The consumer packaged goods industry is one of the hardest industries to breakthrough. By beating the odds, entrepreneur, Michelle Retik found her niche and has built up B.A.D. Food Co. to be the star of grain and GMO-free foods. She has been able to get into 800 retail all while being an active mother of four children during a pandemic! How did she do it? She tells us everything on this episode of Badass CEO.
Tune in to hear how she raised funds for her business, and grew B.A.D. Foods during a pandemic and how she beat the food giants and got her product into hundreds of retail stores.
- Teenage Dreams Don’t Often Go As Planned
- Pivotting Amid a Pandemic
- Personal Conviction Keeps You Moving Forward
- Consumer Packaged Goods Is A Hard Industry to Break Into
- There Is Always The Financing Question
- Finding Solutions To Challenges
Teenage Dreams Don’t Often Go As Planned
Mimi: Hi, welcome back to The Badass CEO, this is Mimi. Today we have Michelle Retik and she’s the founder and CEO of B.A.D. Food Co., which offers better and delicious baked goods. Her products have no grains, no gluten, no GMOs, or no refined sugars. She makes starting a consumer packaged goods company look easy. So if you’re wanting to hear about how she did it and how she was able to get into 800 retail locations, against the odds of the giant package goods companies, this is the episode for you. She also did this while raising four children during the pandemic.
Mimi: To get your top 10 tips every entrepreneur should know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips.
Mimi: Michelle, thank you so much for coming on today. I really appreciate it. I’m excited to learn about your story about you starting B.A.D. Food Co. So welcome.
Michelle: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.
Mimi: Can you just start us off by telling us how you came up with the idea and how long you’ve been doing it for?
Michelle: It’s actually an idea that goes back about seven or eight years. I went back to school when I was about 40 years old and wanted to be a pastry chef since I was a teenager. My father thought it was a really bad career idea for women, for people who want to have a family. It was very male-dominated, the food industry, and not family-friendly and low pay and tough hours and he was right about all of that. I had a whole ‘nother earlier career, but this was something that was just always a part of me. I love food. I love working in food, being in the kitchen so I was just about 40 years old. I had four little kids and I decided to go back to culinary school and did that, started working as a pastry chef, really loved it. All of the things I said, long hours, not so family-friendly, not great pay, but when you love something, you love it.
I started to get sick a lot and thought I was just exhausted with young kids at home and working a lot of hours and traveling in and out of the city from New Jersey but ultimately I was diagnosed with several autoimmune diseases and thought I would never work in the food industry again. But after about eight months to a year of being really sick, I did tons of research and change my entire lifestyle and diet, no grains, no refined sugar, minimal and specific dairy, things that you hear so many other people talk about these days, but for me, it really helped.
Within 48 hours, I started to see relief in my symptoms from ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. So when I started to feel better, I got back into the kitchen and started recreating not only things that I love, everything from regular food, all the way to dessert because as a pastry chef, I definitely love dessert, not just eating it, but the whole creation process of it and I have four kids and I wanted them to grow up in a house that still had yummy smells coming from the kitchen and yummy, delicious treats and desserts and foods that they would look back on and say, “Oh, do you remember mom used to make this,” or, “For the holidays, we had that,” so it was really important to me to try to find ways to recreate some of the things that I could no longer eat.
In doing that, I actually wound up opening a grain-free bakery, which I had for about five years, right outside of New York City and it was really awesome. It did really well. I used it to learn what customers wanted and liked and were interested in and to really fine-tune recipes and get feedback every day from the customers who came in. But really my goal was to bring it to as many people as possible because I feel that a healthier diet, not only for people like me who needed it for health reasons, but for moms everywhere who have kids and want them to grow up to be healthy and who care about all the foods that they bring into their house, organic, healthy vegetables, it was really important to me to take that all the way through, to really healthy, yummy, delicious desserts.
Pivotting Amid a Pandemic
So after about five and a half years of running the bakery, I sat down with my family and my husband and I, we decided to make the switch from a retail bakery into a wholesale consumer packaged goods company that I now sell my cookies and brownies and granola all over the country. So this part of my career, the wholesale line, has only been running, believe it or not, I launched in March of 2020, at the same time.
Mimi: Oh gosh.
Michelle: Right, that crazy little COVID issue popped up at the same time but really when people ask me, I can’t say that I just started this year ago.
Mimi: Did you keep your store open or did you shut down your retail?
Michelle: I shut down my retail store only because I was doing everything myself and the wholesale business is a very difficult, involved business and it would not have impossible for me to do both independently and I already was juggling being a mom of four kids who were in at that point high school and college, and a wife and I didn’t know how many more hours of the day I could really find to run two full-time businesses-
Michelle: And so we decided that the bigger opportunity to reach more people and do what I love on a larger scale was in the wholesale.
