And while this meteoric growth has been financed thus far with the founders’ savings plus cash injections from angel investor Cameron Smith and Boulder Brands Investment Group, co-founder Taylor Collins says he is open to partnering opportunities, should the right partner come along.
“We’re having a really good time and we like being in control of the company and having full autonomy on innovation and sales strategies, hiring and so on,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“But we’ve always wanted to make high-quality grass-fed animal protein available to the masses and we’ve always wanted to have a significant impact on the supply chain.
“So while we absolutely recognize that we are making an impact today, if the opportunity came with the right strategic partner, we would absolutely do it, because it could take what we’re doing and our mission to a level we could never have accomplished in maybe five or six or 10 years.”
We want to reclaim meat as a superfood
Like gourmet jerky brand KRAVE, which was recently gobbled up by Hershey, EPIC is driving a new wave of upmarket meat snacks designed to appeal to a broader audience (women, foodies, athletes) and has proved that “you don’t need to dress up in a sasquatch costume and market exclusively to college-age boys” to sell meat bars, said Collins.
“[Co-founder] Katie [Forrest] and I are both athletes and early on that was a target market we were really passionate about reaching out to. Having athletes validate our product also helped us reclaim meat as a superfood, and remind people that you can make a meat snack that’s healthy and nutrient-rich for people who read ingredient labels and care about animals [all of the meat used in EPIC products adheres to strict animal welfare standards].”
“I think the meat snacks category had been lacking in innovation for a long long time and consumers are looking for cleaner labels, and innovation, but more than anything, they are interested in the source of the meat itself, where and how the animal was raised.”
As for the notion that only young men eat meat snacks, he said, Epic products “are actually equally consumed by men and women, which is pretty cool and what we were going for with the timeless classic packaging and gender-neutral look."
EPIC’s Bison Bacon Cranberry bar is the #2 best-selling gluten-free nutrition bar in natural grocery
While securing national distribution out of the gate with Whole Foods in its launch year (2013) was the kind of break most entrepreneurs can only fantasize about, EPIC has earned its space on shelf and proved that what many people might consider to be a niche product can have mass appeal, he said.
“EPIC’s Bison Bacon Cranberry bar is the #2 best-selling gluten-free nutrition bar in the natural grocery space based on SPINS data, so it’s for real, people are buying this stuff.”
That said, recent product launches – EPIC bites (whole muscle meat, superfoods, spices – already at Whole Foods nationwide), ‘Hunt & Harvest Mix’ (beef jerky, fruits, nuts, seeds – rolling out to Whole Foods nationwide in October), and EPIC Bits (bacon bits, chicken bits for salads – the latest innovation) – are designed to appeal to consumers for whom bars might seem a bit “hardcore”, said Collins.
“Bite-size products and jerky trail mix are less intimidating, although the trail mix is basically an EPIC bar deconstructed. There is just so much opportunity for innovation and creativity in the meat space. I mean, it’s amazing to me that there hasn’t been really clean bacon bits for salads on the market before we came up with them.”
An emerging protein set
As for how to position EPIC products, there are multiple opportunities, from the meat counter, to the checkout, the jerky section, and the protein/energy bars aisle, he said.
However, some buyers are starting to rethink how they map out the snacking category, he added: “Instead of saying here is the energy bar aisle and at the other end of the store here is the meat snacks aisle, they are starting to merge the two into a protein set.”
As for the route to market, the natural channel, where EPIC started, remains the “backbone” of the business, although the brand has also performed well in sports and hiking shops, and is gaining real traction in the conventional channel in chains from Kroger to H.E.B. he said.
“We had a lot of conventional accounts that wanted our products for a long time and it was a case of strategically waiting for the right opportunity. Today our most popular products are going into conventional but we’re offering our backbone natural accounts our latest coolest most innovative new products and that strategy has worked really well.”
As for mistakes, he’s made a few in the past couple of years, admits Collins, who “was not a meat person” before he started EPIC (Collins and Forrest cut their teeth in the snacks industry by developing a vegan nutrition bar brand called Thunderbird Energetica).
For example, some people in the meat industry like to seal a deal “with a handshake” rather than a lengthy written contract, says Collins, which caused some sleepless nights in the early days as he and Forrest were “freaking out” about whether they would be able to deliver on their promises to customers.
Meanwhile, securing supplies of grass fed bison and beef has been tough at times, he added: “Over time though, where we’ve had shortages on certain proteins like bison for example, we have been able to form relationships with ranchers and even incentivize some of them to convert their practices, for example, going from grain based to grass-fed pasture based practices.”
We missed the deadline and the customer was pretty upset
However, there have been some hairy moments, he admits.
“Katie and I will say yes to almost anything that we are really passionate about even if it’s completely not realistic; we’ll just get out heads down and work our asses off and make it happen. We got the bacon bits to market in six weeks from concept to launch.
“But when we first launched EPIC bites we were really pushing it to meet one deadline with a national account launch and then the bags came back and they weren’t hermetically sealed and we couldn’t ship the product. So we missed the deadline and the customer was pretty upset and it delayed the launch for a year.
“But we win more than we lose. We love going fast and working hard, that’s how we live.”
Advice to entrepreneurs
And his #1 piece of advice to other entrepreneurs?
“Don’t take money from people you don’t enjoy hanging out with. We’ve been very careful about who we have taken money from. Cameron Smith [angel investor] came in when we were first trying to raise a pretty big chunk of change and he was so into what we were doing – our mission and our values - that he covered the entire round.
“After that we were able to connect with [BIG managing partner] Bill Weiland, and he’s such a badass, we love hanging around with him and Cameron.
“It breaks my heart to see entrepreneurs that take money from people that are only interested purely in making a financial investment.”