Startup To Scale

130. Building a Meat Alternative Brand

August 09, 2023 Foodbevy Season 1 Episode 130
Startup To Scale
130. Building a Meat Alternative Brand
Show Notes Transcript

 On today’s episode I talk with RollinGreens’ CEO and co-founder, Lindsey Cunningham. She started RollinGreens in a food truck in Boulder, CO, and launched a CPG product that’s now expanded into Sprouts’ Innovation Centers and into over 2,600 Walmart's so valuable. Now 12.5 years into their journey, Lindsey shares her key points for building a successful CPG brand. 

Startup to Scale is a podcast by Foodbevy, an online community to connect emerging food, beverage, and CPG founders to great resources and partners to grow their business. Visit us at to learn about becoming a member or an industry partner today.

Lindsey Cunningham (RollinGreens)

Jordan Buckner: [00:00:00] For our listeners, a lot of you have been hearing me talking about the time that it takes to build a successful C P G product and it. Is a long journey and has lots of highs and lows along there, but ultimately you can find success and a path forward. I love to introduce you to Lindsey Cunningham, who is the c e o and Co-founder of RollinGreens and.

Today we're gonna be unpacking her story on how she started the brand as a food truck, and it's evolved into C P G product and how she's been building that business for over 12 and a half years. You know, as I mentioned, it started as a food truck in Boulder in the eighties, and the brand change into an accessible and sustainably sourced chef curated meat alternative for at home cooking with ingredients you can recognize without additive fillers.

Lindsey, welcome to the podcast. 

Lindsey Cunningham: Thank you so much for having me today. 

Jordan Buckner: So I love to unpack, you know, what it was like starting [00:01:00] at the beginning, why a food truck and what were your first steps in getting started? 

Lindsey Cunningham: Yeah, so back in late 2010, we're a husband and wife team. So my husband and I were not married at the time, but we wanted to start a restaurant with Chef KO's culinary background and my marketing and business background.

We thought it was the perfect recipe and we actually, it was kind of right as the food truck craze was happening and we decided this is a better, lower cost way. To penetrate the market. Then a brick and mortar, let's start with a food truck. So we were off to the races building and designing our first food truck.

And it wasn't until then that we learned about Ryan's family legacy. So I toggle back and forth. My husband and business partner's name is Ryan Cunningham, but people call him chef KO. Just a little bit of context there. So, His family actually had Boulder Colorado's first organic food truck back in 1980.

 They had three kids and they got pregnant with Ryan and so they stopped the food truck. So it was [00:02:00] very serendipitous that 35 years later he was the one to start the food truck back up. 

Jordan Buckner: That is amazing. So you to start the food truck. And what was that like? 

Lindsey Cunningham: Starting the food truck and. Maintaining the food truck was a daily battle.

I'll say that. You know, working with your husband, you know, a husband and wife team, you're in very high pressure, high stake situation at all time. It can be the hottest weather, 110 degrees, or it could be freezing, you know, in a snow storm. So we weathered all of the storms literally. But it was also, you know, so there was lots of lows, but tons of highs.

I mean, at the end of the day, our goal was to feed consumers and make them happy with healthy, local and organic products. And that's what we did. So our consumers, our customers, they became our family and they would. See us week after week, day after day at the farmer's market. They'd hire us for weddings.

[00:03:00] We did thousands of events a year and just worked seven days a week, a hundred hour weeks. That's all we did is rolling greens and we put the work in. 

Jordan Buckner: What were your first products when you started? 

Lindsey Cunningham: You know, we focused on organic and local, so about 80% was all from local farmers. We always had the philosophy of knowing your farmers, the energetics, and food, when you know where it comes from, tastes.

So much better. And it really was a philosophy that we carried, but we had, like, we were not fully plant-based at the time. It was the focus on organic and local. It wasn't until we decided to start the C p G line consumer packaged goods that we decided to be a hundred percent plant-based. But some of the items we did were Korean.

