Startup To Scale

168. Lil Gourmets - Aligning Your Vision With Your Customers

May 16, 2024 Foodbevy Season 1 Episode 168
168. Lil Gourmets - Aligning Your Vision With Your Customers
Startup To Scale
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Startup To Scale
168. Lil Gourmets - Aligning Your Vision With Your Customers
May 16, 2024 Season 1 Episode 168

 Building a CPG brand can be a winding road. Often times the product you start out creating ends up changing as you learn and iterate with your customers. Now, changing from your original idea can be hard, but ultimately you’ll create a better product if you align your core vision with customer feedback. 

Shibani Baluja knows this journey well. She’s a long time friend and founder of Lil gourmet’s, a line of baby and toddler food for adventurous eaters. I invited her on to share her journey of building the company, her original vision, and the changes she’s had to make to get to where she is today. 

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.

Show Notes Transcript

 Building a CPG brand can be a winding road. Often times the product you start out creating ends up changing as you learn and iterate with your customers. Now, changing from your original idea can be hard, but ultimately you’ll create a better product if you align your core vision with customer feedback. 

Shibani Baluja knows this journey well. She’s a long time friend and founder of Lil gourmet’s, a line of baby and toddler food for adventurous eaters. I invited her on to share her journey of building the company, her original vision, and the changes she’s had to make to get to where she is today. 

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.

Lil Gourmets - Aligning Your Vision With Your Customers

Jordan Buckner: [00:00:00] Building a CPG, Brand can be a winding road. Oftentimes the product you start out creating ends up changing as you learn and iterate with your customers. Now, changing from your original idea can be really hard, but ultimately you'll create a better product if you align your core vision. With that customer feedback, Shibani Baluja knows this journey.

Well, she's a longtime friend and founder of Lil Gourmets, which is a line of baby and toddler food for adventurous eaters. I invited her on today to share her journey of building the company, her original vision, and the changes she's had to make to get to where she is today. Shibani, welcome to the show today.

Shibani Baluja: Hi, Jordan. It's great to see you 

Jordan Buckner: as always. So you just released a new kind of reimagined version of your product. But before we get into that, I would love for you to share kind of how you got into the baby food business to begin with. 

Shibani Baluja: Sure. Yeah. I'm one of those entrepreneurs who honestly never wanted to be an entrepreneur.

[00:01:00] And sometimes I still question that today. But it really goes back to at my journey to have kids I went through an extended infertility journey and during that time I cleaned up my diet to really just try to solve it. I eliminated processed foods and I really felt. so much better and I started to understand food as medicine.

So I eventually got pregnant with my son, Jaden, who is 11 now. And when Jaden, when it was time to introduce Jaden to solids, I walked that baby food aisle and I was struck by the irony of about how everything in there was so over processed and really it was essentially, you know, the food I'd cut out of my own diet to have him.

And that's what was there for me to feed to him as a six month old. So, it really, it didn't work for me. And so I ended up cooking all his meals. And in doing so, I focused on introducing him to a variety of [00:02:00] veggies. Meats, but really always everything I made, I just used a lot of spices because it's just how I cooked for myself.

I grew up my family had an Indian restaurant, so we just always cooked food with a lot of flavor. And so as Jaden became a toddler, I started to see, just, he loved really flavorful food, he shunned processed food, and he just had a great palate, and he, and he loved veggies. And it was so interesting because he ate so differently than other kids at his daycare.

And so I just started to do more research. I was just curious, like, well, what was happening? Should I expect this or is this just odd? And what I learned was it's actually what I should have expected because there's a really high correlation from between our early foods and our future eating habits.

And so. I learned if we introduce kids to veggies early on, we can develop a love of veggies. If we introduce them to diverse flavors, we could develop a love of diverse flavors. And so as I, you know, thought about the baby food [00:03:00] aisle and what was in it and I thought about what science was saying it should be, there was a huge disconnect and kind of compelled me to see if I could help elevate.

baby food. 

Jordan Buckner: I love that. So give me a little bit of a vision of the original kind of product, the packaging and the flavors because give our listeners a sense of like what it started out as. 

Shibani Baluja: Yeah. Yeah. So we started with it was three flavors that are still around today. It was a sweet potato curry.

Cinnamon beets and apples, although at that time we called them ginger beets, and our Moroccan squash and carrots, which at that time we called, I think just Moroccan squash. It's been a few years. They came so the formulas are essentially what we have today. They were all delivering A hundred percent of baby's daily veggies, although it wasn't a claim, something we were talking about back then, we were just talking about being veggie first the global flavors.

And then they were always fresh. We HPP'd them from day [00:04:00] one of our launch, but they came in little cups because we were Really you know, tied to science and felt like for babies spoon feeding is, is how we should start feeding our kids. And so we wanted to really encourage and help with that spoon feeding.

