderful experience.

[25:04] I didn’t work on it personally. At that time, I had somebody else heading up the marketing.

I was on maternity leave or something. I don’t know.

I’ve been on it several times in the past few years, so I can’t keep the time straight.

But um it suited us very well how long did the whole rebrand take from the moment of like let’s do this and engage I’m sure you engage with an agency yeah we did an rf like an rfp or whatever it’s called and then we interviewed a bunch of agencies and then we chose that agency we ended up working with pulp and wire um they’re in Maine they’re phenomenal um and then and we still work with them very closely on the brand and it must have been eight months. Yeah.

I mean, if I, eight months to a year, I would say. Oh yeah. And they did the website. The website.

Yeah.

And it looks beautiful. The functionality is great.

And I mean, everything about it is top notch.

Yes. The websites, they just have been breaking my heart for 10 years.

Like anytime you finish it.

But within a year, you’re like, oh, this is not right. It’s not good enough.

Of course. It’s not fair. It never ends. It never ends.

I use the analogy of fashion, right? Like, I bought a pair of jeans.

What do you mean I am not got a pair and I buy another pair? Yeah.

What do you mean my sneakers are dirty and I have to buy a new one? Great metaphor. Yeah.

[26:21] And you always just have to kind of be reinventing yourself because your customers are also changing.

Yes. And as the customers change, you don’t want to be tone deaf and not, you know, continue to change with them and be so rigid. Yeah.

[26:33] Yeah. I mean, our biggest change coming up is that we built the website to really grow our website sales.

Like we really felt like the e-com and just after a long, long time, it’s not really working for us. And so now we’re actually, we have a similar shop up. We’re finishing off this holiday season, but after the holidays, we’re switching it to completely click through buy with prime. So we are pushing all of our fulfillment into Amazon.

A lot of brands that I’ve worked with are doing that because they just take it to such an easier, more frictionless experience for the customer, but also for you as well. Yeah. And we do our own fulfillment in the company.

And so we learned as we were evaluating what to do about all of this, we learned that our warehouse team was spending nearly 25% of their time on DTC orders and DTC orders only generated 5% of our revenue.

Well, the, the, the latest trends, and I actually, I just, I just did a presentation.

Importance of Retail Channels for Growth

[27:27] on this this morning is on kind of the demise of DTC brands.

And we’re seeing that we’re about to hit rock bottom with DTC because you need to get into retail. You need to have different retail channels, not just brick and mortar, but the Amazons and the Walmart’s and the targets of the world, like the big box online retailers. That is the key to reaching consumers.

Just putting an Instagram ad and hoping someone clicks and goes through your funnel might get you a one-off sale, but you’re not going to build mass penetration that way. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. It’s going to help.

[27:58] Build tribe, build brand advocacy. It’s social proof in a sense. It’s trustworthy. Exactly. The retailers think highly enough of you or trust enough in your brand to carry it. It validates you as the consumer purchasing it.

That’s why in the beginning when you try to get into Whole Foods, I’m sure getting into Whole Foods or one store, yeah, you might sell a couple bottles, but it’s the fact that you can say, oh, we’re in Whole Foods.

Exactly. And then all of sudden other retailers are like, oh, they’re in Whole Foods and we have to carry them.

Exactly. So that becomes kind of like that positive flywheel that you want to push out there. Absolutely. And your original question here was like, how did it work to get into retail and what advice do you have?

And ours is like, we’re lucky because we had the time.

But if you build demand for your brand before you reach the shelves or before you pitch to that buyer, you’re much more likely to get in.

And so we are growing our retail presence very quickly right now, but it also took us eight years until we were ready to do that.

Most people do it off the gate.

And so, the brand is not that well known. Or if you want it to be more well known, you need to spend a shit ton of money, you know. And so, if you’re patient, it gets a lot easier.

[29:06] That’s good advice. And I know from preliminary discussions we had leading up to the interview that you leveraged a lot of what you’re doing with the reference.

Leveraging Social Proof in Penetrating Grocery Markets

[29:14] as, again, I’ll use the term social proof to ultimately help you penetrate into grocery.

So could you talk just a little bit more about that? Yeah, I mean, the validation of the types of chefs that have used Soom over the years has greatly contributed to our success in acquiring customers, whether that’s a consumer or whether that’s a buyer or whether that’s the head of Whole Foods market.

