Decisions and Deals: NOSH Live Winter 2019 Recap

For a conference focused on innovation, it was fitting: the first day of NOSH Live’s winter event in Santa Monica started off with a discussion around one of 2019’s disruptive center-aisle brands. Keith Belling, founder and CEO of alternative rice brand RightRice, reflected on his time at PopChips — and why he saw a unique space for healthier rice options. The San Francisco-based brand’s high protein, low-carb rice launched into 5,000 doors within the first 11 months, but placing a new product in the center aisle is both a blessing and a curse, Belling said, as it can be hard to get noticed by consumers, who often avoid that section of the store.

Keeping with the idea of freshness, Mel Gaceta, director of ventures for Mondelez, and Brigette Wolf, head of innovation at the company’s venture arm SnackFutures, gave advice on innovation and investment. The goal of SnackFutures, Wolf said, is to “double down in the world of snacking” and be as agile as startups with the support of Mondelez’s manufacturing, operations and supply chain. So far, she said, the concept is working. While there are adjacencies to Mondelez’s core business, such as CaPao, which addresses waste in the chocolate supply chain, others simply fill a human need: the company’s most recent launch, kids smoothie brand Ruckus and Co., is aimed at helping busy parents, for example.

When securing any investments — celebrity or otherwise — authenticity is everything. Abe Minkara, who had just left billionaire investor Mark Cuban’s firm to become the Founding Partner/CIO of investment firm Legacy Knight Multi Family Office explained that a celebrity can help boost a brand, only if properly aligned with the company’s message.

Meija Jacobs, senior director at design firm IDEO, explored the world of brands as well, but from a design standpoint. The designer’s job is to translate brand messaging into packaging that will pop at shelf and tell a story. Some of the important elements for modern food packaging include compostability, ease of shipping, and ability for consumers to intuitively understand the product.

Bentley Hall, CEO of online grocery delivery service Good Eggs, went on to discuss how his company seeks standout “cutting edge” brands to make its direct-to-consumer business as exciting as an in-store one. The company looks for brands leading or defining a category, and would rather “have fewer brands and go deeper with those brands,” he said. Great taste and sustainability are key criteria, he added, noting RightRice and ready-to-eat fresh food brand Urban Remedy as two that “look great.”

For Junea Rocha, Co-founder and CMO of gluten-free Brazilian cheese bread brand Brazi Bites, sustainability meant survival. The brand was on an “epic grind” for five years before appearing on Shark Tank in 2016 — catapulting it to selling out in stores within three days of the episode airing. That period of growth helped the small team become experts on manufacturing their product — which later helped in negotiating with copackers when it was time to scale, Rocha said.

Looking forward, NOSH Live granted its first annual awards to brands and industry members breaking through that noise. Caulipower founder and CEO Gail Becker accepted NOSH’s Person of the Year award onstage. Becker noted she loved entering this “incredibly welcoming industry” after working as a communications executive, bringing her storytelling abilities to build a brand that resonates across retail channels (in over 22,000 stores) and demographics via cauliflower-based frozen pizza, tortillas and chicken fingers.

Scott Lerner, CEO of Farmhouse Culture, kicked off the second day of NOSH Live Winter 2020 with a discussion on how to make tough business calls and push your team through dynamic business challenges. Lerner utilized his military background in business analogies, referring to business challenges as “ambushes.” He claimed that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” — noting that even the best laid plans can’t survive the first contact.

The discussion then turned from decision making to dealmaking in a panel discussion with Bill Keith, founder and CEO of Perfect Snacks; Peter Burns, president and CEO of ONE Brands; and Janica Lane, managing director of investment bank Piper Jaffray, who worked with both brands on their respective deals.

The two brand leaders discussed knowing when it’s time to sell your company or seek majority investment and how to know if a potential partner is right for your brand. Keith noted that he sought majority investment when he realized the company couldn’t be taken where it needed to go under its current leadership, while both he and Burns agreed that a strong culture fit was crucial is seeking out a partner. From the perspective of potential partners, Lane noted that they’re looking for sustainable growth with good margins and innovation across every area of the business.

A lot of brands start with a product, and then build an online presence around it. For Buzzfeed’s Tasty — “the Internet’s favorite kitchen” — it was the other way around. Talia Halperin, head of brand management at BuzzFeed took to the NOSH Live stage to discuss how its popular Tasty cooking video platform moved from content to commerce, expanding to cookbooks, cookware, ice cream and even wine.

Tyler Mayoras, co-manager of the Food & Agribusiness Fund at Advantage Capital Partners, next discussed investing at the intersection of CPG and agriculture. Though Mayoras’ fund focuses on brands in rural areas, he offered insight into sustainability, clean labels and successful brand traits. Mayoras said it’s essential for brands to have strong management and to be willing to make changes when things aren’t working.

Speaking on the topic of getting into doors and what happens once you do was Whole Foods VP of grocery Dan Epley. Epley discussed the hybrid merchandising structure of Whole Foods, made up of a regional team (tasked with finding and incubating relevant brands) and global team (that establishes category strategy and manages resets) along with a purchasing team combining the two.

The word “wellness” has gotten a lot of buzz in the food industry, but what does it really mean? A panel featuring Elizabeth Stein, founder and CEO of Purely Elizabeth; Neda Daneshzadeh, co-founder and partner at Prelude Growth Partners; and Colleen Wachob co-founder and co-CEO of mindbodygreen, worked to answer that question. They discussed who the wellness consumer is and what exactly they’re looking for in CPG products: Authenticity, strong values and a sense of community were among the top drivers noted.

These same values were what many competitors in the NOSH Live Pitch Slam emphasized. Know Brainer Foods, Eat Nice Foods, Sosi’s Healthy Pleasures, ZUBI’S, Vital Leaf, and Pulp Pantry each competed for the title and prize but in the end, ketogenic-focused Know Brainer took home the win.

To close out NOSH Live, Jessica Lukas, SVP of commercial development at BDS Analytics, discussed the current state of cannabis edibles. She noted that the legality of cannabis may be new, but cannabis use (legal or otherwise) for consumers is not. Because of this, the majority of consumers support some form of legalization, driven by belief in cannabis’ medical benefits.

While she said CBD is “exploding” across forms and channels, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding what cannabinoids are. People are unsure of the psychoactive effects of CBD and THC, and she said brands and retailers need to continue to educate consumers about the functionality of these substances.