So we launched in a little cup. But yeah, everything else is essentially the same as today. 

Jordan Buckner: Yeah. And so there's a little cup on the shelf, it's kind of a plastic cup with a, you know, the plastic lid at one point and then like a paper sleeve on top as that developed. And there's HPP. So it was fresh in the refrigerated set, which when you started.

Refrigerated baby food was still like a new category on the shelf. There was like one spot for it, maybe. And so like every time you went to the store, you have to like push out other people just to like make a spot and educate buyers on like where the, where even like went. Right. 

Shibani Baluja: Yeah, totally. And yeah, our first package, our first sleeve.

It was like day one, [00:05:00] it gets on shelf and just at Olivia's Market down the street in Chicago that I know you're familiar with. The first day I go in or the first time I go to check in on the product, I didn't see it. And I was like, oh my God, did we already get kicked out? It's only been a couple days.

But that gave me the, like, that just was so telling to me that I walked right past it because we were sitting by yogurts and we had this cream collared. sleeve and we blended right in. So like, you know, we spent like a year trying to come up with that package, come up with the perfect design. And in two, three days I was like, Oh, this is not, this is not going to work.

So that started the next iteration. We came out with a really colorful more premium looking package. And you know, loved, love that design. And I think the other 

Jordan Buckner: cup sat on the shelf because I had in Arizona, I had like this angle. So it was like, do you leave it on the side and have a smaller real estate and stack it?

Do you [00:06:00] try to like turn it so that the top is facing outward, but then like tips over sometimes. Right. Like, and then people put it the wrong way where just the product's showing. And so it was like, how do you even make sure it shows up on shelf? And that was just a shock. 

Shibani Baluja: Yeah. that became, you know, it actually took me a few.

to realize that my issue isn't the sleeve and the design on the sleeve. My, my issue is the cup and, you know, cause we were playing merchandisers. We were trying to have them flip it. We had come out with a square because I just, I love. This square was a custom cop. It felt super premium. I'd seen it you know, with like hummus and like if the guy had it and got them greens and it just looked, I loved the look of it.

And, but it caused us so many issues because our product was only three and a half ounces. So our cop was, was, was. So small compared to other cups and so like you said like every store of course was stacking it because that was the efficient way to [00:07:00] merchandise it and Yeah, it became you know, it took I think it took me a while to Realize and to see it, but it was a real issue in Discovery it.

So like, I think eventually we realized like you talk so much about product market fit. Parents loved our product. And if they found us, they were, we were getting the repeat, but we weren't getting discovered because you were just walk by. It was so small. It was in a refrigerator. It had a one inch of real estate showing.

There was nothing there to draw you in to say, what is this product? And so I think as I took a hard look, that's what I started to see was this is just, it's not working. 

Jordan Buckner: And this is what's so hard, I think too, because on one hand, right, you have the competitor that had a pouch kind of in, in the market and you're like, Hey, we have this differentiated cup.

It's unique to us. No one else has it. And it can become iconic and it tied into spoon feeding. So there's a real reason for [00:08:00] it to exist. And it's so hard to kind of move away from that. And I experienced that with, with TeaSquares, right? Because I remember we first put our packaging on the shelf and our logo was first off like really small, but then it was caught underneath the shadow of the shelf above it.

So walking down, you could not see our TeaSquares pouch on the shelf or see our name. I was like, I never even realized that shelves have shadows on them. Right? And it would obscure the passage. And sometimes like the price tag would obscure the bottom of it if it stuck up a little bit. And so I always tell founders from the beginning, like take your, your prototypes, like not even the final pack, the prototypes, like to the shelf and stick them on there.

See how they look, see how the shelves relax. Try it on the top shelf, the bottom shelf and the middle shelf because you never know where you're going to end up to see what problems might exist or someone finding, discovering your problem. 

Shibani Baluja: It's so true. It's so true. After that first design. I literally would work at Whole Foods because whenever I had a question [00:09:00] about like placement or you know, as we were thinking about design, I just like walk down for the inspiration of what are others doing?

How would we look? But you're right. But I always front face that product. I needed to think about like all the, what are all the ways that this product might get placed and maybe that would have helped me see that sooner. I don't know. I don't care. 

Jordan Buckner: So you're kind of going in and market and selling. I know you tried a lot of things to like get that discovery over the past couple of years.

Did you find anything that stood out in terms of like what was working anything else that wasn't working in terms of like getting this in front of customers? 

Shibani Baluja: Yeah. You know, I think the sampling for us has always been. Super impactful because there's always this question, right? It's a premium price product.