The fact that Zahav uses Soom means they want to sell Soom.

I mean, it’s how we got into Blue Apron years ago. We’ve had a couple different iterations with Blue Aprons over the years.

But I’ll never forget my meeting with the person that brought Soom in.

This was back in 2016 or 2017.

It’s because they saw Soom mentioned in the Zahav cookbook.

And the Zahav cookbook is a world-renowned, best-selling cookbook.

And so the, not just social proof, but in fact, the influence of those types of people has contributed to a lot of our brand, you know, um, growth.

Chefs as influencers. No, that’s. And it’s smart, right? Chefs are the new celebrity chefs.

Everyone wants to be a chef, right? Kids these days don’t want to be YouTube stars or chef, except for the ones that want to be, you know, famous YouTube chefs. Right. You know what I mean? My question is, on Amazon…

[30:32] And this is going to get a little, like, very, very, very tactical.

That’s okay. It’s a niche marketing podcast. Get niche.

So, like, are people searching tahini? Like, what’s the search keyword that they’re typing in that you are advertising against?

Mostly tahini. I have to say, though, Soom tahini is the fourth most highly searched tahini term. So, it’s by brand.

Well done. So, that’s really cool. Yeah. That helps a lot in our pitches to retailers.

[30:58] Yes. Interesting. Amazon has been tremendous and actually like validating and providing data for our pitch to retailers over the years.

But most people are searching for tahini, tahini sauce.

I’m not sure about hummus. But, you know, it’s a great question.

And we’ve dabbled in other things like Nutella and peanut butter.

You mentioned peanut butter earlier.

Like, are you marketing peanut butter? Like, if you like peanut butter, you might like this.

Yeah. You know, I’m not in the nitty gritty of our Amazon strategy right now.

Now, I mean, Julie Oz, like my colleague that does do that, she has been very creative and strategic over the years, you know, in terms of what we’re capturing with ads.

I think now that Tahini has penetrated the market more than in the past few years.

There’s been a big push over the past three years since COVID that there’s an opportunity for a new ad kind of strategy there.

But it’s great, yeah, it’s a good question. I’m always interested in, Especially in CPG brands, food and beverage, like the category, like, are you going in as a condiment? Is that where you sit that you think you lie or?

So, we worked very hard to get tahini out of the international aisle and into the nut butter category.

That was like the impetus for changing our jars. Nut butter.

[32:15] It’s also why with our chocolate spreads, it helps kind of sit us in the nut butter category, but really for the natural channel.

So, if you go to the peanut butter section or the nut butter section at Whole Foods, you’ll see peanut butter, almond butter, tahini, the chocolate spreads, Justin’s chocolate, almond butter, hazelnut.

[32:32] Exactly. But however, we’re launching into our first conventional store and we’re going back to what we worked so hard to leave, which is we’re going to the kosher section for the first time. And our argument to the buyer was that we really believe with our brand that we’ll drive new consumers to the section because of people’s interest in bringing Soom specifically into their homes.

But, yeah, we just launched into Publix, and we’ll be in the conventional set.

Sorry, in the kosher set.

But that’s where Tahini’s found. Like what I’ve learned over the past 10 years is you want to go where the few people that are already looking for Tahini know where to find you. You know, it’s why we started calling it tahini instead of tahina.

Like I would be standing at Weaver’s Way Market sampling tahini, and I’d say, are you familiar with tahina?

And the person would be like, no. And I’d be like, oh, well, it’s an ingredient made from sesame seeds.

You can use it to make hummus. And the first question back was, oh, is that like tahini? Right. Oh, OK.

Right. We don’t need to call this tahina. We already have an uphill battle here.

Yeah. Let’s call it tahini. So why not, from a category perspective, call it sesame butter?

We tried it. It hasn’t really hit. I mean, the nice thing is that the ingredient is being pushed through the ethnic group.

[33:50] Category. Like hummus is still an ethnic ingredient. You know what I mean?

Like Mediterranean and Israeli and Middle Eastern Lebanese food is still ethnic eating in the American market.

If you think about how far Mexican cuisine has come, Greek cuisine has come, Chinese food, Vietnamese food, you know, those are cuisines that as ubiquitous that we believe hummus is, it’s nowhere close to as ubiquitous as, you know, Chinese ingredients are at this point.