Bogie beef tacos, a stuffed poblano cheeseburger, all grass fed beef beet salad, paid homage to his mother with her famous beet salad. And lots of salads, lots of exciting food. Our jalapeno poppers, and most importantly, our Millet Tots were the first [00:04:00] product that then we took into market because they were so popular and didn't exist in the marketplace.

Jordan Buckner: That's exciting. And so all those sound delicious and I would absolutely eat those. I have to think about lunch right now. Yeah. And so, I mean, I can definitely understand why you probably got out of the food truck business. This is definitely challenging and intense all the time. So tell me about when you made that transition to a C P G product and why you decided to go with plant-based products to do so.

Lindsey Cunningham: Yeah. And also , the Tempe tacos that we have had were phenomenal and all of Chef KO's sauces, but really people would line around the corner for hours waiting on Chef KO's food. And we knew we had something really special and we wanted to feed the world healthy, tasty, affordable food. And the best way to do that.

Was to bring it to market. And so we chose our Millet Tots, which were the only non potato whole graine tot on the market. They filled a gap. They're all plant-based. And so that's kind of the product we started with. Then shortly after we launched our crispy cauliflower wings. We had a lot of success in the frozen [00:05:00] category, but through the pandemic with, you know, supply chain issues, rising costs.

We had developed a shelf stable, plant-based meat line, and the feedback that we were getting online from it was so overwhelmingly positive and truly knew that that was a more sustainable approach than frozen being shelf stable, both for our bottom line and the planet. And so that's when we made the decision to pivot out of frozen and just focus on our shelf stable, plant-based food line.

Jordan Buckner: Well, as we all know, frozen is very challenging. Category from a logistical standpoint, a manufacturing standpoint, and a sales standpoint. And so pretty much across the board. What was the innovation that allow you to create a shelf stable, plant-based, mean alternative? What are the ingredients that you're using? Is there a hero ingredient that's in there? And what are you really finding the consumers are attracted to about it? 

Lindsey Cunningham: Yeah, I mean, I think our mission changed, you know, rolling Greens is on a mission to make shelf stable, plant-based proteins that are [00:06:00] chef crafted and from clean ingredients to high protein.

We found this gap because a, most of this plant-based alternatives out there right now are refrigerated and frozen. We're shelf stable, which means we live in your pantry. , it has a two year shelf life, but no added binders, fillers, it's made from real ingredients like peas, bean fermented, shiitake mushroom, rice and pea sea salt, apple and carrot.

All of the ingredients, you know, love and can pronounce, and the taste is there. We have some core pillars and key attributes in our company, and it has to taste good. If it doesn't taste good, we're not gonna do it. Clean label convenience. All of our products are ready in, you know, under 10 minutes or less.

And if you can boil water, you can make this product. So all of a sudden it becomes a camping item. It lives in your pantry. It's a staple. So there's so many great attributes and value proposition to our products and consumers are loving it. And it [00:07:00] really comes down to all of those key features. 

Jordan Buckner: So Lindsey, tell me about that transition from the frozen products to shelf stable.

What was the feedback from your customers? Were there any challenges in kind of transitioning from like the frozen department of the store to the center store aisle? What was that experience like? I. 

Lindsey Cunningham: I mean, it was an entirely different category. So an entirely different ballgame, new buyers, new way of distribution.

We essentially started over consumers. I probably get an email, a phone call almost daily. Where are your Millet Tots, your cauliflower wings? And it breaks our heart because we love these products. You know, our blood, sweat, and tears have gone into every product that we've put out there and only the best for our customers.

And so Not to say that someday we won't bring them back, but right now, in the economy, in the state that we're in, this was the best decision for us and our business, and it was the best decision we've ever made. , we will outpace anything that we've done on the [00:08:00] frozen side in less than one year of being on the shelves for dark shelf stable product.

So it was a phenomenal decision and we're really happy about it. 

Jordan Buckner: Yeah. You know, one of the most important things to do right is to make sure that you are staying in business and that you are around for the long term, because you could have the most ill product, but if you can't build the business fundamentals around it, then people won't be able to get those anyway.