It's a very different sounding product, right? With flavors like sweet potato, curry, or Moroccan squash and carrots. And so there's a question of will my kid like it? And so the sampling always, always helped us because then parents would see, yes, my kid [00:10:00] did like it and we start getting the repeat.

I think what we started also seeing with the cup was would age out. so quickly. And so our DTC customers would generally move on from us when the baby was like 18 months old or so. And so it was difficult then with that such a short cycle of that consumer staying with us to really figure out , what's working and what's paying back.

And so, you know, there were so many things that kind of led into the decision to convert, but that Age up was definitely one of them and becoming just a bigger piece of a baby to a toddler to a kid's lives and being able to actually get them to eat veggies, more veggies than just for that year that we were having an impact.

You know, could we extend that? Could we get more three, four, five year olds eating more veggies? And I think the answer is probably yes and with the new format. Yeah. 

Jordan Buckner: I'm curious to know. You [00:11:00] just launched the new same product, but in a new form factor, the pouch, what was the final impetus to say like, okay, we need to make this change and try it out.

Shibani Baluja: I think for me you know, probably like so many early stage brands, right, where I was not finding product market fit. I was selling, like, people loved the concept. So like, the, you know, retailers, , we sold in Duffle Foods and Sprouts and Meijer and they're still our, you know, our primary partners today because they love the product, the taste but we weren't getting the velocities.

That we needed and thankfully these partners kind of stuck with us because we kept trying to figure it out. And I think at some point I just had to decide like, is this business going to work, I have to raise more money. or should I just, should I shut down? Like is it just not working? And so, I had to think long and hard fortunately had a a mentor, you know, I did think it about the pouch, but I would didn't, I wouldn't let myself really think about the pouch, right?

Because I have been talking about spoon feeding for [00:12:00] so long and then finally a mentor kind of made me say it out loud, like, what is your mission? And I'm like, well, my mission is veggies and flavor and delivering that convenience and that veggies and flavor. And then he was like, well, stop making it so hard for your consumers to get that veggies and flavor.

Like they want it, but they just want it in a different way. And it really kind of allowed me then to start asking the questions and almost just allowing myself. And what's so funny Jordan is Like, okay, now my kids are seven and 11, right? So I'm out of the, out of that stage of high chairs and stuff.

As I thought about that cup, like, I'm like, Oh my God, I would never have handed my baby that cup. They would have swiped it out the high chair. I would have taken it and put it in a suction bowl, spooned it out. 

Jordan Buckner: Oh 

Shibani Baluja: my God. The pouch doesn't stop. Parents from spoon feeding, if anything, they're telling me like they'd rather squeeze it onto a spoon and be [00:13:00] able to close it and be on their way and then, you know, I think they just opened my eyes to so much.

I mean, the other thing we were hearing is like. You know, most parents or many parents , are feeding kids what, what they're eating for dinner. So like, it's more of this on the go occasion or snack time where it's like, I just need something and I want something I feel good about. And that became clear that that was more our place than every dinner.

Right. I mean, we could still obviously hunt for dinner. We want to, , but it wasn't, we were kind of limiting ourselves by that format. And almost creating more work to transfer to that section by being in that cup. So yeah, I think for me it was really the decision of, am I, do I shut down or do I take a swing at what I think could fix this?

And it was, Harder, of course, than I anticipated and more expensive, it took longer, but we're here. So I'm really, I'm thrilled with what we came out with and thrilled to hopefully prove this thing has the legs to get the [00:14:00] velocities we need. 

Jordan Buckner: Well, and I think you're in a position that so many other founders.

I went through myself with TeaSquare is when, right, like you came from experience like with food companies as well, you know, on the finance side but you, you know, it's still a challenge when you think, all right, I need to create a product from scratch. You have to set aside the flavors, the packaging, the category.

Like the size, how everything shows up, your mate, like, there's so many decisions that you have to make early on. And that has ramifications like later down, right. Your packaging determines like who you manufacture from and then who you're supplying from. And like all those decisions get baked in that it feels so hard to change.

You're like, we've been doing it for so long this way. And we have a reason. And how is it, you know, how do we give up on that? I think the mentor that you worked with is just so key and really making you in question. What's the core value that I want to provide? What's the core vision and keep that sacred, right?

Like make that the [00:15:00] point that you really rally behind and make everything else just so easy. I remember with Teasquares, I did the same thing. We had Four points of differentiation from our products, what we're really trying to do is provide a energy bar with added benefits of kind of focus and alertness through caffeine and from like natural tea.

But we made them bite sized squares. They're in a multi serve pouch. We had flavors like citrus green tea matcha and they were so good, like really crunchy, right? Like the actual thought that was great and so confusing for customers because they're like. It looks interesting, but I'm not going to pay 7 for it to try it once.

