As eager business students at Northeastern University, Johnny Fayad and Ali Kothari saw no reason to wait to start a company until after graduating college. In fact, they didn’t even wait to finish their first semester.
“Our freshman year, we were in the same accounting class at 8 am and we were always running late to class” because the line for coffee and breakfast was so long, Kothari lamented, recalling the duo’s mutual problem that spawned their business.
“One day, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could eat your coffee?’” he added, explaining that from there the two went to a grocery store, developed a recipe in their dorm kitchen for what would become CoffeeBar – a breakfast bar made with a full cup of coffee – and sampled the product in the study room to see what others thought.
Bolstered by the accolades and early purchases from classmates of CoffeeBar, the duo entered and won the Northeastern University Spring 2013 Husky Startup Challenge hosted by the school’s Entrepreneurs Club, which gave them $500 with which to start their business.
From that humble beginning, Fayad and Kothari each added $1,000 in personal funds, raised $44,000 from 1,103 bakers in just 44 days on Kickstarter and gathered support from their school’s venture accelerator IDEA.
The funds allowed the company to quickly scale up so that in just three years CoffeeBar went from a homemade food in a dorm kitchen to a professional CPG in more than 200 stores with new contracts from UNFI, Kroger and KeHE that promise exponential distribution growth.
Asking for help is the best advice
The undergraduate entrepreneurs attribute their rapid success in part to not being afraid to ask for help – a strategy that scares many less humble and less successful startups.
“The best advice we received in this process is that there is no harm in asking … because you never know the answer until you ask,” said Kothari, adding that this includes asking for contacts, feedback, funding and advice on the next steps.
He acknowledged that asking may be humbling and sometimes the answer is no, but “for a lot of people, when they are trying something new, they will need help and asking is the most important thing.”
Plus, he said, many potential advisers likely remember what it was like starting out and are willing to help others learn from their experience.
A product that answers a problem
Of course, having an on-trend product that offers something competitors don’t also helps when it comes to succeeding as a new CPG company.
CoffeeBars are all natural energy bars that are 100% organic, vegan, gluten-free and Fair Trade – qualities that Kothari says are “basics” that today’s consumers expect from all their products.
What makes CoffeeBars unique though, he added, is that they each have a full cup of coffee in them and they are made from real ingredients “from the pantry and not a laboratory,” Kothari said.
The last part is key for success in today’s competitive landscape, Kothari noted.
“There is a whole movement towards being more conscious of what we are eating, where the food comes from, what the supply chain looks like and what the food will do for us. This is a movement that we want to be a part of and help foster,” he explained.
The young company also taps into consumers’ emerging demand that food companies do more than make products and profits by helping the greater good. New Grounds Food does this by partnering with the non-profit organization Chain Collaborative and Planning Hope to help support migrant coffee-pickers and their families. They helped build a school in Nicaragua and created microloans for women entrepreneurs in Guatemala, Kothari said.
To further fuel the company’s mission to create healthy food and help the greater good, the brand launched at Natural Products Expo West two new flavors of CoffeeBar, bringing their total to three: Mocha Latte, Coconut Mocha and Caramel Macchiato.
In 2016, the team will focus on increasing distribution and awareness of the trio of bars, Kothari said.