And so it makes sense why you were able to develop this awesome product and make it shelf stable. Yeah. So talk to me about then, you know, what it's been like getting into retail stores. Are you in a lot of retail stores right now and what's kinda the footprint of the product? 

Lindsey Cunningham: Yeah, we continue to climb daily and we're almost in about 5,000 stores nationally.

So including Whole Foods, sprouts, Walmart, Kroger Safeway, Albertsons, Meijers, so key retailers that we partnered with throughout the country. Yeah, and we had the experience from the frozen products and knowing how to get to the [00:09:00] buyer, how to sell to the buyer.

But it's changed, it's changed over , the years and through the pandemic and the days of just walking into a, you know, a big box retailer and saying, try my product out on your shelves are not long gone, but it's few and far between of the opportunities that you get for that. 

Jordan Buckner: Well, congratulations on the success in growing into retailers right now.

Thank you. I'm curious what it's looked like from growing from a two person team on the food truck to now being able to run a business that's selling in 5,000 stores. Have you had to add more people to your team? Does the company change and what does that look like for you and your husband as leaders for that?

Lindsey Cunningham: Yeah, we're still a lean, mean machine, so there's not a ton of us still, and we're doing a lot, so that can just you know, give you a visual of how hard we work on our team. But a great team is everything. It took years on the food truck. You noted, my husband and I, we did everything. I mean, he was the chef, he was the dishwasher, he was, you know, everything.

[00:10:00] And I, you know, did all the business and so forth. But you know, you can't really apply that same approach to C P G. It takes a village. And so now that we have actually found an incredible team around us and surrounded ourselves with smarter people than us, it is a complete game changer. So we're very fortunate, but it took a lot of years to get to this point.

Jordan Buckner: One of the challenges I know brands experience is when they're growing from say, 200, 300 doors to thousands of doors, it becomes more difficult to get your head around like the business and all the places that you are and how things are going. However, have you been able to navigate that challenge so that you have a better understanding of how your products are doing out in the world. And I know no one has it really figured out, but I'd just love to know if there's any like software or partners that you've been able to find or approaches to reviewing the business to make sure that you're able to kind of keep a grasp of how the products are doing.

Lindsey Cunningham: Yeah I always say that like we're entrepreneurs and especially in consumer packaged goods, what is the [00:11:00] end game? Right. You know how quickly do you wanna grow? How much capital do you need? You know, you need healthy margins, you need good distribution, you need all of that.

But you know, going from 200 stores to 4,000 stores looks very different. So , what's your end game? And partners, I mean, we have used co-packers. Since the beginning of our existence for consumer packaged goods. And there is a group, there's many groups that can help you find a good co-man. And there's outsource sales teams. We still utilize and outsource sales teams. There's a broker network. You know, there's many ways that you can approach getting into retailers. But really it comes down to. Putting yourself out there and being persistent. I can't tell you how many times I've either heard a no, a not right now, and I've stayed on the buyer.

We've continued our partnership and connection, and ultimately we've landed on the shelves. So, just because you hear a no, , it just means not right this [00:12:00] moment, but you continue to foster , your relationship and there's platforms like Naturally Boulder Naturally LA there's lots of different I can't recall the word right now, but there's definitely, there's lots of you like communities 

Jordan Buckner: and networks to be able to help grow.

Lindsey Cunningham: Yeah. Naturally. Boulder was key. When I first started out, , I went to every single meeting, I networked, I found contacts that put me in front of different suppliers for ingredients. And so getting in a chapter is what I was looking for, that word. A chapter in your area of natural boulder if you have it or naturally boulder.

It is a phenomenal way to start. 

Jordan Buckner: Yeah. You know, one thing that I've seen other brands do as well navigate is in particular there's a partner that I've worked with before called Crisp and they take all your data and information to be able to show how your business is performing and easy to read dashboard.

