When Craig Lieberman flew to Sydney to study for a Master’s Degree in International Relations in the mid-1990s, his goal was to be a diplomat. But not long after he arrived, the idea for another, very different, career started to take shape.
A self-confessed cheese junkie (he also owns an impressive cheese knife collection - but more of this later), Lieberman was bowled over by the great wine and artisan foods he found in Australia, and in 2003, he started a small importing business in Denver, Colorado, called 34° (the latitude of Sydney) supplying these items to specialty food stores.
His wares were popular, but Lieberman was not making a profit, and nothing was really setting the world on fire apart from one line of thin, crêpe-like gourmet crisp-bread crackers that went perfectly with cheese - and pretty much everything else, and was selling like hotcakes.
“The crisp-bread style crackers were initially brought in to help sell the other products, just something to go with all the cheese and fruit pastes that we were selling,” Lieberman told FoodNavigator-USA.
“But our customers kept ordering more and more. They liked our other products, but they loved the crackers.”
However, his Australian supplier was not very big, and demand exceeded supply.
They liked our other products, but they loved the crackers
It gradually became clear that this could be the start of something big - if he changed his business model - and in 2007 Lieberman found a co-manufacturer in Boulder to help him launch his own gourmet crackers under the 34° brand, and started down the road of becoming a domestic food producer and marketer, rather than an importer.
By October, 34° Crisps hit the market, and the gamble paid off, says Lieberman. “By January 2008, we were pretty much out of the import business and we became profitable the same year.”
We became profitable the same year
And since then, he’s never looked back, and predicts he’ll do “over $10m” in revenues this year.
If current trends continue, 34° could “easily be a $30-50m business” in the not-too-distant future, predicts Lieberman, who says the 34° brand is now available nationwide in Kroger, Walmart and Whole Foods Market plus a series of other retailers from Sprouts and Wegmans to Publix and Costco in various regions.
Indeed, despite the premium nature of his product, his focus for the brand has always been more on conventional grocery channels than natural chains, says Lieberman, who has been “riding a crest of an artisan food wave” in retailers such as Kroger, which has been steadily expanding its deli and cheese offerings in recent years.
“We do best when we are next to the cheese in the deli section.
"Wherever there is good cheese, we want to be there. One of the great things about the deli is it gives you more opportunities to stand out than you get on the shelf.
"There’s also not the same slotting fees and planogramming that goes on in the main aisles.”
There are so many really boring, generic water-type crackers out there
He adds: “We are in a category that really isn’t very innovative. Until recently there hasn’t been much consumer engagement either. We wanted to make it more inspiring and modern. People spend all this time and energy on buying these wonderful cheeses and dips and then the crackers are tired and bland.
“Retailers and consumers are looking for unique artisan specialty crackers that pair really well with cheeses. But there are so many really boring, generic water-type crackers out there. We want to reinvent what people think about crackers.”
Retailers are looking for unique artisan crackers that pair well with cheeses
So what’s next? Sell up to a big food company and buy his first yacht?
Not exactly, says Lieberman, who says he probably could have grown faster had he taken on venture capital money, but is proud he has managed to retain 100% control of the business.
“I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to build this business on our own. I’m not one of those serial entrepreneurs who’s going to leave and set up another business.
"This business is very much a reflection of me," says Lieberman, who donates 1% of his crackers to local food banks.
"I love my team, and I believe in what we’re doing so my work and my life blend into one another.”
The cheese knife collection…
For stress relief, he does a lot of yoga, and then there’s always the cheese knife collection to keep up…
“It started when I was working in Australia with one of our cheese partners and I said I liked unique cheese knives,” recalls Lieberman.
“And he said, I know a guy… So we went out to dinner, and this guy shows up that looks just like Crocodile Dundee, and he opens his jacket and he’s got all of these beautiful cheese knives.
"It was just the craziest experience. But he had all these incredible knives made with whalebone that had washed up on the shore in Tasmania. And I think that sort of started my obsession…”