Mimi: Now, how were you able to transition your baked goods from fresh to be able to have it packaged?
Michelle: So it’s interesting. I don’t use any preservatives at all, but I do use ingredients such as coconut flour, coconut oil and honey, which are actually natural preservatives. So the shelf life on one of my products is six months, which I think is really awesome for what it is, but we definitely are not a preservative-filled cookie that could have a two year to infinity shelf life.
Mimi: Yeah and is there a difference in taste or difference in product from what you had in the store?
It is pretty similar, same ingredients that I was using before. The one thing is that when the cookies are being pouched at the factory, they flushed the bags before they’re sealed with the nitrous flush that helps remove the oxygen and keep the air inside the bag very fresh so that helps, but that’s a very natural process. There’s still no additives in the cookies. I like to say that the B.A.D. Food Co., which just so you know, stands for Better and Delicious, which was something that I said at the bakery all the time. It’s better for you and it’s delicious so when I moved into CPG, consumer packaged good, it just seemed like a really awesome brand name, the B.A.D. Food Co., the Better and Delicious Food Company.
Personal Conviction Keeps You Moving Forward
Mimi: So you make it sound so easy but going into the consumer package goods industry is like going after the Goliath, the big behemoth. So tell me about that because I mean, really, I’d love to kind of dissect that a little bit more because it is so difficult. You’re going against giants and first of all, where did you find where to even make this stuff? Then what was your next step? How do you even find out, am I going to go right into retailers or am I going online? What was your strategy?
Michelle: These are all questions that maybe had I really sat down and asked myself and thought about them, I might not have ever done this because they are actually really intimidating, but there are lots of co-packers in the country. Not all of them meet the requirements for everybody. I needed something very specific, dedicated gluten-free, but I also needed a facility that allowed nut flours.
I wanted a facility that was kosher. I mean, when you’re looking for these specific certifications and manufacturing processes, there are thousands and thousands of factories in the country but finding the one that is right for you is actually a little bit like a needle in the haystack, but ultimately I was able, just by researching and constantly reaching out, calling people, I have no issue to call somebody and ask questions. Typically I find people are very helpful and it’s part of being in the industry, I think, because it is so hard that if you call people and ask questions or email them and ask questions, you just keep following that little pointer until you find it, but I did find a few different factories.
Once you find a factory, you certainly ask them for lots of help and guidance in terms of who do they use for their pouches. I found on Facebook that there are groups that I’ve become a part of that you can ask questions so it did take a long time. From the time that I decided to move into the consumer packaged goods wholesale world until the time I launched, took me about six months, maybe even a little bit longer and of course, in hiring somebody to design the packaging and do your nutrition labeling and making sure that your statements on the package are okay according to the FDA, so I had to hire a food scientist from a university.
So there are a lot of things to learn, but I actually really enjoyed that part of it. As opposed to finding it scary, it’s actually fun. Everyday I feel like I learned something new and every day I finish the day off and say, “Well, I didn’t know that before, but now I do.”
Mimi: It’s fun.
Consumer Packaged Goods Is A Hard Industry to Break Into
Michelle: So yeah, consumer package goods is a hard industry, it really is. As you said, there are a lot of very big giant players and something that I’ve learned, being in the industry now for a little over a year, it’s not necessarily even about whether a buyer or a retailer likes my product as much as they have a limited amount of space on the shelf and so they have to use it wisely. It is very, very hard, as a new beginner brand starting out, to compete with a brand, like you said, a giant, a Goliath that they know will bring money in for the shelf space that they’re giving it, so it’s very hard to convince the buyer to give up some of that money-making shelf space to try a new brand.
That has been a challenge, but we are, I am really fortunate that we’ve been able to launch, mostly in the first quarter of this year. Last year was kind of a bust with COVID. A lot of buyers just shut down new product launches, but we’re in about 800 stores in the first quarter of this year.
Mimi: Grocery stores or what kind of stores?
Michelle: Grocery stores or in Sprouts or Wegmans, King Supermarkets, Erewhon in LA, Better Health in Michigan.
Mimi: How did you do that? That’s not easy to get into like an Erewhon. How did you do that?
Michelle: Not easy. Sending samples, emailing.
Mimi: You did it individually, you didn’t hire somebody?
Michelle: This has been a combination. I have hired a sales team, people who are more experienced and more seasoned and have the connections, but actually all of my big accounts, Wegmans, Sprouts, those were things that I actually wound up getting on my own first. Last year, there was a huge food show in California, every year in Anaheim. It’s the largest food show in the country and it was actually the week that we went into lockdown.
Lockdown, I think started on a Friday and the food show was supposed to be Tuesday through Saturday. I was meeting with Sprouts. They have something that’s really nice and generous. They have these 10-minute maker meetings where if you’re a new brand and you meet certain qualifications, they’ll give you 10 minutes of their time and they schedule it.