And so it just kind of shows that I think calling it it’s within the context of the culture and cuisine that it comes from. That’s what’s driving its penetration. We tried sesame butter, but it didn’t hit. Yeah.

Has variety, intentional variety of products been part of your strategy to grow within grocery?

Because I’ve come across this as potentially a tactic, right?

This idea is that grocers want to see more product variety, and then if you can provide them with that, that can help.

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It has a bit. I mean, it’s why we launched our chocolate spread.

You know, we could get a second facing instead of just the one facing of tahini.

[36:03] The challenge is not on what they want. It’s on what we’ve been able to produce.

And we just have not had a new product development mindset at the company.

I mean, there’s been so much room to acquire customers through our hero product of tahini that it always felt challenging for me to you know justify the investment in a new product when we have so much room on the product that we’re already marketing um but we’re finally at the point where that we’re doing exactly like what you’re suggesting so these snack bites while they’re not creating additional facings in our current category they’re bringing Soom to a new category of the stores that we haven’t been in before. Right. Right.

You know, as a brand, right, you don’t want to extend too quickly, right?

Our chocolate has never taken off. I mean, in its consumption, people love it. And the people that love it, love it a lot.

But we have never cracked the code in, you know, in growing our velocity on that skew. That could mean that it might not exist for us in the future.

I still believe that it means that we have a ton of opportunity in it.

I’m actually doing a podcast in a few weeks through BevNet about the velocity of this question. Exactly.

Like they brought in like a sales consultant and a marketing consultant, and we’re just going to shoot the shit on our chocolate soon because there’s, there’s something there or there’s nothing there and it’s time to move on.

You know, because there’s a lot of negative comments.

[37:27] Uh negativity around Nutella especially here in America because of their use of palm oil that’s like the second ingredient whereas you get Nutella in Italy and it’s a completely different formulation yeah right so you see other players here you see it at whole foods they have their generic brand of just chocolate hazelnut right going after Nutella so I was wondering if that’s where you’re trying to fit in this product we should kind of I don’t know we’ve when you ask about sesame butter my answer is that that it didn’t work for tahini stands true but I think it might work for our chocolate spread.

Like there’s something there that I’ve kind of been mulling over.

But yes, that is who we’re trying to target is the Nutella consumer because our chocolate spread has less than half the amount of sugar, it has no palm oil, and it’s only three ingredients.

And so, you know, it definitely would hit the trends of consumer behavior of our target market.

We just haven’t really captured it.

That’s intriguing to me. intriguing to me because.

[38:29] Nutella is delicious but it’s so bad for you the first two ingredients are vegetable oil and sugar yeah and it’s like it is exactly right but you buy the generic one this is good with some strawberries but like you use three ingredients and it’s based on tahini that could be it’s got protein in it and all the other health benefits of sesame so I think there’s a lot of opportunity sesame is an underrated let’s just go sesame is an underrated ingredient seed and I actually have a big jar of sesame that I use it a lot in my cooking more as a topper than anything else but like I like my favorite bagel or sesame bagels yep yeah love sesame how do you feel in sesame I’m neutral but my wife is like a massive sesame fans her favorite thing she tells me once or twice a year how much she loves sesame seeds just to make sure I know I’m listening In fact, I think I just got a Christmas gift idea. So, right.

I think so. A bag of sesame seeds. A bag of sesame seeds.

One of the first ever videos we made for Soom was like me talking to the camera being like, you might be familiar with sesame from bagel buns and sushi rolls, you know, but that really was like the stereotypical extent of it for the American consumer 10 years ago.

But yeah, sesame, I mean, has been cultivated for thousands and thousands of years.

It’s been used for ritual and medicinal purposes across many cultures.

[39:54] And I mean, there’s an Assyrian legend that the gods drank a sesame wine before they created the world.

As it goes, you can get really heady and deep into it.

I mean, back in the day, I was like, maybe one day I’ll do like a big historical context of just sesame, you know? Yeah.

We know a great studio you can use for that, by the way. Exactly.

[40:16] Speaking of you doing videos and putting out content, I’m curious how instrumental that has or hasn’t been for your marketing strategy, leveraging YouTube or, you know, this type of medium to get the word out.

[40:29] So I think if I would have liked to have created content, it would have suited the company tremendously.

Like, I take full responsibility that I definitely missed the boat of, like, doing my own content and producing that for the company.