So they're like one of my favorites in terms of. Getting a clear view of how your sales are performing, how your promotions are performing or not to be able to make those business [00:13:00] decisions, because I know, right, like that part of your business looks a lot different when you're in thousands of stores, 

Lindsey Cunningham: right?

And you have all these different data sources. And so what Crisp does is they consolidate that and so they make it into to one portal, essentially. So you can drill it down by, You know, region by velocity. You just have to maintain and manage the data that's, you need somebody who really can do that for you.

Jordan Buckner: Yeah. I love that. So one thing that's been interesting, there's been a lot of kind of backlash against the beyond Meat and Impossible of the world and kinda this plant-based, meat-based meat space. I love to hear your perspective of, you know, what the meat alternative space looks like and where it's going to go in the future.

Lindsey Cunningham: Yeah, well it's an $8 billion category and rapidly growing, so I believe it is truly here to stay. We've identified an incredible market, the flexitarian market, 22% of all consumers identify as flexitarians, and one [00:14:00] third of us consumers wanna give up meat or reduce meat altogether. So we're not here to preach go plant-based a hundred percent of the time.

Even if you give up one meal a week, that will be helpful not only for your diet, but for the planet, relieve some of the stress and the pressure on the planet. So that's really our philosophy we love beyond meat and brands of that nature because they really got the consumer consciousness around plant-based into mainstream.

And it, yes, it's become saturated since, and that's why we've carved out a new niche and a new category for ourselves. 

Jordan Buckner: Yeah, I think that's exciting. I was talking with one founder in the space and one thing that they noted is that the Flex Catering market's great, and like now everyone's looking to grow to eat, meet every meal.

Yeah. And there's also a capacity that the world's reaching in terms of meat production. And at a certain point there just won't be any more land to grow meat in the same way. And it's unsustainable over the next 50 to a [00:15:00] hundred years. So there'll be a supply and demand issue. And so there'll definitely be a growing alternative there as the world changes.

Exactly. From your experience over the past number of years, I'd love to know any insights that you have found or that you share with other founders what it really takes to build a successful c p G brand. 

Lindsey Cunningham: Yeah, well I was recently interviewed in a magazine, so they asked me five core things, and I'm gonna go with that.

Yeah. Because I think these are really important in building a successful brand. So, number one, great product, great story, right? Because consumers. Obviously want the better, you know, a great tasting product, but you'll get that repeat when somebody is connected to your story. So I think, and it helps with selling to investors, buyers and getting a team on board, right?

You have to sell. , you sell the attributes of your company every single day. Remember, you're in this selling role. So I've forgotten in the past, and I definitely, people forget, is that [00:16:00] even when you're trying to get somebody as a hire, a new hire on board, you're selling them the vision in the company, you're selling that to the buyer, you're selling that to investors.

So constantly be telling your story every day like somebody's never heard it before. Just as passionate, just as driven. Just as much energy around it. A great team. You know, I think when you're starting out, not everyone's fortunate to just kick off with a great team, but ultimately, building one is a game changer and it allows you to do what you do best, sell your amazing products.

And then I'd say healthy margins. Healthy margins are key. We learned the hard way with our frozen business. Right? And now that we're in the shelf stable. Category, it's a much different ball game. So we can then afford to hire, , great talent we can reinvest in the business and have a healthy margin to sustain our company and capital.

I mean I believe everybody underestimates the amount of capital you need to have a [00:17:00] product on shelf. Everybody has their hands in the pot, and even if you're bootstrapping and you wanna grow this to a profitable company, For the end of time to pass down to your kids, or you wanna sell in three years, it's still, I mean, different capital requirements, but still require significant capital.

And then good distribution. You know, it's always like the chicken before the egg in our industry. But I mean, our goal is to feed the world tasty, healthy, affordable food, and you can't do that without distribution. 

Jordan Buckner: I love those points. Lindsay, thanks so much for sharing your advice and wisdom and sharing your story on the podcast today.

Lindsey Cunningham: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. It's been great to know you.