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Life after Annie's: Once Upon a Farm CEO sees great potential for chilled baby food and beyond

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

It’s easy to look at the Annie’s brand now – which achieved double-digit household penetration during former president and CEO John Foraker’s tenure – and think the company never took a wrong turn on its path to center-store ubiquity.

“There’s this perception that the innovation Annie’s did was all successful, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth,”​ Foraker said at FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Financing & Innovation Conference​ in Chicago this week.  

And that assumption wouldn’t be unsubstantiated considering the brand’s journey from a small, family-owned Massachusetts company founded in 1989 to a natural foods powerhouse valued at $100m in 2010, and acquired by General Mills for $820m in 2014.

Foraker first came across Annie’s mac & cheese products, made without artificial flavors, synthetic colors, or preservatives, in the early 90s when it was doing $6m in revenue. He bought a controlling position in 1999, and today Annie’s products can be found in nearly every major retailer across the US.  

However, the innovation Foraker and his team brought to the category came by way of much trial and error, he said.

“We innovated quickly and we innovated a lot… we quickly shot stuff in the head that wasn’t working and moved on.”

Fostering a culture where the Annie’s team was allowed to take risks and embraced failure as a learning opportunity is what helped catapult the brand to where it is today, according to Foraker.

“If you want to grow a successful business, you can never be satisfied with where you are,”​ he added.

It took six years to build a completely RBST-free supply chain, for example.

It also helped that the natural, organics foods space was still in its early days when Annie’s was coming up in the ranks, Foraker added.

“Truthfully, it was a lot less competitive back then. I’m not sure we could’ve done this over the multiple years the way we did now,”​ Foraker said. “The space moves so fast now.”

VIDEO HIGHLIGHT:

FoodNavigator-USA: “Any lessons learned from Annie’s that you’ve applied to getting Once Upon a Farm up and running?”

Foraker: “There were many lessons. I made lots of mistakes at Annie’s and learned from them over time. The biggest takeaways that I had that we applied at Once Upon a Farm were all about getting the mission and the vision and the core values for this business locked down and then pairing that up with an amazing team.”

Life after Annie’s with Once Upon a Farm

Last year, Foraker left Annie’s​ to pursue a different industry passion: growing the undeveloped fresh baby food category as the CEO of Once Upon a Farm, a refrigerated baby food brand founded by Ari Raz and Cassandra Curtis.

The brand also has some added star appeal with actress Jennifer Garner as its chief brand officer.

“In my whole career, I’ve never seen such a dislocation between what consumers were interested in and wanted and what retailers were actually providing,”​ Foraker said.

The majority of baby food products are shelf stable with added ingredients that usually taste nothing like the original fruit or vegetable it’s supposed to be emulating causing many parents to leave the baby food category, he claimed.

once-upon-a-farm_0 (1)
Foraker foresees that every retailer will have a section dedicated to fresh baby food products in the future. 

“Almost 70% of moms and dads make a really strong effort to make their own baby food now,”​ Foraker continued. 

“A lot of people are leaving the category and they’re only coming back when maternity leave ends or it’s just a pain in the ass ​[to make your own baby food].”

Once Upon a Farm produces a range of organic, refrigerated baby foods made using high pressure processing (HPP) of whole fruits, vegetables and superfoods that preserve the nutrients, flavors, aromas, colors, and textures of the fresh ingredients that are free from concentrates, preservatives and processed purees.

Each product is packaged in a resealable, squeeze pouch for convenience and easy handling for a baby or young child.

Future of the fresh baby food category

The potential is great for the refrigerated baby food category as retailers catch onto the trend, according to Foraker.

“I really do strongly believe that it will be a national category where every retailer in the country will have an assortment of fresh baby food products,”​ he said. "I'm sure of that."

Once Upon a Farm will be available nationwide by the end of July in major retailers including Whole Foods, Kroger, Target, Sprouts, and many Safeway divisions.

As of now, placement is retailer dependent, split between the dairy case next to kids yogurts as well as in designated refrigerated cases in the baby food aisle.

Another placement spot has been in the produce section, like in Target stores:

OnceUponaFarm_kids

“We’re looking at playing in both areas and we’ll see how it develops," ​said Foraker. "Some retailers will have the space and commitment to do it like we’re doing it right now in kid dairy, some will be very committed to the baby aisle and doing refrigeration."

We want to be a leading kids nutrition brand from baby all the way to the age of 12

The company has launched a range of applesauce and smoothies formulated for older kids and is taking into account the different macronutrients needed in children’s diets such as healthy fats and fiber. Coinciding with that development is the vision Foraker and his team have for evolving Once Upon a Farm from a fresh baby food brand into a kids nutrition brand. 

“We think that fresh snacking in general is a really great white space opportunity and we want to be a leading kids nutrition brand from baby all the way to the age of 12,”​ he said.

Want to know more about Once Upon A Farm? Co-founder Ari Raz will be speaking at the FoodNavigator-USA FOOD FOR KIDS​ summit this November 12-14 in Chicago. Register here​.​ 

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