“Everyone wants to feed their kids nutritious meals,” says Stouffer - who began selling her home-made frozen mac & cheese and meatballs from a cooler at the local farmer’s market a decade ago and now supplies 5,000+ stores nationwide, from Whole Foods to Kroger – but if you’re working and you don’t have time to cook every evening, you can end up feeling guilty all the time.
She adds: “I’m a working Mom with two kids and I was coming home wanting to put good healthy meals on the table but many evenings I just didn’t have the time to cook, so there was added guilt as I already felt guilty about not being there enough. There are definitely more options now than there were then, but still far fewer than there should be.”
As a result, despite the fact that the frozen cabinet is dominated by multinational brands, smaller, more nimble players – especially those using organic ingredients or building a brand around a clean-label positioning – are the ones driving the growth, and as such, are getting the ear of retail buyers, she says.
“Now some retailers dedicate whole doors to kids better for you frozen meals. We have a really loyal following, and we hear from some consumers that with a product like ours, if their kids like our product they will drive miles for it and even change their grocery store if it doesn’t carry our product.
"In the last two years we've grown over 200% and we're projecting doubling this year over last year, from a combination of new accounts and picking up more business with existing accounts."
We’re not reinventing what kids eat
So what is the Mom Made brand all about?
It’s not about feeding your kids kale every night, but taking established favorites and making them “as healthy as we can,” says Stouffer, who uses organic ingredients “when commercially available,” adds fruits and vegetables for extra nutrition, uses only natural sweeteners (and sweetens her tomato sauce with carrot puree), avoids allergens, where possible, and uses non-GMO vegetables and dairy.
In turn she sources antibiotic-free meat, and avoids preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, bleached flour, partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup and MSG, and aims for “short, pronounceable lists of ingredients.”
“We’re not reinventing what kids eat,” she says, “but we are reinventing the nutrition of what they are eating, so our cheesy mac is 100% organic, has three vegetables in it, and it has five times less sodium and far fewer calories than a boxed mac & cheese. It’s still mac & cheese, but a considerably healthier version.
“We also think about making eating fun for children, so we like to make our meatballs bite-sized. I can still remember when I was a child my Mom leaning over me and my plate of meatballs and cutting them up.”
It’s still less than you’d pay for a meal at McDonald’s
Organic has always part of the brand’s DNA, but not all of the products are 100% organic, primarily because switching to organic meat would effectively price her out of the market right now, says Stouffer.
“It’s challenging as a small business; when we started we were buying one item by the pallet here and there, and you can’t lock in contracts. We’ve learned a lot over the past five years about which ingredients we need to forward buy on.”
When it comes to price, while the price of a Mom Made meal is $3.99-$5.99 – which is “still less than you’d pay for a meal at McDonald’s,” she argues – if you charge much more than that, you could price yourself out of the market.
"Running a business is like a video game... Every year the problems get more expensive and come at you faster and they are brighter and flashing more brightly.”
Heather Stouffer, founder, Mom Made Foods
Every year the problems get more expensive and come at you faster
So what keeps her awake at night at this stage of the business?
“There’s always something,” says Stouffer, who says she never expected to have to devote so much time to the financing side of the business, but is also spending a lot of time now thinking about new products and brand extensions ("the Mom Made brand could really apply to any category").
Running a business is “like a video game,” she observes. “Every year the problems get more expensive and come at you faster and they are brighter and flashing more brightly.”