You missed it? Yeah, you missed the boat.

I haven’t jumped on it yet. The boat’s bigger than ever. I don’t.

Yes. Plenty of room on the boat. So instead, we’ve been able to leverage and invest into other influencers that have a lot more influence than I do anyway, right?

Right. Instead of bringing building my own channel, why not just get Tahini to this Instagram person that already has 100000 followers?

And so we were able to leverage that strategy of influencers.

It goes back to when I was in college, I studied calm, and we studied Childini’s six.

Childini. Yeah, Childini. Yeah. I love that book. Influence.

I’d like to cite it for you verbatim, please.

And so I took that philosophy and I really latched onto once we realized how influential, how much, how much faster people with real influence have than I do.

I was like, why would I spend any time or money making my own video when I could very quickly.

get the tahini to somebody that can do it better?

I love that you brought that up. Yeah.

Social proof through third parties strikes multiple, checks multiple boxes on the Cialdini spectrum of things people use to shortcut cut their decision-making.

The influencers address the liking component because if they’re opted in, they like them. Social proof is a component in and of itself. And isn’t influence one of the six?

[41:56] Authority, I think, is what you’re thinking of. And influencers, if you’re following them, are essentially in a position of authority, you could say. Especially a chef, right? I think chefs are more authoritative.

[42:10] A figure of authority than other types of influencers.

Well, and that was then. What about now? Because now the influencer game has kind of changed a little bit.

And it’s less about influencers and more about creators.

Or is now the time, you know, the quote, right? The best time to start creating content was 20 years ago. Yeah. The second-best time. Is now. Right now.

Does this change? Does the changing dynamics of social media and the way influencers?

Diving into Amazon and Search Keywords

[42:39] are and more emphasis on creators.

Is that going to change your content strategy as we move into the new year and with some of your brand goals?

Yeah, our brand manager, Diana, does a great job. I mean, we’ve split our resources between influencers, and we have influencers that we work with.

Some of them are in an affiliate program of ours because we’ve worked together for so long.

And then she also does a program to find more of those content creators.

[43:05] UGC, lower hanging, more authentic pieces.

So, we’ve done both and they’ve been relatively successful for us.

I mean, it’s really hard.

It’s very hard to find a direct correlation, even of the most influential influencer that we work with, between them posting randomly on Instagram and sales. I mean, we’ve never seen blips at all.

Attribution. Yeah. And so where we have seen it is in traditional PR.

So like you asked about, you know, did we work with the publicist on that? Yeah.

We didn’t, but we’ve had a publicist in our roster since 2017 because of the success that we had when Mike Solomonov mentioned Tahini, assumed Tahini in the Wall Street Journal article, we got 60 orders on our website.

And so to be able to cultivate the relationships to traditional media, actually not social media, has been very obviously beneficial to the revenue and the brand.

And is it safe to assume that you’ve leveraged the press you’ve gotten, even if it’s been some time ago, into the sales sheets and salesmanship you’re doing at retail?

[44:12] It’s not safe to assume that. And that is a place where we have a lot of room for improvement. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

We’ve just, it’s been hard. I mean, and that’s where brands do become a reflection of the founders or the person in charge or something like that.

And I was never comfortable with that. Like we, you know, I was just never comfortable leveraging Mike over and over and over again.

And so that never became an off, like a part of our strategy, you know? And so I think that we could do a much better job of it.

I mean, you now are in the, you are a hype person, and you need to be the hype person and it is uncomfortable, but you know, a colleague of ours, Ross Simmons says, create ones, distribute forever.

Yeah. Right. And that is such an underrated, easy strategy just to put out there.

Hey, throwback to that time we were featured here. How far back can you go?

Because, I mean, our glory days were like 2017.

[45:05] We looked this up recently. In terms of press. In terms of press.

2017, we had 53 articles written about us from like the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine.

And we’ve had great articles since then.

But you say, so how far back would it be fun to be like, remember when we were in this? Yeah.

No, you go. No, you go.

Okay, so I’ll go first quickly.

[45:28] I would say…

And tastefully, you can go back as far as you need to, right? You get featured on XYZ publication.

You can always say as featured on, as seen on.

You know, you have to do it again tastefully, tactfully, but you should always be repurposing past earned media and good content you have ultimately forever.

Repurposing Past Earned Media for Relevance

[45:48] Do you see it any differently? I’m going to build on that one.

