Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Founder Friday Feature:
Ilona Kossoff of 18 Chestnuts

How 18 Chestnuts is making soups that nurture your stomach and your soul

Ilona Kossoff, founder of 18 Chestnuts, was not feeling well — and she hadn’t been for years. “I went from doctor to doctor to doctor and did all kinds of medical treatments, and they couldn’t provide any answers,” she explains. Fed up with being met by blank stares and endless prescriptions, Ilona decided, “I have to find something natural that can fix me.”

“I love to cook, so I started making my own soups. I went to Cornell University to learn about the vegan lifestyle and plant-based diet and what an incredible impact it has on your system. So I took all my recipes and made them vegan, and I started surviving on them. [The soups] became my solution and allowed me to heal.” A few years later, Ilona decided to share the soups that had become her saving grace with a larger audience. “I started working with an executive chef and a production manager who helped me translate my little pot on the stove to a hundred-gallon kettle because I knew nothing about that, and we just started making soups.”

“As of this month, we’ve sold over 14,000 jars of soup in the last four weeks. Our customers are 80% women who prioritize health for themselves and their families, and they understand the value of what I make in the jar. It has been an incredible journey.”

Developing new recipes and working with the seasons

“I’m very much involved in the R&D process, and I love love love working on that part. We do it in my kitchen at home. [My executive chef] comes over and we throw our heads together. We try to make food that nurtures your soul and is easy on the stomach. The original set of recipes were recipes that I had been cooking for a very long time, and my stomach continues to be super sensitive, so my stamp of approval [with a new recipe] is that I can handle the soup myself. It is the first and utmost quality check mark before I go into production.”

When it comes to sourcing ingredients and choosing flavors, Ilona explains, “Initially, all my efforts were around working with local farms, but I very quickly realized that as we continue to grow and for the safety of production we needed to expand our horizons to regional farmers.” Still, Ilona and her executive chef work to release seasonal flavors that capture vegetables at their peak. She says, “It makes sense to work with the seasons…For instance, the high peak for asparagus is in May, so we try to make as much of our asparagus shitake soup as possible. But we’re also working on a new spring flavor that we will be releasing this year, and we’re on calendar to release three more new flavors in 2024 based around the seasons, so I’m super excited about that.”

Beyond the ingredients, 18 Chestnuts also considers the environmental impact of their soups. “We want this product to be good for you, the earth, and the people who make the ingredients. Our production is very aware of the environmental impact we have on the planet. The soup is in a glass jar, our shipping boxes are as beautiful as they are compostable and recyclable, and we prioritize composting the remnants of anything that’s left in the kitchen.”

Expanding their retail footprint

“We started with farmer markets for proof of concept, and the proof was in the pudding. People came back weekend after weekend and they loved our product. So we started to sell into little mom-and-pop shops, and we got into about 100 on our own.”

As they turned their eyes on expansion, 18 Chestnuts began selling on Faire and attending trade shows. Ilona says, “We were probably a little bit too early during the first year we went to Expo East. We did get some orders, but it wasn’t necessarily worth the squeeze. This year was a very different story. Stores would come to us and say, ‘We love your product…We want to bring it in. What broker are you with? Or what distribution center can I get you from?’ And we were not with one yet, so it was a natural evolution to [find a broker.]”

“We talked to several different brokers, but then Greenspoon came along. They started a kindergarten program for new brands, and it’s a little bit more limited in scope, but the fee is appropriately reduced. Their staff is incredible, and they have guided us through this whole system and helped us get into some coveted stores like Gelson’s and Bristol Farms. It was also so important for me to be on the shelves here in Asheville because people would come to the market and say, ‘Where can I buy your soups on a Tuesday?’ Now I can say, “You can go to the Fresh Market or Earth Faire!”

Adjusting to the unknowns of entrepreneurship

“I was an attorney and an accountant for many years and numbers mattered to me so much. So, while I feel like I have figured out the formula for selling locally or on E-commerce, I can’t say that I have completely figured out the logistics of being present in national distribution. It’s a scary moment because I can’t predict what I don’t know…so I know it’s going to take a while for me to find my footing in this area, but it was imperative to get into [large retailers]  because I wanted to reach as many customers as I could. I want them to have the option when they go to the grocery store to find this incredible, nutritious quality food.”

Despite the challenges, Ilona wakes up every day confident that she is on the right path. “Every day is a challenge, and a few painful growing experiences were challenging to overcome. But I have to say for the most part, even on the worst day, I think it’s an amazing day. For the first time in the past 20 years, I chose to come to work on my birthday. I would usually take off for the day and go to the beach. But this year I came to work, not because I needed to hit a deadline, but because I couldn’t have thought of a better place to be. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.”

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