Starting a food business has been the hardest thing I have ever done. I should repeat that a few times....
When we first started Real Food Bar, we heard many times over that if we got into Whole Foods, we would make it big. Whole Foods Market, as so many people know is the mecca of organic, natural and cutting edge food products.
Our journey to getting on the shelf feels like something out of a movie - it was anything but standard procedure. Now, almost three years ago when we released our line of Real Food Bars, we were keen to get in to thousands of grocery stores. We got into H-E-B stores shortly after launching and applied to Whole Foods.
You might be asking, what does this process look like to get on grocery shelves?
Grocery stores plan out new products several months in advance. Generally speaking, grocery stores have 1-2 category reviews per year which is a time when the buyer for that particular area of the store assesses the strengths of their planogram and then decides if they will accept or review many or any of the hundreds of applications they receive from new brands that want to get on the shelf. Every store does it differently, but many will want to strengthen their current assortment before considering new brands as it is much more work and greater risk bringing on a new brand.
For us, we applied at least three times to get on the shelf at Whole Foods. We were fortunate enough to live in Austin, near the Whole Foods offices so each time we applied, we dropped off samples of our bars to the appropriate people in the office and then kindly followed up to see how they liked them. In this process and along the way, we happened to stumble upon friends of friends who were in the buying team at Whole Foods. In particular, we had a few great conversations with the team the helped us understand the buyer perspective.
Refine, refine, refine – get comfortable with feedback
Those conversations included things like:
What is the mission behind the brand?
Feedback on the taste and texture profile of the flavors
Are you prepared to sell in a major grocery store?
What about your packaging? Does it stand out on the shelf?
What differentiates your brand from those on the shelf?
What about the quality standards and sustainability of the brand?
We were initially rejected, in hindsight we were too early, but we were grateful to that the team was really kind and gracious to offer quality feedback.
Fast forward to 2020. In 2020, we were in a temporary hiatus of sorts living in the U.K. while my cofounder and husband, Sean was studying for his masters of business administration abroad. Meanwhile, I was working remotely with R&D to update our recipes, overhaul our supply chain and roll out new packaging (it was like relaunching the business). It feels like a whirlwind of a year looking back at it (for all of us!).
In early February or March of 2020 I got an unsolicited email from our website contact form from a local forager at Whole Foods who said she was interested in our bars. The only thing was that at the time, we were not producing the bars locally so they could not be considered a local product.
In May of 2020, I reached back out to the forager at Whole Foods as we were in the process of moving our operations to Texas. To my surprise, I got an immediate response back with interest and an ask to drop off samples to them! The timing of this was perfect as I had scheduled a flight from London to Austin with a short window to drop off the bars.
I went to the WF office twice that week. The first time, no one was in the office (due to COVID). The second time, I came toward the end of the lunch hour and waited to see if I could catch someone walking into the office. When I saw a man walk out of his car and into the office, I stopped him and frantically gave him my samples, business card and pitch. I hoped and prayed that the samples would be a hit and that they would reach the right people in the office. I still remember his words back to me which seemed anything but eager or delighted to receive the samples. He said, "thanks. I'm part of the local grocery buying team so I'll try these. If you're lucky, eventually you will get on the shelf."
I kindly walked back to my car excited because 1) he didn't say no and 2) I knew that the local forager was interested so it wasn't an immediate "no". I've learned in sales that if you don't receive an immediate "no" then to interpret it as positive and even if you do receive a "no", often an open conversation can turn it into a "yes." I had no idea though that this man that I dropped the samples off to would be our biggest fan.
Get a Good Advocate
About a week after trying the bars, we heard that the team liked the bars and would consider us for local placement in 6 or 7 stores about 6 months later. When we were starting to get ready for the placement on shelf in February 2021 (mind you, we were still in the middle of a pandemic and protein bars were not selling well during the pandemic), I found out that the local grocery buyer who initially accepted my samples I dropped off had become a loyal customer and fan. He had been buying the bars on our website for the past 6 months until they were available at Whole Foods. Not only that, but because he believed in the brand so much, he advocated for better placement on the shelf, an initial promo and a better retail price point. All things behind the scenes that made for a successful launch. This was incredible news to me and a huge answer to prayer.
Don’t Give Up
So there you have it - 2 rejections, dozens of conversations, an international flight and a loyal internal advocate made for our entry into the nation's favorite organic and natural grocery retailer, Whole Foods!
Are you reading this and inspired to launch a brand or get in to retail? I’d love to chat. My promise to you is to be an anchor to lean on. While I may not be an ‘expert’ in all areas, I’m a big believer that no one is truly self-made – it takes a community. If I can help – reach out via email or on Instagram here: anna @ realfoodbar.com