Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Founder Friday Feature:
Vanessa and Casey White of Jaju Pierogi

How Jaju Pierogi is Bringing their Grandfather’s Pierogi Recipe into Freezers Nationwide

For as long as they can remember, sisters Vanessa and Casey White have been eating their grandfather’s pierogi. “We grew up with a Polish deli in the family,” Vanessa explains. “Our grandfather, or our ‘Jaju,’ started it with his siblings in the 60s…so we grew up with his pierogi in our freezer and I worked at the deli as a teenager.”

“When we went to college, we started to share our Jaju’s pierogi with friends, and they would always ask us, ‘Where did you get those??” Vanessa says, “So we understood that there was an opportunity and we joked around about [starting a pierogi business]. But my sister is five years younger than me, so she was in school for a while after I graduated, so we just kicked the can down the road.”

A few years later, both by then college graduates, the sisters returned to the idea. “We realized that no one else was doing it, so we got our grandfather’s recipes in 2015, and we started tinkering on my kitchen table…We were very lucky that he wrote down recipes because so many family recipes are just verbal, but his recipe was for 550 pierogi at a time, which was way too much for us to start with. Also, he wrote instructions like ‘six handfuls of salt,’ and we were like, ‘whose hand?’ So we had to get the recipe to a place where it was measured and repeatable. Then wee went to our first farmers market in January of 2016 and sold out of all of our packages in an hour.”

Building on this farmers market success, they continued to show up at community hubs, pop-ups, festivals, and other events, and eventually even signed a lease on a storefront in Somerville, Massachusetts. Though Jaju Pierogi began distributing in 2017, Vanessa explains, “We got stuck in this rut of events. So going into 2020, we both said to each other, ‘This is the year that we need to make the shift to wholesale.” Little did they know, the pandemic would make that shift not only a goal but a necessity.

A kick in the butt from COVID

“When things shut down and we had to close our storefront, I launched meal kits, and they went insane. I remember calling my sister and saying, ‘I’m going to do this and seven people are probably going to respond. and I’ll use my own gas money and I’ll just drive around. But I launched it on a Sunday, and by Tuesday we had 275 orders.”

At the same time as their meal kits were growing, the demand for frozen food was skyrocketing. Vanessa explains, “Luckily, we had a couple of distributors in place, and they started ordering obscene amounts of product. So the meal kits and the frozen food demand combined forced us to blow through any limitation we had imagined for ourselves in terms of production. We were able to solve the inefficiencies, and it gave us the confidence to pursue other distributors, chains, and partnerships. COVID forced us to just figure it out.”

A few years later, Vanessa explains, “We still have a lot of work to do in terms of adding density and getting into more stores and building brand awareness, but the COVID pandemic was the kick in the butt we needed to start scaling production. At the beginning of 2020, our wholesale was around 5 or 10% of our business, and by the end of the year that had completely flipped in terms of the income.”

Running the business as sisters

“At the foundation, my sister and I are cut from the same cloth. We have the same work ethic and the same value system, and we’ve always agreed on our goals. Sometimes people get into business, and they don’t necessarily express what they want to do with it and disagreements happen around that tension. [My sister and I] can disagree on different approaches, but we have always had the same end goal and we trust each other. I joke that my sister could be embezzling and I wouldn’t have an idea because I don’t do anything with the books.” In the same vein, Vanessa’s sister Casey doesn’t have anything to do with the marketing. “She doesn’t have access to our social media. She has the same blind trust in me when it comes to marketing, so we’re able to let each other do our thing and not interfere.”

“We keep each other updated, but we try our best to be very respectful. Even if I have the email address for the facility manager, I will email my sister and ask her to talk to them because it’s her domain. Something we’ve done that has served us well is set meetings twice a week. We meet on Mondays and Fridays to start and end the week. That way, we’re not constantly hammering each other with messages. There’s still a sibling dynamic and we disagree on things, but we can typically have it out and then have a rational conversation.”

Learning how to beat the game

“I had no idea, and I think the general public has no idea, how the grocery business works. It’s very pay-to-play. I know [Startup CPG] is adding to these resources, but there is nowhere anyone telling you this is what you have to expect and plan for if you’re looking to grow — this is how much you can negotiate or not. “

“We signed on with Sprouts, and we got slammed with the free fill bill. We didn’t understand because we hadn’t done it at that scale. Free fills are billed at the lowest price, and we just dug ourselves into a hole. We made the mistake once and it was very expensive, but now we’re much more conscious about what we offer people. So we’re learning over time about the right pace — when to say yes and when to say no.”

“I also always think of this business like a game, and we’re just trying to beat the game. We’re trying to manipulate the game, understand the rules, and bend them as much as we can…You can’t take anything personally. If a store discontinues our product, I just think, ‘Okay, I’ll continue to build my brand and I’ll come back to you when I feel stronger and more confident. Or, we had one of our freight trucks explode two weeks ago and we lost a couple of pallets of product and now, on the one hand, it wasn’t a truckload so it was fine, but on the other hand, we’re not going to see that $10,000 for a while. But it is what it is. You constantly have to pivot, and ask yourself, ‘How will we leverage the tools we have to beat this?”

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