The funny story is I had my husband drive me, I think it was like 4:30 in the morning to the airport, and when I got there, I thought, “Am I crazy to be getting on the plane and going like that? This is the hugest food show and there’s this crazy COVID virus going around and who’s going to go to a big room, filled with thousands and thousands of people. What am I doing?” So after my husband drove away, I walked in and I said, “Can I change my ticket? I’m not sure I want to go,” and I postponed my flight to the next morning, and actually that night, the whole food show got canceled, but I still had a ticket.
I emailed Sprouts and I said, “Listen, I’d still like to have my 10 minutes with you and I have a plane ticket and I’m willing to fly to Arizona, to your corporate office and spend 10 minutes with you in Arizona,” and shockingly, they said, “Okay.” So I did, I flew out there.
Mimi: They still made you go. You couldn’t just do like a Zoom.
Michelle: I really wanted to go.
Actually, I’m not going to lie, I got really lucky ’cause this was my first pitch and I flew out. It was very funny. I took a super early morning flight and I brought a suitcase so that I could shower. I got a hotel room at the airport and I showered, put on my work clothes, practiced my pitch a few times, took a taxi to their corporate office with my suitcase, did my pitch.
I was very lucky they really liked the line, got in a taxi, flew home a few hours later. I mean, it was like a quick in, quick out, but I just would do anything that I could in order to get my product in front of a buyer.
I tried for a long time to get in front of the Wegman’s buyer and reached out to everybody and anybody that I could find in the industry who might be able to connect me to her. I mean, that’s really what you have to do when you’re a new brand and like I said, you’re competing against really big brands and you learn to be creative and crafty and sleuthy and you have to be really determined and you have to have thick skin because they say no a lot.
Mimi: Do you get to use a distributor at all?
Michelle: I do actually, I’m super fortunate. The two biggest distributors in the country both chose my product to be a featured new brand. I’ve been really lucky that it’s helped me open some doors because we’re featured and highlighted and there are some better opportunities for the retail buyers choosing some of these featured new brands, so I was really lucky that my brand was chosen by both of them.
Mimi: That’s amazing. Congratulations.
Michelle: Yeah. Thanks.
There Is Always The Financing Question
Mimi: So tell me, have you financed this since the beginning or have you done a friends and family round?
Michelle: I did a friends and family round. I have to say another, just sort of lucky moment in my journey here, I had a customer who would come in often and I went over one day to introduce myself to him because I knew that our daughters played field hockey together and went to the same camp, but he and I had never really met. I just knew who he was and being a shop owner in a small town, I walked over to say hello to him and we started talking and he said, “I’m in the food industry and I think your product is really great. There’s a lot of opportunity. What you’re doing is really becoming important in the future of the food industry and let me help you.” So he taught me a lot about how to put together the plan and helped me approach friends and family and get some investors.
The bakery I had financed all on my own and I was already selling to my local region of Whole Foods from the bakery and some other retailers so I’d had a little bit of experience that I was able to at least sit in front of investors and say, “I had the bakery. I was already selling some wholesale to retailers and here’s what I’d like to do and this person has helped me put together the plan.”
I did a friends and family round and I was not able to raise everything that I was looking for, but I was able to raise enough to help me get off the ground. We will probably have to go back and do another raise soon because I have been really lucky that we’ve gotten into a lot of stores and I’ve pitched a ton of stores at the beginning of this year now that buyers are opening up again. I’m hoping that we’ll start to see some pretty significant growth and if so, I need to figure out how to finance that.
Mimi: Yeah. You need to pay for your inventory.
Michelle: Yes, yes, absolutely.
Mimi: So now looking back, is there anything that you wish you knew from the beginning that you’ve learned?
Michelle: Gosh, there’s a lot that I wish I had known from the beginning, but at the same time, as much as I could say that today, I also think I would say, no. I learn a lot by making mistakes or by experiencing things for myself. I don’t learn as well when somebody just tells me something or teaches me something. So while I’m sure I could have saved some pain and bruising and I could have saved some money along the way, if I had known different things, ultimately I think it’s better for me and better for the business that I’ve had to be scrappy and learn things the hard way and taking a few knocks along the road because it’s taught me resiliency and how to think differently.
I learned it all very quickly because of COVID and because everything changed so quickly, in ways that I could’ve never anticipated so I think I’m okay and comfortable with how I started and what I learned and not knowing everything that I didn’t know.
Finding Solutions To Challenges
Mimi: What would you say has been the hardest part?
Michelle: I mean, for sure the hardest part was COVID, which none of us could have predicted or controlled.
Michelle: But short of COVID, the hardest part I think is really what I mentioned to you is learning how to be assertive and be very firm in my convictions when I’m presenting to buyers, because in my field of consumer packaged goods, I am competing against really large, well-established, very moneyed companies and I have to really prove why it’s worth taking a gamble on me and that is something that’s challenging.