Like, it's just not enough, it's not compelling, it's not simple enough. And I think that's what I've learned a lot about transcript learning over time, right, is that let's have one core differentiation, or maybe two. And then keep everything out of standard with what consumers expect. Because it's so darn hard to educate customers on something new to change [00:16:00] their behavior.

Shibani Baluja: Yeah, yeah. We have three, but one is fresh. And thankfully, you know, we've got once upon a farm kind of trailblazing that education so we can focus more on The veggies and flavor, but you know, the whole package is kind of the core. And, and actually, like you said, like with this mentor, he did say, well, would you go shelf stable?

And I said, absolutely not. Like that's too far for me. So it's like, I knew , these are the three that I have to stick with. And. Out who can help me get to that. Because like you said, my current co packer , couldn't do pouches. And so it was a journey. 

Jordan Buckner: So I know it was a lot , to get there.

Now that you have a product in hand and starting to get that out, have you sensed , any change? How, how are your customers responding? How are retailers? 

Shibani Baluja: Yeah. Yeah. We actually just did a bunch of events this weekend and the response is incredible. Like. People were like, finally, like, where have you been?

There were definitely people who were like, Oh, I recognized you from that cup. [00:17:00] But I think to most people, we look like a brand new product , because the branding has changed so much, really all it stayed same as little gourmets and some of the flavor names, but I think. , where I honestly see it the most is probably on toddlers because they really were uninterested in the cup.

And now kids just, they love their pouches. And I've like converted because I'm like, Oh my God, if I can get them to eat pumpkin navy bean shawarma, a three year old to eat that, how great. Does that feel right? , and so at the events we did, I mean, we went through like 3000 samples. I wasn't in it at all of them, but my marketer, Danika, she was there and she was just like, the people were just lining up.

They were so excited. I mean, every parent struggles with veggies and to be able to have veggies that not only now your baby loves, but your toddler loves too. Like it feels great. So In stores, it's only been. On shelf for like three to four weeks. So, you know, waiting for that data, you know, [00:18:00] just watching it and trying to see, but I feel a difference in the sampling and in the events, whereas before it was more like, Do you want to try like now there's people just coming up like, Oh my God, can I have one of those?

Like, it's a very different, there's no longer like, what is that? That was probably the number one question we got as we demoed in samples. It's like, what is that? Is it for kids? Is it a hummus? Is it a dip? It's like, Oh no, now it's just like, Oh, do you want a pouch to look like the kid? And the kid's like, yes.

And so. 

Jordan Buckner: And right. Like that's the number one thing when you're retail or even do you see wherever you're selling, right? Like someone should see your product. And get it within three seconds and then they can decide if it's for them or not, but they If they have to question like what is this then you've already lost because then you have to spend You know 10 times as much money just on educating people or and it's so tough and I mean Even from that personal experience, I remember, you know, having the cups and feeding it to my daughter and like I would stand there like with the cup and kind of spoon feeding her and she liked it, but even today my son was [00:19:00] having eating lunch and then he wasn't liking the veggies so I grabbed one of the Moroccan squash and carrots and just opened it up and handed it to him.

He's just like walking around the house and like eating it himself and writing like, yeah, I don't We have to pay attention to like, if he's sitting there, he's not going to spill the holding. In fact, he dropped it. Then like a little bit came out, but I was able to pick it up and wipe the tip off and give it right back to him because it's all, and so just the ability for him to like walk around and have that and eat it.

Absolutely. It's all that. 

Shibani Baluja: I love it. 

I love it. You know, I think that's probably like kind of going back to the origin story. It wasn't that I minded, you know, making my kids food. It was that I already had so little time with them because working and traveling and commuting And so, to have to make every single meal meant that it really cut into, like, that limited time with my kids.

And so, felt so unfair to have to choose between time with [00:20:00] your kids or feeling good about their food. And so I think Like with the product, that's really what we're trying to do. And then now with the pouch, like it just makes it even that much easier to connect, get it, get, get it into your kid's mouth and, and then even just appeal to them.

So so that's just our, our hope and our vision is like, yeah, help parents. Like us who just wanted, want better, like wanted to feel good about what their kid's eating. But, you know, don't, we're all time strapped and we're all we're all kind of exhausted in different ways. 

Jordan Buckner: I love that. Well, Shibani, I'm excited to see how the pouches perform on shelf and check in with you as well.

But I think this is going to be a big pivot and a big pivotal moment for the company. You'll probably get a look back and like. Gosh, I, why didn't I do this sooner, but that's okay. It always takes but I'm really excited for what's to come. 

Shibani Baluja: Thanks so much, Jordan. It was great chatting and catching up.

Jordan Buckner: Same here. Thanks for being on.