If you had a great article that was posted and you want to repost it, I would write an insight or I would make it relevant for today.

Hey, throwback to that time we were in Bon Appetit magazine.

Since then, we’ve done X, Y, and Z, doubled down on ABC.

So, you’re creating a thread between the social proof and something super relevant.

And now, that’s how I would use it. Yeah, like a cool reel that shows the history of the company and integrates those different press hits you got along the way, like a timeline of the journey.

Or if it was a recipe, oh, so-and-so really loved this recipe, but last week I made it and I added roasted red peppers and oh my God, it was something delicious, right? So, we’re just making it relevant again.

But even though it’s still relevant, it’s just not regurgitation.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s great. A fresh spin on. Fresh, yeah.

Yeah, like tahini is a fresh spin on, you know, nut butter.

[46:48] Do you guys have a tagline or a sales line? No.

You never developed one. You’re not fully clean unless you’re zestfully clean.

I’d do one of the greatest sales lines ever.

Or like every kiss begins with K. The great one too. So good. Yeah.

So brilliant. So good.

Let’s talk about, I mean, you guys have been doing this for 10 years plus.

And you’ve been through a lot.

You’re distributed through how many retail outlets at this point?

So now we are going to finish the year at 2,500. Wow, that’s fantastic.

Yeah. Congrats. And so given your journey through direct-to-consumer, Amazon, retail, restaurant, could you just kind of give us a little overview on, you know, for marketers out there or aspiring food and beverage brands, what has or hasn’t worked?

Oh man, so many things haven’t worked. Maybe start with the fails.

Yeah, yeah. The fowls are good.

[47:43] I see it’s a really good question because I think it goes back to like this philosophy that a lot of entrepreneurs are taking now that even every failure is just like a steppingstone to like where you are now.

So, it would probably be hard for me to think back to what didn’t work.

What worked really well early on was marketing and selling direct to consumers.

So, like for the first few years, we would go to farmers markets that would take us.

We went to vegan festivals and popped up there. I went to Israel festivals, you know, and really between like D.C.

And New York, it was very attainable for me.

And so that worked, you know, finding your niche market or core market and meeting them and talking to them.

Face to face. Are you still doing it? Not as much, but we want to again.

Yeah, we’ve really pulled away from it as we started growing.

Just logistical challenges.

And the other thing that was hard was it was me, you know, like a few times. another colleague of mine would be at the Haddonfield Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings.

But once I lost the capacity to be the face of the company and be in person, I never created a legacy program that somebody else could come in. And I never created a brand ambassador program.

It would have been managing a lot of people. So, I…

[49:02] Grew out of being able to be, I mean, when I say we did the vegan festivals and Israel, but it was me standing at a table. So like hours a day. Yeah, exactly. Or whatever. I got the write-off though, at least.

[49:14] I have a lot of free tahini in my house. So, so you talk about brand ambassadors, like that seems like a low hanging fruit.

Yeah, but it’s really hard to manage, you know, like people are hard.

People are. We did a little bit. I had, we had an amazing guy named AJ for maybe 18 months or so that went to, this is when we were just in mid Atlantic, like, like probably a rotation of like a dozen whole food stores.

He would stand there; he would sample the tahini and a strawberry banana smoothie.

People loved it. He sold like 23 jars, you know, a day. It was amazing.

And he’d sampled the chocolate spread with pretzels and he’d sell a ton of them also.

If I could replicate that and I could replicate that person, it would be a great strategy, but it’s very, very capital intensive. Yeah.

And we’ve been very limited in our expenditures.

Sure. You know, my impression or understanding is that when you do start to pick off retail accounts, it can be very demanding of you that you do those in-store appearances or can even put some responsibility on you for like inventory controls and management on the shelves and things like this.

Have you found that to be the case or is that part of your story?

And, you know, how did you manage early on juggling, you know, being there in person at the stores and scaling that to the degree that you could?

[50:34] Yeah. Yeah, they do. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s a collaborative effort.

And we have to remember, like, especially when we were selling to a few Whole Foods, it really – we needed the grocery buyer to go onto the computer and buy the product.

Like, there was no system for when Soom got too low that it would trigger a reorder. Oh. Yeah. Even once Amazon bought Whole Foods and then they created that system, the problem was that the ramp up of our velocity was really skewed and very low. So, it never let the grocery buyers’ reorder when they needed to.

