Big Interview: Sarah Pike, CEO & founder of Buen Sabor

Buen Sabor making consumers into 'freezer believers'

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

CEO Sarah Pike: “From a frozen industry perspective, retailers all know what’s been happening there. They’re losing customers. We think we can capture a new audience. We’re creating something new and exciting that doesn’t exist.”
CEO Sarah Pike: “From a frozen industry perspective, retailers all know what’s been happening there. They’re losing customers. We think we can capture a new audience. We’re creating something new and exciting that doesn’t exist.”
The daughter of parents who owned one of the first certified organic farms in Maine, Sarah Pike grew up in a big family for whom the freezer was the preservation tool of choice for home-cooked food. 

Having since founded Buen Sabor, which manufactures a line of all-natural Latin American-inspired frozen meals, Pike believes that amazing meals can be found in the supermarket freezer aisle, and she’s on a mission to lure back busy consumers.

“Growing up in a big family, my mother always used the freezer when she cooked, so I’ve always viewed the freezer as a way to preserve amazing food—it’s nature’s pause button!”​ she told FoodNavigator-USA. “As consumers, we’ve been jaded by the overly salty meat, soggy vegetable experience that has been the case in the freezer aisle for so long. Now a lot is changing. Consumers lead really busy lives and are looking for convenience. How nice to pop something into the oven or microwave that you can still feel proud to feed your family. We want to solve the meal problem for busy consumers.”

Solving the on-the-go consumer’s meal problem

Pike first entered the food industry in 2008 with a frozen meal delivery service that eventually morphed into a product manufacturer of gourmet macaroni and cheese called Good Taste Kitchen. The line of six mac and cheese varieties (two of which were gluten-free) gained traction throughout 2012 and 2013, with Good Taste eventually securing distribution in 700 retail locations nationwide. But the growth of the company forced Pike to step back and assess whether the answer to US consumers’ ongoing meal problem was mac and cheese.

“We were quickly gaining momentum, and our gluten-free mac and cheese was widely acclaimed," ​she said. "So over the past year I started taking stock in where we were going as a company. I asked myself, ‘are we a mac and cheese company?’”

The light went on during a trip to a Colombian restaurant and Latin bodega in Boston with a friend of Pike’s who’s Colombian. “We ate arepas, empanadas, albondiga ​[meatball] soup—all these great things,”​ Pike said. But she was dismayed when, amid browsing the bodega’s beautiful ingredients—colorful chiles, plaintains, beans and fresh cheeses—she came across the freezer section only to find “Stouffers, Lean Cuisine, imported commodity products and yellow boxes of unsavory Tex-Mex food with lots of preservatives. And I thought, ‘wait a second. We may have something special here.’”

Rebranding to Buen Sabor a tough, yet very clear decision

Through her research, Pike learned that Goya was the main big game in town when it came to ready-made Latin American meals. So she decided to overhaul Good Taste, launching the Buen Sabor brand and with it a line of eight preservative-free frozen meals that showcase traditionally inspired Latin American flavors. The company stopped production of its macaroni and cheese products this past winter.

“We quickly made a big pivot,”​ Pike said. “It was a tough decision because we saw so much momentum with mac and cheese, and yet it was a very clear choice at the same time. Building a food brand is hard. We had to take stock internally and say, ‘What are we realistically able to apply resources and give energy to? We see this as creating a new category of food, and we’re staking our claim in big way.”

Buen Sabor Group Shot

The line launched this month nationwide at Target and in several New York region Whole Foods Markets with eight meals: Arroz Con Queso y Trocitos de Chorizo (Savory Chorizo Seasoned Rice with Cheese) Arroz Con Calabaza Anco y Chiles Poblanos (Savory Rice with Squash and Poblano Peppers), Arroz Con Trocitos De Pollo Chipotle Frijoles (Savory Rice with Chipotle Chicken and Beans, Empanadas de Picadillo de Carne de Res (Beef Picadillo Empanadas), Empanadas de Platano y Queso (Plantain and Cheese Empanadas), Picadillo de Garbanzos y Comote (Chickpea and Sweet Potato Picadillo) and Tamal de Cazuela de Pollo en Pipian Rojo (Baked Tamal with Chicken and Pipian Sauce).

Pike isn’t Hispanic, so she brought in six Latina chefs to help with formulation of the meals. But Buen Sabor’s goal is more to blend traditional flavors and techniques than to offer to-the-letter replications of authentic dishes.

For example, when testing formulas for the plaintain and cheese empanada, Pike threw nontraditional gorgonzola into the cheddar and Monterey jack mix. “I’m not inhibited by history,”​ she said with a laugh. “I have no reference point, so I just went with what I know tastes great.”

And that’s really what the brand is about: “It’s this pooling of amazing cuisines into something new here in the US. It might not be what you grew up with, but we’re doing it in way that’s respectful of the ingredients.”

The target consumer is very similar to the Good Tastes consumer—25- to 35-year-old busy, urban professionals who care about ingredients and the food their putting in their bodies. But Pike’s ideal target market is the multicultural Millennial, who she says reflects the direction this country is headed.

How to attract the multicultural Millennial? It’s all about discovery

“The multicultural Millennial is the target we really hope we’re speaking to correctly,”​ she said. They’re all about discovery, and that’s what Buen Sabor is. We’re bringing dishes that are common elsewhere to packaged good market here in US.”​ Indeed, the packaging contains an equal balance of English and Spanish, which Pike says is “a reflection of where our country has gone. It’s exciting to have a product that showcases that.”

Turkey Pastelon

As Good Taste had previously done, Buen Sabor features a “taste trace” program that enables consumers to track the lifecycle of all the ingredients. The products are all made with non-GMO vegetables, oils and grains, and the firm is working toward sourcing 100% certified non-GMO animal products as well—a bit more challenging given the prominence of GMO corn in animal feed.

Given the expense of sourcing high-quality meats (and Buen Sabor’s $4.99 price point), all of the dishes that contain meat are supplemented with plant-based proteins, like lentils. “With all of our meat SKUs, we’ve worked to make meat play more of a supporting role. So from a cost perspective, we’re able to use high-quality meat because it’s acting as a flavor agent and not the main event.

Capturing a totally new frozen food customer

Pike doesn’t deny the challenges associated with starkly shifting gears on the brand. The company is essentially pre-revenue on the heels of closing a round of funding with a number of food and tech industry investors backing the venture, which gave Pike confidence in the vision and when approaching potential retailers.

“From a frozen industry perspective, retailers all know what’s been happening there. They’re losing customers. We think we can capture a new audience. We’re creating something new and exciting that doesn’t exist.”

The firm will roll out additional lines this fall, and has eventual plans to tackle the snack, side dish and dessert meal parts. But for now, the focus is on entrees, and especially, on turning consumers into freezer believers.

“We’re trying to make some freezer believers out of people,” ​said Pike. “It’s not easy to put meal on table every night. We want to make products people can feel good about eating and sharing. The freezer is a place to find amazing food. We have to be bold in our conviction and stay firmly planted in our belief here. We could have started nice really sauce company, but we’re trying to resolve the center-of-the-plate dilemma. So for now, let’s solve that main problem and build the brand from there.”

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