Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Making
New Flavors Accessible

Ariana Tolka is the Founder & CEO of Balkan Bites, a female and family owned frozen food business that specializes in burek, a flaky, stuffed phyllo pie that is a daily staple in the Balkans and Middle East. After years of working for marketing and non-profit organizations, she found her calling—to share and to preserve Balkan culture with authentic family recipes that have been passed down through generations.

The idea for Balkan Bites came about when I approached my aunt Alida to teach me how to make traditional Albanian recipes in honor of my late grandmother, Magbule. On Sundays, we found solace in baking together, reminiscing about my grandmother while bringing her recipes to life.

I am a first generation American born to a Croatian mother and an Albanian father from Kosovo. I grew up with strong ties to my Balkan roots, spending countless summers in Europe with my grandparents eating traditional home-cooked meals made entirely from scratch. After years of working for marketing and non-profit organizations, I decided to take the leap and begin Balkan Bites with my aunt Alida in an effort to make Balkan cuisine accessible in the US.

How we started

We launched the business in 2019. We started selling our handmade baked Burek at outdoor pop-ups in New York. We were thrilled when people from different backgrounds tried and loved our burek. There was definitely a lot of education involved since this was a new product for most but we had a ton of imagery and marketing material at the booth which helped. We would make and freeze the burek at our commercial kitchen and bake it on site.

The pivot

In early March of 2020, we had just participated in the NY Foodservice trade show in hopes of selling our frozen burek to coffee shops and restaurants. Little did we know that restaurants were about to close for months due to COVID-19 and outdoor pop up markets wouldn’t resume for the rest of the year.

We took a few weeks off to figure out what to do and decided to start selling our frozen burek for people to bake at home. We created simple packaging with a clear Uline resealable bag and labels I printed from my home printer. Then we became essential workers driving around NY and NJ delivering frozen burek.

We were determined to make this business work and we had to get the word out beyond our small pop-up following. Since we are bootstrapped, we didn’t have the budget to hire a marketing agency or publicist, so I started reaching out to different publications in hopes that they would write about us. I would look at articles written about other DTC brands that pivoted or launched during the pandemic and email journalists after guessing their email addresses. By a stroke of luck, we were featured in The New Yorker and The New York Times in the same week. I couldn’t believe it. We had orders coming in from all over the country. We had to work twelve hour shifts for ten days just to fulfill the orders. Extended family members came to help in the kitchen. We were exhausted and elated at the same time. Shipping all of those orders was a different story. About 10% of the orders were delayed and arrived spoiled. It was a good lesson in customer service and customers were super understanding but it was just a taste of the perishable shipping struggles we’d encounter in the future.

When we saw that DTC could be a real revenue stream for us, we created a Shopify site and found an awesome packaging designer on 99Designs to create eye-catching packaging that told our story and encapsulated our brand essence.

How it’s going

Although DTC was going well, we didn’t want it to be our only sales channel due to the high cost and unpredictable nature of frozen shipping. Customers don’t want to pay for shipping. When we launched, we didn’t factor shipping costs into our pricing so we couldn’t afford to offer free shipping which was a huge lesson for us. The cost of shipping is the main factor for abandoned carts. Now we offer free shipping for orders of $100+ but even that isn’t super profitable if the it requires overnight shipping.

We were eager to sell our frozen burek wholesale to grocery stores, but before doing so, we wanted to find a co-packer because we didn’t have the production capacity or target cost of goods to succeed in retail. We emailed basically every burek manufacturer in the world in hopes of finding a partner. To make burek at scale, we needed special machinery from Europe which we didn’t have the funding to buy so we had to find a co-packer that had the machine. After searching for over a year, we finally found a co-packer that was right for us. It was a really trying process and definitely taught me patience.

Once we finally got going with the copacker, I started reaching out to retailers in NYC and we launched with FreshDirect in December 2021. We had no idea how our burek would sell since we are at a premium price point ($9.99), but we were so excited when we saw that the Spinach & Cheese flavor sold out in the first week. Since we onboarded with FreshDirect, we started working with a local distributor and we are opening new accounts that they service.

Now that we have the production capacity, I am working to connect with as many buyers as I can. We recently received a loan from the SBA so I am considering hiring some sales support, but for now, I’m enjoying learning the ropes of CPG sales and hope we can be in multiple regions, if not nationwide, by the end of 2022. We may need to fundraise to make that reality but for now I’m taking it one step at a time. It’s quite an adventure.

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