And they were always sold out. I mean, it was so frustrating.

And so, yes, it’s just one of the realities at that early stage is that inventory management is very difficult, and a person can’t be everywhere at once. And so, I did what I could for as long as I could.

And then I dropped the things that I was not as good at to focus on the things that I was better at.

This is always good advice.

[51:33] So, you know, when it was too much for me, I hired somebody to coordinate the logistics.

You know, Emil was with us for six years and he helped receive the orders and prep the orders.

And then I was still the one putting them in my car and delivering them.

And I was still the one going to do the sales, but that alleviated, you know, the back end from me. And so, I would say that’s really how we’ve scaled

Scaling and Delegating Responsibilities for Growth

[51:53] it and how we continue to scale it.

Once our team is at capacity, we see what our strengths are and where our opportunities for improvement are, and we hire that way, you know? And so that would probably be my advice. Is it accurate, though, that the grocers are pretty demanding on or really prefer anyway that you have a bit of a physical presence at the stores?

Is that something that if you were talking to a smaller, more fledgling brand that you would tell them to prepare for or have a strategy for?

Yeah, good question. Yes, they do ask it of you. I would say since COVID, it’s still been a very, very different conversation.

You know, sampling never has gotten back to what it was before COVID, at least not for our type of product.

But there are many brands out there that have very, you know, very successful sampling programs.

and teams out there and are building the brand.

Ithaca Hummus comes to mind, for instance.

[52:44] And so, yes, they do expect it. Doesn’t mean you have to. But You have to figure out how you’re going to get customers because I always say like it’s one thing to get onto shelves.

It is a lot harder to get off of shelves. It’s a lot harder to get six people into the store to buy your six units than it is to convince one buyer to put you on the shelf to begin with.

So, whether you’re standing in the store and sampling or putting the product on sale four to six times a year, I mean, there is a lot of deliberate and resource intensive ways that brands need to implement to move the product.

Anything else you can share? Because it’s a critical point, clearly.

[53:27] Be patient. I mean, when you had product market ft, it sounds so cliche and like very textbook. And I didn’t study business.

So like, I can’t even tell you the definition of that.

You just kind of know when your product should sell, you know, like I’m not saying it’s that easy, but also like have some type of new, like some type of perspective here.

You know, if you need to take five minutes to describe your product to somebody and you need to demo it for them to pick it up, either do that and do the demos or you don’t have the right product. We had that product.

I had to demo it for people to buy it. So, I spent every evening in a different co-op or grocery store sampling the product or every, you know, weekend morning at a farmer’s market or event. And if you have that product, do that. Right.

[54:12] If it doesn’t pick up from there and you have to do that forever, you’re also kind of in trouble. Yeah, it might be time to pivot, huh?

Did you find it challenging because tahini on its own isn’t consumable?

I mean, it is, obviously, but it’s not common.

People looked at me like I had three eyes. I was like, here, you want to taste my tahini. They’re like, what are you talking about?

Of course I don’t want to taste your tahini. Tahini’s gross.

Taste my salt. No, I don’t want to. Yeah, exactly. I’m going to eat it, but I don’t want to taste it. That’s a really great point. I mean, we used to talk about all the time, how do you describe an ingredient? Like how concisely, you know, it’s one of our biggest challenges.

[54:47] Yes. The fact that somebody not only needs to like try or be introduced to tahini, but then they really need a recipe to use it.

They need a hummus and a shake and a this and a that. It is very difficult. Like olive oil in a way.

Our target velocity is not that high for that reason. We’re not selling snacks.

We sell ingredients like ketchup or something. A staple.

You’re selling a staple. Exactly.

And so, while we, you know, and but what is also amazing is in the last five years and the last few years since we’ve been at Whole Foods nationally, Sum Tahini is now the second-best alternative nut butter.

So, like only after Justin’s Almond Butter and Sun Butter. So, if you think about cashew butter, I mean, other butters, you asked about sesame butter.

Tahini is really growing, and it is associated correctly in the nut butter section, but I don’t think it will be in the nut butter section everywhere.

And yeah, it’s one of our biggest challenges is how do we teach people what tahini is, get them to buy it and use it once and then get them to use it hopefully again.

Right. Those repeat buyers. You said like people are buying, but like, repeat buyers, they’re not buying every month, right? It’s like usual.

