But the Seattle-based start-up Gretchen’s Grains has an easy, fast solution: fully cooked, frozen organic whole grains that take mere minutes to reheat and serve.
Packed with more fiber and nutrients than refined grains, “dried whole grains are fantastic, but most people don’t have time to [cook]brown rice, which takes about 45 minutes,” compared to 15 to 20 minutes for white rice, let alone the 90 minutes necessary to cook wheat berries, said founder of Gretchen’s Grains Gretchen Williamson Evans.
“That is really slow food,” she said.
Given how well cooked grains retain their texture and taste when frozen and thawed, and how quick and convenient they are to reheat, Williamson Evans said marketing fully cooked frozen organic brown rice, organic wheat berries and organic quinoa in 14-ounce, re-sealable bags was a “no brainer.”
She chose brown rice, quinoa and wheat berries for her initial product line because they are staples, but also because they are exotic and “on trend” with consumer demand, she said.
Since the product launched in 2012, Gretchen’s Grains has gained distribution in more than 230 stores in five states, including in Whole Foods Markets, Fred Meyer and other smaller regional stores.
The firm also is well positioned to expand the business with new product lines, Williamson Evans said. She noted that Gretchen’s Grains is exploring launching on Amazon a line of five sprouted, dry grains. The sprouted grains appeal to Williamson Evans because they cook in half the time as non-sprouted grains, which is in keeping with the company’s dedication to wholesome and convenient foods. She also noted sprouted grains have unique bioavailability and nutritional benefits and are an emerging trend.
Gretchen’s Grains also wants to stretch into the breakfast category with a frozen, cooked steel cut oat product, but it has not determined the details yet, Williamson Evans said.
A troubled path to success
Launching Gretchen’s Grains was not as easy or quick as reheating the company’s frozen grains. Williamson Evans said that she and her husband, Bill Evans, who has experience as a business owner, have had to overcome multiple challenges to get where they are today.
Rather than deter the positive and ambitious Williamson Evans, these challenges spurred her to work harder and build her business faster.
For example, Williamson Evans said lining up a major distributor and securing placement with large retailers felt like a catch-22 at times with neither side willing to commit without the other already on board.
“Major retailers won’t take you if you don’t have a major distributor and vice-versa,” she explained. During the negotiations, Williamson Evans said she felt like she was being given the “verbal runaround” with her contacts constantly needing to check with someone else or wanting to talk directly with Williamson Evans’ contact on the other side.
“It was a delicate conversation balance,” but “persistence and politeness” paid off in the end, Williamson Evans said.
Another tough lesson that she learned early when working with distributors is that they often purchase product for multiple months at once, and if possible will wait to make a large purchase until a month when a firm is contractually obligated to sell at a discount.
The first time this happened, Williamson Evans said she was “devastated,” because she lost her margin, and knew that her business at the time was not large enough to require the distributor to make another purchase the next month. But rather than give up, Williamson Evans and her husband redoubled their efforts to expand their business so that the distributor would need to make acquisitions month after month in the future to keep up with demand. This guaranteed cash-flow and better margins, she said.
She explained she increased consumer demand by sampling her grains heavily at stores and festivals and educating consumers about how to use the frozen grains. She also used the face-to-face time with consumers to direct them to the frozen section, which is not an aisle that natural shoppers generally go down, she said.
Lining up suppliers and funding minimum purchase requirements were other challenges that Gretchen’s Grains had to address early on in its existence.
Williamson Evans said she funded the first few purchases with help from family and by “investing our children’s futures” into the company. She also learned cost-saving strategies along the way, such as “piggy-backing” with other companies’ shipments to reduce transportation costs.
She also learned having multiple suppliers is necessary for success because one supplier could pull out without warning, which happened to Gretchen’s Grains after it secured shelf space at Whole Foods Market.
She explained one supplier viewed her company as a competitor once it was distributed at Whole Foods Market and refused to continue working with the small firm.
“That was really eye opening and was really cut-throat of them to do,” said Williamson Evans, who noted that now she is “a little wary about who would consider us a competitor,” and tries not to work with them if possible.
Focusing on the positive
Williamson Evans overcame those and other early challenges in part by staying positive and taking time to appreciate what she has accomplished.
“You have to step back and look at the big picture and look behind you to see how far you’ve gone. You need to relax, feel proud and be excited for how far you’ve come even though there is always farther to go,” she said.
She also advised other start-ups “to wrestle with your fear of rejection and failure because it can control the way you create and it will control your trajectory.”
She added: “I allowed that for two years. I lived in a fearful state of the fickleness of the natural foods industry,” but once she shed that fear about a year ago she said she feels like the business was able to take off.