Under The Hood: Alison from Haven's Kitchen
CPG founder insights from one of the greatest in the condiments game
Welcome Ali! When did you start Haven’s Kitchen and what's the growth been like since then?
I opened a brick-and-mortar, recreational cooking school in 2012 in New York City. My objective was to get people to cook more; it's good for you and it's good for the planet.
In 2017, I saw two things happening: First, many of my students were subscribing and then almost immediately unsubscribing to meal kits. They thought the kits would help them feel more confident cooking, and make it less stressful, but the opposite was happening. Second, the students kept emphasizing that one of their pain points was a good, healthy sauce. Sauce makes the meal and they needed more from the grocery store. That’s when the wheels really started to spin for me. I set out to create a really good packaged sauce that was better for you & better for the planet and that would encourage students and customers to feel more confident in cooking from home.
We put some of our sauces from the cooking school in pouches, got a table at the Fancy Food Show in Summer 2017 and in March of 2018 got our first purchase order for all of NYC’s 14 Whole Foods Markets as well as the e-comm grocer, Fresh Direct. In 2020 we went national with Whole Foods, and have expanded our wholesale presence to 2000 retail doors - it’s been gangbusters since then.
Talk to me about the gangbusters bit. How have you been able to handle selling on a national scale?
What happens when you go national with Whole Foods is that you open up UNFI distribution centers around the country to service the stores. As a small brand, you’re not technically selling to Whole Foods directly, you’re selling to their chosen distributors who also supply other retailers too.
Then, your job is to see who pulls from those DC’s and sell to those retailers - so as a business owner of a predominantly retail based business, a lot of my energy is directed at strengthening ties with the distributors, the retailers and the brokers who can help support that expansion.
Let’s go back to the first engagement with Whole Foods - How did you close that deal?
We were really lucky. We went to the Fancy Food Show, in what I call the “new kids on the block” aisle. We had a 3 foot table. And the local buyers from WholeFoods and Fresh Direct who were looking for innovation stopped by our stand - they saw the same opportunity we did: Sauces and condiments had seen some innovation with regard to Organic and sugar content, but not fresh, and not in a pouch. So while we were just making something we thought home cooks would appreciate, it turned out grocery stores were looking for accretive, innovative products too.
Grocery stores make decisions based on category or set. Salty snacks or ‘Chips’ for example is quite a saturated space, and there’s lots of competition, so you have to be either super differentiated or super inexpensive. But fresh “Chimichurri sauce” or “Tahini” - those are totally different and incremental to the store, and the fresh buyers didn’t have anything like them.
Now let’s go back to the “gangbusters bit”. How should somebody hire if they're expanding as much as you are?
Sure - so let’s break it down in functions:
On the operations side, if you are producing the product yourself your operations are going to be drastically different from a business using a co-packer. And even for co-packing businesses, one that’s turn key is very different from one where you’re doing procurement yourself.
For us, our co-packer does the procurement - so we really need help managing that relationship and supporting the warehousing, freight and logistics front. Our Senior Ops Manager owns that, and we’ve fortified her with outsourced support from the fantastic team at Rodeo. As we expand into new categories and product lines, we needed a deeply experienced operator with innovation experience, so we hired a Head of Operations.
On the sales side - We’ve got a few objectives: Open quality new accounts, increase velocities at the stores we’re already in, and tighten up our demand planning to reduce waste and improve product margin. Until this year, it worked with outsourced sales folks. But we reached this inflection point where we need internal, full-time people dedicated to these goals, so we hired an experienced, rockstar Head of Sales + a Sr. Sales Ops Manager to support her.
Next up is marketing. That will look very different if you’re selling heavily via D2C or in our case via wholesale. Our marketing department is less focused on paid media optimization or CRO, and instead more focused on building a deep relationship with our consumer and the way we see that are via those in-store velocities that I always go back to. Our team makes amazing content across a bunch of channels, so that hopefully once someone sees our Chimichurri pouch on the store shelf they already have an idea of what to do with it and how it will improve their life. Then we need excellent point of sale marketing to win that consumer, whether it’s good old fashioned banner ad on Instacart or a sticky coupon on the pouch. The last piece is repeat: How do we keep that consumer engaged and excited? How do we provide as much value as we can? The Marketing team is a small but mighty one - unbelievable in the breadth of what they’re able to do.
Finally, you have finance. That’s the last function for most businesses to bring in-house. There are great fractional finance teams that can be helpful beyond just reporting.
In total - we’re now at 11 people.
I feel like CPG growth as you’ve experienced it is so methodical. How did you figure it all out so quickly?
Not fast really, it’s ever-evolving, but I host a podcast that I started 2 months after our second purchase order. We had received a PO for 4x the first one, and I had no idea how we were going to fill it. I started asking a lot of people a lot of questions and realized none of my drama was unusual and this stuff should be more accessible to other founders. I've interviewed 168 people over the course of 4 years - so that’s helped me contextualize and re-think a lot. This is a constant learning journey.
And beyond that, I do look at huge success stories in new categories like Perfect Bar or Health-Ade Kombucha, where buyers had no idea where to place them and consumers were unclear how to integrate them, but low and behold they cracked it and became giant businesses.
Let’s talk about your digital footprint. You have one of the most engaging and beautiful websites out there. How do you think about your D2C outlet?
The website is crucial to us. But not for D2C sales.
We have over 400 recipes on that website and about 200 of them have full length videos that you can watch. Every single one of the recipes has a link that you can click to text yourself the shopping list from that recipe. Because, again, it’s about providing value - and it’s not just cooking that stresses people out, it’s the “What am I going to make for dinner?,” “What do I need to grab at the market?” We help with all of it.
Unlike most wholesale food companies, we see the investment in content and the website as integral to the company. If we’re proving that we’re a cooking resource to our consumers, then we need to meet them where they are, but have a place for them to get what they need. The website is the hub and the spokes are the social channel, email, sms, partnerships, and shopper marketing: We have a huge, deeply engaged community around Haven’s Kitchen.
All of the channels are building awareness but ideally, they’re also bringing people back to that hub to add value to their lives: So we’re proud of the +200,000 Pinterest followers and 50,000 TikTok followers etc, but that’s not the end goal - it’s a sign that it’s working.
Should CPG brands bet heavy on D2C?
I do think if you’re launching a shelf-stable, lightweight product, it’s the best model to start direct-to-consumer to validate, test and learn a ton from customers, and build community before expanding into retail. Eventually, retail can easily become your largest channel and extremely lucrative. It’s why we’re seeing a shift back to retail from the digitally native CPG brands.
Last question for you: If you had to attribute your success to one thing, what would it be?
It sounds corny, but it's our humility.
We talk a lot about the Hero’s Journey here - and we are NOT the hero. We operate from a place where the home cook is the hero, our buyer is the hero, whoever it is, we’re their side-kick, secret weapon, Yoda, what have you. We’re just helping them access something in themselves that’s already there and giving them tools to kick ass. That means we need to be genuinely curious and listen to all of the stakeholders in this business. In doing so, we're building good relationships that really come in handy when the shit hits the fan.
We never lose sight of creating more value for everyone that we work with.
Thank you Ali! You rock!