[56:01] Actually, one of my biggest ideas right now is to put the product out in an even smaller pack.

Like we sell right now a 16 ounce, an 11 ounce. And true tahini users are like, 16 ounces isn’t enough.

You know, they can use that in a day fat. It would be easy.

If you make cookies, hummus and salad dressing, you use the whole jar.

But most people are not even finishing that 11-ounce jar.

We know that because of the velocity that we’re seeing on shelves.

And so my idea, we’re working on it for the end of Q1 next year, is a smaller, like eight ounces.

I mean, it kind of gets back to that variety issue as a selling point to grocery.

Yes. Yeah. It would help us expand our footprint and offer a new SKU.

There’s a lot of reasons why I’m excited for that.

Exploring Digital Advertising Strategies

[56:46] One of the only areas of marketing I think we haven’t touched on yet is just fat out digital ads.

Mm-hmm.

Have you guys gone much down that rabbit hole of doing geo-fenced ads around certain retailers or anything like that? We haven’t done a lot of those strategies.

I mean, our big push into digital ads was at COVID time, like people were stopping and the rates were so low, and we started for the first time.

I mean, digital ads and the idea of digital ads for Amazon were not that prevalent like four or five years ago.

They’re a lot more prevalent now because D2C is like dead.

Digital ads were always like pushing people to your own website for a very long time.

[57:26] And no, we have not successfully done digital ad campaigns that push people to stores.

Yeah, geo pharmacy.

Yeah, but since we’re launching in this first conventional chain, we want to try a lot more of those types of strategies. We know some good resources for that.

All right, very good. Well, before we go down the final stretch Any other questions?

What is out besides hummus? What is your favorite recipe?

[57:51] To serve someone or to cook for someone that has tahini?

That’s a great question. It would definitely come back to

[57:59] Probably like banana bread and I’ll like to put it into muffins instead, instead of the vegetable oil.

Most banana breads or zucchini breads call for like half a cup of vegetable oil.

You can split that up into a quarter cup of tahini and a quarter cup of applesauce.

It’s really, really delicious.

And then really my favorite favor combination for tahini, neat, not hummus, is on Greek yogurt with tahini drizzled on top and honey drizzled on top. Whoa, really?

So good. Yeah. You could put bananas in there. You could add tahini to a smoothie. It’s really versatile.

It’s so versatile. I think the average American doesn’t, they don’t, it’s so foreign to them, and they don’t realize the versatility that it has.

I was speaking with an email, somebody in vegan food publication, and she was so sweet. It was nice. We had a great conversation.

And I said, I don’t know why she signed off this way. She’s like, I’m definitely going to grab soup the next time I make hummus.

And I was gutted by that. I was like, a vegan is still only associating tahini with hummus.

I was like, I would tear my hair out. We’ve been working for 10 years to talk about all the ways that.

somebody can use tahini as a substitute for cream in a soup, as a substitute for peanut butter or oil

in a baked Like the list goes on and on.

So, we still have a lot of room here.

There’s a lot of education, a lot of awareness that needs to happen.

And this is where that idea of like, you know, in the future of creating an actual platform.

Educating on Versatility Beyond Hummus: Brand Campaign Opportunity

[59:28] Brand campaign that talks about these pain points would be a fun to work on and be, I think, would really help to break that mental divide people has on have on what tahini is and not just what it is, but the usage, the million ways you can use tahini.

You know, it’s not just hummus anymore. Yeah, I think there’s my content opportunity. I mean, it’s always been there. Hummus is so 2010, you know what I mean?

[1:00:00] So it’s been a great conversation, Amy. In closing, what are any words of wisdom, you know, 30, 60 seconds, words of wisdom you would give an aspiring food brand to help kind of get off the ground, the number one thing you would prioritize and tell them to do?

Be very, very passionate. I mean, it’s a very hard industry and has a lot of patience and resolve.

I would tell them to not only understand their target market but understand who could be the influencers that help expedite that reach.

And lastly, I would say, as you guys can probably relate to for any business or project or life experience, it always takes longer and costs more money.

So, you know. Then you’re expecting, yeah, for sure. Right. Yeah, 100%.

Well, that’s great. Well, thanks so much for your insights. It’s been great having you on the show, Stephen.

I had a bite and a half and blast. Pleasure as always, buddy. [Shaking hands.] Yep.