While the products – which are available in 10,300+ stores nationwide from Target and Kroger to Walmart – are made with a variety of plant-based proteins from soy and seitan (wheat-based protein) to beans and peas, Sweet Earth is not a ‘meat-alternative’ brand targeting vegans and vegetarians, Kelly Swette told FoodNavigator-USA.
“A lot of our fans are often surprised when they find out that none of our products contain meat. They buy them because they love the products. Millennials want flavor-forward food that is fun and functional, so we want to take them on a culinary adventure.”
Creating a little niche called ‘meat-alternatives’ is not helpful and it’s not progressive
She added: “I don’t see our brand as a ‘meat-alternative’ brand. We’re just selling delicious food that happens to contain no meat.
“We’re seeing a fundamental shift towards more plant-based foods, so creating a little niche called meat-alternatives is not helpful and it’s not progressive. At Target, they’ve gotten rid of the label ‘meat-alternatives’ and they talk about plant-based foods.”
While many legacy brands in the frozen case have ‘cleaned up’ their labels by ousting artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, they are struggling to engage Millennial shoppers, who are buying brands such as EVOL, Saffron Road, Amy’s and Sweet Earth in part because they are seen as smaller, sexier brands, but in part because they are selling “more flavorful, more diverse, more globally-inspired, more interesting products,” said Swette.
What these big brands have missed is that the consumer has moved on
“What these big brands have missed is that the consumer has moved on. Millennials want variety and adventure, food that’s better or more interesting than what you make at home.
“It’s not just about calories and clean labels, it’s about nutrient dense, flavorful and colorful foods,” added Swette, whose resumé features stints as global VP of marketing at Calvin Klein and director of national sales at the Pepsi/Lipton tea joint venture.
And retailers, said Swette, are devoting more space to brands that will bring younger shoppers to the frozen case, a part of the store that market researchers say many consumers are simply walking past as they focus on the store perimeter.
“This sense of holistic wellness, functional, healthy, flavorful food, wasn’t really something that people were talking about in frozen when we started, but that’s changing. The market is there, and retailers need to see that the market isn’t just about ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian food’.”
"We’re seeing a fundamental shift towards more plant-based foods, so creating a little niche called meat-alternatives is not helpful and it’s not progressive."
Kelly Swette, co-owner, CEO, Sweet Earth Natural Foods
There are issues around availability of certain organic ingredients
While Sweet Earth uses a lot of organic ingredients, it is not 100% organic, says Swette. “Our entrée line is made with 70% organic ingredients, and all of the beans and grains we use in our burritos are organic, but there are issues around availability of certain organic ingredients.
“When you are a small brand if you don’t have a contract a year ahead, you can’t secure supply of some organic ingredients. But the bigger you are, the more clout you have in the market and the more doors that open for you.”
Sweet Earth Natural Foods is based in Moss Landing, California, and manufactures its products in-house at a 40,000sq ft facility it took over in 2012 (a year after co-founders Brian and Kelly Swette acquired the trademark from the former brand owner).
Its product range includes burritos, entrees, breakfast sandwiches and meats, veggie burgers, seitan (a wheat-protein-based food with a chewy texture similar to meat), and savory grounds.
It is run by husband and wife team and CPG veterans Brian and Kelly Swette (Brian's resume includes stints as CMO at PepsiCo, COO at eBay, board member at Burger King and director at Jamba Juice and Shutterfly; while Kelly's previous roles include global VP of marketing at Calvin Klein and director of national sales at the Pepsi/Lipton tea joint venture.
The Swette family owns more than half of the business, with other investors including Stonyfield Farms founder Gary Hirshberg and CPG veteran Tyler Ricks (Plum Organics, Peet's, Bear Naked).
We get far too much sugar at breakfast and people are looking for more savory options
While the brand is picking up new accounts, much of its growth is coming from encouraging retail partners to take on additional products as the range continues to expand, said Swette, who began with burritos, expanded into breakfast sandwiches in 2015 and launched the brand’s first entrees at Target this year, with other retailers to follow shortly.
While promoting the new entrees will be a big focus this year, the burritos and breakfast sandwiches are doing extremely well, said Swette, in part because consumers are looking for more interesting options at breakfast.
“We think breakfast is a huge area of opportunity; we get far too much sugar at breakfast and people are looking for more savory options.
“We launched the first probiotic breakfast burrito [‘Get Cultured, which features Ganeden’s ultra-resilient probiotic strain BC30 and has 260 calories, 8g fiber and 12g of protein to start the day] in 2014 and we also have a product called Get Focused, which has 720mg of omega-3s, 18g protein and 7g fiber.”
Flavor, texture, variety
The latter, which includes egg, cheese, kale, flaxseed, farro, barley, hemp seeds and pumpkin seeds, also reflects how much more interesting Sweet Earth recipes are in terms of flavor, texture and ingredient selections compared to what many consumers have come to expect from the category, said Swette.
“It’s not just beans and cheese.”
We’ve doubled our business every year since we started
So how is the brand doing?
According to Swette, remarkably well: “We’ve doubled our business every year since we started and we’re expecting to make revenues of $20m in 2016.”
But there is no room for complacency, said Swette, who says that while her and her husband’s CPG experience and connections probably helped open some doors, you’ve still got to have something worth saying once you get your foot through the said door.
“One of the interesting things is that the market is always evolving so what you think you know is likely to change.”