When you’re inventing something completely new you don’t have the benefit of following someone else’s blueprint. So how do you know if you’re on the right track? Patience, and good old fashioned trial and error. Within a few short years of coming up with his innovation for gluten free freshly baked bread, Tristaun LeClaire and his brother grew their business to half a million dollars in revenue and distribution in major stores like Whole Foods, but the business almost failed before they got their first major distributor.
In our second interview recorded live at the FounderMade Discovery Show we chat with the founder of Simple Kneads about how he came up with the idea for his company, and the immediate demand he saw from the gluten intolerant community. We also talk about what happened when the company moved to North Carolina and hit a major obstacle when trying to scale production.
Tristaun details how he got through that difficult moment, where they found their initial capital, and what the brothers did to get on the shelves of large distributors that quickly started generating cash flow for the business.
0:00 Today we’re excited to share another interview we did at FounderMade, with the founder of Simple Kneads, a gluten-free bread company out of North Carolina.
1:00 Sergei: Tristaun, your brother was telling me that it took 2 years for you guys to get your first major distribution deal. Tell us about how you got started?
1:18 Tristaun: So we found out that my son, Shiloh, is gluten-intolerant when he was 2-years old. So I started looking for good quality gluten-free bread, and couldn’t find anything good.
1:48 Since I have a background in chemistry and food innovation, I decided to try making this bread just for my family. But then we started sharing the product and it turned out people really wanted it.
2:20 Since my brother Devaunt had a business background, I asked him to help me start this.
2:50 Vadim: tell us a bit about your food background.
3:00 Tristaun: I’m a seventh day adventist and we’re vegetarian, and my great grandmother was a food innovator who wrote a cookbook in the 1950s. So I grew up in this culture.
3:24 I also worked in restaurants and studied French food and culture in French and got exposed to making breads. I started baking when I was 5.
3:55 My Step-father is a nature-pathic doctor and chiropractor in Oregon, and I helped him make food plans to his pan-allergic patients. So I learned how to make food with limited ingredients.
4:33 Sergei: how do you go from making bread for your loved-ones to seeing the business opportunity here and diving in?
4:50 Tristaun: really seeing the patients improving their lives by cutting out gluten, so I saw a trend there. Then I heard that some people were driving an hour to my step-dad’s practice without an appointment just to get some of my bread. So I saw the market for it and that we were a lot better than the competition.
5:39 Sergei: How did you then turn this into a big operations? Your brother was telling me that in order to build out the facility you had to raise $250K from investors, which is a significant risk to take. How did you derisk the venture?
5:49 Tristaun: Thankfully I had a lot of good contacts. One of our biggest investors was one of the patients my step-dad treated. We also had friends and family invest who really believed in us.
6:35 Vadim: how did you go about getting customers beyond your network group?
6:54 Tristaun: we first launched on e-commerce, and then PFG, a food distribution company came in to our plant trying to sell us ingredients, and I flipped it around and sold to them. That’s how we got in their warehouse.
7:30 We then got into the first co-op at the same time we founded the company by hitting it off with the general manager there, then we grew to a bigger co-op.
7:47 So it grew grass roots with small boutiques to begin with, then we got in with Lowes Foods, a local grocery store chain in North Carolina.
8:09 We did direct to store delivery going to 100 stores, so that was our first big push.
8:23 Then we went after Whole Foods.
8:32 When we first started I went around to Whole Foods Bakery Managers to pitch the product before we even had a name. We tried going the corporate route but couldn’t get traction, but 3 years later the same store managers saw us at a food show and since we already had a brand they got us in to the big buyers in Whole Foods in our region.
9:13 Sergei: Your brother was telling me how hard it was to land the big distribution deals and what kept you going those 2-3 years is those small co-op sales you did. What level did you have to be at for Whole Foods to be interested?
9:31 Tristaun: This was all during the time Amazon was buying them, which no-one knew, so we got grandfathered in through the local buyers. So because of this they didn’t ask too much about our production.
10:13 Sergei: So you entered this gluten-free product category at a time that it’s getting competitive and somehow you’re pushing 100 units per week per store. How are you beating the competition?
10:20 Tristaun: A big thing that set us apart right away is that our product, unlike other gluten-free breads, is fresh and never frozen. People don’t want to buy bread from the freezer.
10:55 So we were on the bread wall with normal breads, with a tag that said it’s gluten-free, which helped us stand out.
11:20 Sergei: How were you able to keep the bread fresh when no-one else could?
11:30 Tristaun: We took a risk and guaranteed sale. Which means if our product doesn’t sell within the shelf-life time, we buy it back. We cover the “spillage.”
11:59 Vadim: Can you tell us about a time where this entrepreneurial journey got tough? Maybe when you almost gave up?
12:22 Tristaun: It was in the beginning when we first got our baking facility.
13:00 When we started off we had already raised the money and spent quite a bit of it on equipment, and I saw that my recipe wasn’t scaling. I went from making the bread in my kitchen to this facility and it wasn’t translating.
13:30 There were tons of variables in the production process that we couldn’t find at the time. It seemed totally random and I felt like we can’t do this.
13:58 I spent 3.5 months, sleeping in the bakery, trying to figure out the issues.
14:09 When you do process innovation, it takes 10 hours to know whether the variable you changed worked. So it just takes a long time when you have a lot of variables.
14:40 100% whole grain, gluten-free, sour-dough bread didn’t exist, so there was no one for me to go to get advice from.
14:53 But thankfully I was able to get it to work.
15:03 Sergei: sounds like your perseverance paid off. I tried the bread and it tastes just like any good sour-dough bread.
15:39 Can you tell us where you are in terms of sales now?
15:42 Tristaun: We’re in about 150 locations, including all the Whole Foods in South Carolina, Georgia, and Eastern Tennessee. We’re at about $500,000 in sales, having raised about $800K in funding to date.
16:25 Sergei: People can find you at SimpleKneads.com or in a Whole Foods near you, hopefully soon enough across the country.