Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Founder Feature:
Aman Blana of Growee Foods

Meet Growee Foods: Aman Blana’s plant-based brand turning your favorite fresh vegetables into delicious dips and spreads

Growing up in India, Aman Blana, the founder of Growee Foods, ate a strictly vegetarian diet. However, when he moved to the United States, he found the diet difficult to maintain. Aman began experimenting with different diets, eating meat and then going vegan, but more often than not he was turning to more complicated, highly processed ingredients — nothing made him feel as good as the freshly cooked vegetarian food he had grown up eating.

From this experience, Aman decided to create Growee Foods: a convenient but indulgent way to get your veggies. Growee Foods makes creamy plant-based dips and spreads with fresh vegetables, seeds, and spices and currently offers three flavors: curry zucchini, spiced mango, and red pepper. Aman says, “I wanted an accessible plant-based product I could indulge in that wouldn’t make me feel bad after I finished it. [Our dips] borrow some of the flavors in India, but the main thing I borrow from my heritage is how the products are made. We don’t use any preservatives or overly process the ingredients. The ingredients are things you can feel good about eating, and even our starches are super healthy. We use Acacia gum, which in India, is traditionally used to regulate your body temperatures in the wintertime. We made sure that everything that goes into [Growee] promotes health.”

Getting started

“I am the most inexperienced founder ever,” Aman explains. “I thought I could get the product out in two months, no problem, but it took us almost a year. I went to manufacturers thinking they did all the work and we just had to pay them. I said, ‘Can you create a recipe?’ And they said, ‘No, that’s what you do.”

Without a culinary background, Aman enlisted a chef who could bring his vision to life. He says, “I can tell what tastes great and what is nutritious but the actual cooking is not me.” Aman also knew he wouldn’t be able to make the product himself in a commercial kitchen. He explains, “We started with a co-packer, and it was very expensive. I didn’t know we had to sign a contract with a co-packer. I thought, ‘What could go wrong?”

Of course, something did go wrong, and Aman had to part ways with his first copacker. When this happened, he says, “I sought guidance from Startup CPG members, and it was actually through Startup CPG that I found another co-packer who we’re currently working with.”

The early days of Growee were rocky, Aman explains. “We wasted a bunch of product and money in the beginning because we didn’t know what we were doing. Thankfully, after a couple of iterations and the help of great mentors, we are on better footing. We’re still in the growth stage and making changes as we go, but we’re now distributing on both coasts.”

Growing Growee

As Growee expands its distribution to both coasts, Aman is taking a slow and steady approach to their growth. He explains, “In the beginning, we thought that as long as we got into the stores, the product would fly off the shelves, but that is not the case. We ended up getting out of a lot of stores, which was fine.” Because of this experience, Aman is focusing on quality over quantity when it comes to retail. “I want to open one more account on the West Coast so we can make use of our distribution center costs, but after that, I’m going to focus on breadth. Push for sell-throughs and increase velocities until I’m confident. I don’t think we would be able to scale our marketing enough to support the stores if we expanded too quickly. I’ve heard so many horror stories of founders who have expanded nationally and then failed.”

So what is Aman doing to get his product off shelves int he stores they’re in? “I think it works differently for each category,” Aman explains, “But for us, sampling is the best method. Because my product is a condiment, the repeat rate is super high, but you have to put money behind demos first. I’ve spoken to so many other successful condiment founders, and everybody had to go through demoing.”

Demos, however, are expensive, so to offset these costs, Aman splits demos with other brands whenever possible. He explains, “I’ve reached out to cracker brands and asked to share demos. We’re both getting marketing there. The customer is tasting our products and asks, ‘What kind of cracker is that?’ Or, ‘What kind of dip is that?” Brands need to ensure that the retailer allows shared demos, but if they do, Aman explains, it can cut your costs in half. This is particularly helpful as your brand expands into more and more stores. Aman explains, “I can’t drive the entire coast of California to do demos myself.”

Maintaining integrity while balancing costs

Balancing the freshness of his ingredients and the high cost such ingredients require is an ongoing challenge for Aman and his team. “We want to keep our ingredients as is, but multiple co-packers have mentioned that we could use a pre-made processed puree to save costs. I don’t think that’s the way. The whole idea behind Growee is to offer fresh plant-based food. I want to keep that intact, and I see the difference. Whenever people taste the product, they say, ‘How is this so fresh in a shelf-stable format?’ It’s because we use freshly diced vegetables. We don’t use purees or pastes.” That said, this commitment has forced Growee to work within squeezed margins, and Aman is currently trying to move production to Mexico to lower costs. He explains,  “Most of the vegetables are coming from California and Mexico at our scale, so we’ll see how that works.”

Aman’s advice to fellow founders

If you’re feeling discouraged as a founder, Aman says, “The immediate solution is to sign up for farmers markets. Nothing helps you more than customer appreciation. When you see people are happy buying your product, it will motivate you.” Aman also says that meeting with and hearing from fellow founders has made him feel less alone in an often isolating position. He explains, “At this point, we’ve all been to the same trade shows, and I have a little community of all my Startup CPG founder friends. We were just discussing how every week one of us thinks, ‘Should I shut down the business? How much money is this going to burn?’ But then we keep going. The best thing about meeting and talking to other founders is realizing, ‘I’m not the only one making these f ups.”

For future founders looking to start their own business, Aman’s advice is simple: “Talk to a lot of people and make a lot of people taste your products.” He explains, “Nothing triumphs taste in the food industry, no matter how much funding you have. If your product doesn’t taste good, nothing is going to help you on the shelf. Once you know your product tastes good, it’s all about tweaking the business to set yourself up for success. So talk to a lot of people, make your actual product taste great, and there you go — you have the recipe.”

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