Small food brands often face an uphill battle even after they get into retail stores—brand-building, marketing, communication with buyers, increasing orders, and more—which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. Hot Bread Kitchen’s panel discussion on August 13, 2020 convened food industry experts for a discussion on how small food brands can strategically pivot, strengthen their brands, and effectively build relationships with buyers and customers. Here are our 10 takeaways from the panel.
Huge thank you to our panelists John Lawson, Buyer for Whole Foods Market Northeast Region; Charlotte Myer, VP Of Merchandising, Fresh Direct; Paul Sasenbury, Associated Distributors; and Jomaree Pinkard, Hot Bread Kitchen Alum and Co-founder and CEO of Hella Cocktail Co and moderator Caroline Mak, Hot Bread Kitchen Incubator Director.
1. Customers are shifting from grab & go products to home cooking solutions.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, overall food trends have shifted from grab & go products to pantry items. Now more than ever, all three meals are being consumed at home, and buyers at Whole Foods, Fresh Direct, and Associated Distributors have seen an increase in demand for pantry products. Charlotte Myer, VP of Merchandising for Fresh Direct said, “The biggest behavioral shift we have seen is in solutions for at home cooking.”
The demand is high for pantry, baking, meal kits, frozen, and meats/proteins. John Lawson, Buyer for Whole Foods Market Northeast Region said, “If you would have told me in January that frozen was going to be a major category by the end of the year I would have said wow, what happened?”
2. Shoppers are now taking a “treat yourself” approach.
During the first months of the pandemic, customers were panic-buying and sticking to basics. Now that home-cooking is a new normal for many people and families, folks are becoming more experimental and are open to buying higher quality products and treating themselves. Fresh Direct has seen an increase in chocolate sales and vegan products.
3. Flexibility is critical.
Brands adapting to the COVID-19 environment need to keep up the momentum from this moment and remain flexible. “For any new brands trying to present a new product in the pandemic environment, you need to be adaptive and apply all the learnings coming out of COVID-19 to make sure what you’re trying to sell is going to make sense in the marketplace,” said John Lawson, Buyer for Whole Foods Market Northeast Region.
4. Utilize all marketing channels.
While in-store sampling won’t look the same for a while, social media engagement is higher than ever. Take this time to engage with your customers, whether through social media platforms or online cooking classes or virtual demos. Connecting over Zoom or participating in virtual trade shows is critical.
“Whatever retailer you’re talking to, leverage all the opportunities there is to tell your story. You’re telling a story through your product—take advantage of all the tools offered.”John Lawson, Whole Foods Market
5. Build an authentic brand.
Customers and grocery buyers alike respond to authenticity and the stories behind the brand. Given the current challenges and limitations of the moment without in store tastings and meetings, being authentic in storytelling is key to growing the brand. Jomaree Pinkard, CEO of Hella Cocktail Co. and alum of Hot Bread Kitchen’s Small Business Incubator, shared, “Along the way of building your brand, don’t ever lose sight of who you are or what you want your brand to be. Be authentic in what your brand stands for.”
“Sometimes it just takes longer to get on the shelves we deserve to be on. When I do things like write a piece on [equity in the food space], at this point I’m actually doing it for the betterment of the BIPOC small business crowd in general.”Jomaree Pinkard, CEO and Co-Founder, Hella Cocktail Co.
6. Lift as you rise.
As brands owned by BIPOC become more established, emphasizing your unique narrative and story can help open doors for other BIPOC small business owners.
7. Craft your pitch to the current moment.
The pandemic has affected the food supply chain in unforeseen ways, which both opens opportunities for new products to fill the marketplace and creates potential supply chain issues. Research areas of the supply chain that are constrained or limited right now and frame your pitch around solving those problems (for instance with the background of a canned goods shortage, perhaps your product is filling a niche with unique pouch packaging.)
8. (Kind) Persistence is Key.
The best way to launch your product to a buyer and remain in their circuit is with persistence. Keep sending emails with your pitch. As Charlotte Myer, VP of Merchandising for Fresh Direct said, “You’d be surprised how refreshing polite persistence can be when in the throes of the buying desk.”
9. Be proactive about communication.
As a small business, it’s imperative to think of the buying community as another customer. Buyers want to keep shelves full and communicate with shoppers about the status of a product. Keeping an open line of communication and being transparent with buyers goes a long way: “Being able to rely on our brands to be open and honest about their situation is important,” said Paul Sasenbury of Associated Distributors.
“We rely on our relations with incubators like Hot Bread Kitchen and distributors like Pod Foods to make it easier for small brands to enter the supply chain, and help [retailers like us] find those great products.”Charlotte Myer, Fresh Direct
10. Local brands remain a priority for retailers.
Retailers like Whole Foods Market and Fresh Direct rely on food incubators and small food distributors to gain access to unique food brands. Whole Foods Market and Fresh Direct alike have local maker programs to onboard new brands and steer them toward content opportunities and success on their platform. Stay engaged and connect with all the resources available through incubator programming.