Mimi: Yep. Now how many full-time employees do you have?
Michelle: I don’t.
Mimi: You’ve been doing consulting. I was asking that because people say that’s usually typically the hardest part.
Michelle: It’s really funny that you said that. If you had asked me that when I owned the bakery, hands down, I never hesitate, that was definitely the hardest part for so many reasons. I think one of the things that I love the most about what I’m doing now is that I work with contract employees.
I hire out so many of the things that bigger companies do in-house. My social media team, my branding and design team, my advertising team, my sales team but the reality is because you do this on a contract basis as a small startup company who, I’m only paying per percentage of using them, they’re not my full-time employee, I’m actually able to hire somebody at a better level because I’m not the only person employing them and paying them. I’m not utilizing them full-time.
So it gives me access to people who are more experienced and really good at their job. I think that’s amazing. For me, it’s been much better than hiring in-house employees because I couldn’t even actually train them on some of these things. I’ve never done them before. So it’s actually, for me, the best way to operate right now.
Mimi: Now, are you planning on doing a direct-to-consumer strategy?
Michelle: I have that as well, which was probably one of the most important things getting through COVID. I have a website. We do sell on Amazon, which we just launched recently. It was much harder to get on Amazon than previously because of COVID. They were so backlogged with companies trying to get on because everybody was living their life by ordering online so it took us a long time to actually get on for D-to-C through Amazon.
We’ve actually had a really great reception on Amazon, our website. We’ve got a lot of customers from the bakery, but a lot of new customers that we’ve gotten through advertising and I get tons of great feedback. So I’m happy to do the D-to-C because I get to hear from them in ways that I can’t through the retailers.
Enjoying roles of entrepreneurship and motherhood
Mimi: That’s a great idea. Now, how are you balancing it all? You said you had four children. Is there any advice that you could give to other fellow mom entrepreneurs of any tips of how you’re balancing at all? Is there any secrets or apps or anything that you’re doing that’s a good takeaway or lesson for somebody?
Michelle: I’m not typically one to give advice because I feel like I’m not an expert in any of this, but I’ll tell you a few things. First and foremost, my family, my kids are the most important to me. While I put them first, I also want them to be proud of me so I work really hard at my business to make it successful and build something.
There’s a balancing act there between me focusing on my kids and me focusing on my business. I think they both are very important. Throughout COVID, it was really important as a mom to keep my family sort of held together, and it was a hard year and we had lots of, I have a daughter who was a senior in high school and a daughter who’s in college who missed her semester abroad and a son who graduated college, who couldn’t find work because of the pandemic.
There were a lot of mom moments that were hard to juggle, but besides that, I think that the most important thing is, as an entrepreneur and a business owner, it’s really easy to let it consume you and take up all of your time. It’s important to make sure that you plan time to not be working, whether it’s with your kids or doing your own thing or whatever it is, it’s really important to know that stepping away from it is actually better for you than letting it be with you from morning until night, which it is anyway. I mean, you’re always thinking about it, but I think that was one thing that’s important. I just laugh when you say what’s the best step, when you said about the employees, I actually joke around that I do have one employee.
Becoming a Siri maven guru
She’s the best employee I ever had in my whole life and it’s Siri ’cause I tell her to set reminders and take notes and set alarms and I think she’s awesome. Anything I tell her to do and she does it, but I have learned to become a Siri Maven guru, there is nothing that I can’t figure out how to get Siri to manage for me, and so-
Mimi: That’s amazing.
Michelle: I laugh, I’m like, well, you know what? You make do with what you have, but that is, it’s not an app per se but my phone is really my best tool, reminds me of appointments and calendar reminders and looking things up for me and answering questions and I’m actually in love. I can’t deny it.
Mimi: I love that. I love that. Okay. So final question is if you were going to give any buddy who’s thinking about starting a company or being an entrepreneur advice, what would it be?
Michelle: That’s an easy one. You have to do something you love because it’s hard and it’s a lot of work and a lot of hours. It’s not easy and if you didn’t love it and you don’t love it, it’s really hard to keep doing something every single day, facing rejection, making mistakes, missing out on family things or doing things, you have to really love what you’re doing to go all in on that. I do love what I’m doing and as I mentioned, being in the food industry and working in food has just been something I’ve been passionate about since I was a kid and most of my life so I do love what I’m doing, but being an entrepreneur is a very, very hard job so you must be passionate about it and you must love what you’re doing.
Mimi: This has been amazing. Thank you so much, Michelle. I really appreciate your time and good luck to you.
Michelle: Thank you so much.
Mimi: Thank you for joining us on The Badass CEO. To get your copy of the top 10 tips every entrepreneur should know, go to the thebadassceo.com/tips. Also, please leave a review as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them so email me at Mimi@thebadassceo.com. See you next week and thank you for listening.