“Social enterprise, I think, when run well, can serve as a marketing line item,” says co-founder, Ravi Patel, probably better known for his work on Meet the Patels, Master of None and Scrubs, than his work in the food industry.
“But in order to get to a reasonable ROI on that expense, you have to have a certain scale to your business, and getting to that point is extremely difficult, especially when the things you are donating are really expensive,” he told FoodNavigator-USA at the Expo West show last week.
“That PlumpyNut packet over there costs almost 40 cents, so if you multiply that out to the price point, it gets pretty ugly.”
Anyone can do it, the question is who does it well, and how much are they doing?
So does that mean that this is only something that brands with the deep pockets and scale of a Unilever (which launched snacks-with-a-mission brand Growing Roots at the show) can sustain in the early days?
According to Patel: “Anyone can do it, the question is who does it well, and how much are they doing? If you choose to give away a percentage of profits, it’s likely not as big a number as we’re giving, and I’d argue that we give away a greater percentage of profits than 99% of the companies out there. I know this because I invest in other companies too.”
At the start however, it’s tough if you make as bold a commitment as This Bar Saves Lives, and investors need to take a longer-term view, he acknowledges: “At the beginning, you’re paying more for everything. We’re only starting to get the benefits of scale now, which means we’re now able to invest a bit more to bring our prices down to closer to two dollars a bar, which is very exciting.”
Go big or go home
That said, for TBSL founders Patel, Todd Grinnell (Desperate Housewives) and Ryan Devlin (CSI, Cougar Town, Grey’s Anatomy), it was a case of go big or go home from the outset, he said, not least because “I don’t think any of us grew up with a burning desire to start a granola bar company, we wanted to make a difference… now I know way too much about granola.”
It’s such a noisy marketplace and you don’t have much time to communicate
And if some people are turned off by the messaging, that's too bad, he said. “There is a school of thought that you should be more modest about it, like that’s a little much, but in our case the social mission was the reason we go into this in the first place.”
There's also something to be said for spelling out your business case in your brand name, he said, noting that while lots of CPG brands that have added charitable giving to their brand proposition at a later stage might also be sacrificing a sizeable chunk of their margins to meet their CSR commitments, consumers may not even realize they are doing it.
“It’s such a noisy marketplace and you don’t have much time to communicate, so we wanted to come up with something provocative [via the brand name].”
Bar Saves Lives was born after actors Ryan Devlin and Todd Grinnell met children suffering from acute malnutrition during a visit to Liberia in 2009 and witnessed first-hand how effective PlumpyNut emergency food packets could be in tackling the problem.
The concept was simple (buy a bar, feed a child), says Devlin, who – along with Grinnell - spent the better part of a year wrestling with granola, fruit, binders and nut butters before teaming up consultancy JPG Resources (run by former Kashi exec Jeff Grogg) to work out how to turn their idea into a commercially viable business.
“When we started we had absolutely no idea what we were doing,” Devlin told FoodNavigator-USA in 2016.
“We wanted something with broad appeal but also gourmet flavor profiles and very high quality ingredients. The team at JPG helped us with everything from scaling up for production, finding co-manufacturers, getting Non-GMO Project verified, and since meeting them I’ve learned more than I think I ever wanted to know about how to build a granola bar.”
Kristen Bell went to our first meeting with Starbucks
As for the celeb factor, Patel doesn’t deny that it’s opened doors, but says that only gets you so far (retailers like the idea of a mission-driven brand, but they won’t allocate space to something that doesn’t sell).
“Kristen Bell, Kunal Nayyar, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Green, John Krasinski and Susan Sarandon all got on board and helped us get the word out early on in a way that wouldn’t have been able to do on our own. Kristen went to our first meeting with Starbucks, Whole Foods and of course that helps, but what helps even more is the mission.”
“We’ve created an ecosystem of like-minded people who know that it feels good to do good, but that it can also be really good business, because consumers today more than ever before wear food brands like they do clothing brands, it’s part of their identity, it’s about voting with your wallet.”
While industry stakeholders aren’t willing to work with TBSL for nothing – even if they do get to hang out with Kristen Bell et al - they have been willing to meet them halfway, with retailers “almost always” waiving slotting fees, and some ingredients suppliers “giving us a better deal,” added Patel.
It also goes without saying that you have to have a product that people want to buy a second time, he said: “Having a social mission is great, but no one cares if your products aren’t delicious. We’ve spent hours and hours tasting every bar on the market to see what is out there and what we liked and didn’t like, and we partnered with JPG Resources to come up with a bar we think is frankly better than anything that’s out there.”
Starbucks nationwide deal
So what’s next for the company, which launched in 2013 with its own direct to consumer website and has since picked up business with Whole Foods, Amazon, Thrive Market, Target, and Delta Airlines, among others?
“We’re launching in every Starbucks store in the country on April 17,” said Patel, who was showcasing new packaging and two new flavors -dark chocolate & coconut, and peanut butter & jelly - at Expo West. “We’ve been in west coast Starbucks stores for a while, but this is a big step up and it’s really exciting.
“We’re also having an incredible year in ecommerce and next year I think we could see five to 10 times growth in that channel.”
Building a platform brand to do good: ‘This [fill in the blank] saves lives...’
In five years, he predicted, the brand could also expand well beyond bars: “You’re going to see this bar in every major retailer in the country and see it costs a little less than it currently does and see a lot of different categories, protein bars, every functional type of bar. But we’ll also be starting in categories that go beyond the bar, so, This [fill in the blank] saves lives.”
“How cool if you could walk into a snacks aisle and see this blank saves lives, and this blank saves lives.”
“About two and a half years ago, when things started taking off, we were really proud of what we’d achieved, but we needed to get people in that had been here and done this before to take the brand to the next stage. We were lucky enough to find Paul Yoo [CEO], who ran business development at the Honest Company, and a COO who was employee #6 at Quest Nutrition, and a CFO that’s run and been a CFO for numerous big brands, so we’ve been able to attract some really awesome talent.”
Ravi Patel, co-founder, This Bar Saves Lives