By Dale Buss, Wall Street Journal, Feb 8, 2010
When these women saw a need for healthier children's fare, they decided to become entrepreneurs. And they're making their mark on the food business.
When Mary Schulman was introducing her company's new line of children's snacks, Snikiddy Baked Fries, to supermarket executives a few months ago, one of them predicted that the parmesan-garlic flavor wouldn't be popular with kids.But Ms. Schulman knew better. She already had tested it with a handpicked focus group—her young children, Sunny and Sadie. "That flavor is my kids' favorite," says Ms. Schulman. "So I wasn't worried."
Heeding maternal instincts has worked well for Ms. Schulman and a number of other women who have launched food and beverage companies in the past few years. Most of them had a common motivation: They couldn't find products that were nutritious enough for their kids—and they saw an entrepreneurial opportunity in filling the gap.
For now, these "mompreneurs" represent a tiny corner of the children's food market, but they're making a mark nonetheless. One group of women created a fast-growing food category from scratch—organic frozen baby food—and others are winning a following in other niches, such as healthy snacks.
"They're doing what good entrepreneurs do: finding and filling a need," says Hannah Keeley, an influential "mommy blogger" who also hosts a show on PBS. "In this case, they've learned about the need on the soccer field, or at the bus stop, or in their play groups."
On Their Timetable
For many of these women, entrepreneurship represents a chance to achieve a work-life balance they never found in the corporate world.
"As entrepreneurs, we're working harder than we did, but we're doing it on our timetable," says Denise Devine, of Froose Brands LLC, who left a job as a financial executive with Campbell Soup Co. to develop a line of fiber-rich kids' juice drinks.
Some mompreneurs, like Ms. Devine, worked in the food industry before striking out on their own. Regardless of their former career, though, they have all drawn on their business backgrounds when building their new enterprises. Consider the women behind organic frozen baby food—a category they created after disdaining mainstream jarred brands as tasteless and preservative-laden.
Gigi Lee Chang, who founded Plum Organics in 2005, had previously worked in her family's manufacturing business in China and then as a management and advertising consultant in the U.S. and Europe. Ms. Chang, now 42, pushed her New York-based company to a few million dollars in annual sales before selling it in 2008. She remains president of Plum.
Shazi Visram launched Nurture Inc., and its Happybaby brands, in 2003 after running a marketing shop. The Brooklyn-based company has benefited from Ms. Visram's knack for making high-profile connections. Robert Sears, the renowned pediatrician, is a product adviser, and natural-foods pioneer Stonyfield Farm is co-sponsoring a marketing team. Ms. Visram built the brand to $8 million in sales for 2009—including products beyond frozen baby food—and she aims to double sales this year. (As 2010 begins, the 33-year-old is also expecting her first child.)
Then there's the team behind Tastybaby LLC, founded in 2006: former television news reporter Liane Weintraub and Shannan Swanson, of the TV-dinner family. Ms. Weintraub says her communications training has helped secure retail buyers and tell the company's story, while Ms. Swanson was a professional chef. Sales for their Los Angeles-based company recently eclipsed $1 million, annualized.
Altogether, the women have helped build organic frozen baby food into a category that's pushing $10 million in overall U.S. sales only three years after shouldering into Whole Foods markets and other natural-foods chains and independent stores.
Of course, that figure represents a drop in the bucket in the broader baby-food market. Annual sales of conventional jarred baby food top $1 billion, and none of the mainstream baby-food players has bothered to enter the organic-frozen market.
"Even if our goal collectively was 10% of the market, that wouldn't make a dent in the sales of the big baby-food companies," acknowledges Ms. Weintraub, 35.
And maintaining growth is becoming more challenging, particularly in a weak economy. Ms. Weintraub, for one, has repackaged Tastybaby, moving down to a suggested retail price of $3.99 for a pair of 3.5-ounce cups, from $5.99 for three. The higher price point had proved to be "too much of a commitment for first-time buyers of the product," she says.
As her two kids age into toddlers and beyond, Ms. Weintraub also is following their changing needs into new product segments, such as a new clothing line and Gummi-like fruit snacks. "The kids' snack area is really an open field," she explains. "Lots of things that kids love to eat just aren't good for them, and they don't need to eat them. So we've taken pretty much the same approach as with baby food."
Plum, meanwhile, has moved into frozen pasta meals for toddlers and baby food that's packed in sterile, or aseptic, pouches—a new line that it has gotten on shelves of Babies "R" Us stores nationwide. In fact, Ms. Chang has decided to pull out of frozen baby food altogether because of "the overwhelming feedback we have received from moms and dads" in favor of pouches. That's despite a big road bump last fall, when Plum voluntarily recalled a batch of its Apple & Carrot pouches because of botulism concerns.
And Ms. Visram is unhappy about how difficult it remains for consumers to spy her products in freezers, where space and merchandising flexibility remain tight. So, Happybaby has come up with its own aseptic pouches, as well as a number of other products that now are retailed at Target stores nationwide.
Other mompreneur healthy-food ventures that didn't start in the organic-frozen niche also have had to find ways to adapt to keep growing. Consider Snikiddy LLC, of Bethesda, Md. Ms. Schulman built the company to more than $5 million in annual sales beginning in 2006 with organic high-fiber cookies and organic baked cheese puffs.
Last year, she decided to knock "organic" out of Snikiddy's positioning, figuring that selling point isn't as important for shelf-stable foods as for produce and dairy. The move cleared the way for a price cut of about 50 cents across Snikiddy's product lines.
She also decided to de-emphasize cookies and is gearing up for the rollout of Baked Fries. And she overhauled Snikiddy's packaging, removing the original cartoons in favor of cleaner designs that would appeal more to moms than kids. "Our ability to evolve with the needs of consumers is paramount," says the 34-year-old Ms. Schulman, who founded the company with her mother. "We're still young and can adapt to the market and make changes. And we want to be here for the long term."