Investing in the Future of Food: Strategies from Kumana to launch at Expo West

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Natural Products Expo West in March may seem far in the future, but now is the time for entrepreneurs to start preparing if they want to launch a new businesses, brand or product at the show, according to the co-founders of the condiment startup Kumana.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Investing in the Future of Food, the trio behind the avocado-based sauce brand, share their strategy for successfully introducing themselves to the retail world at Expo West, and lessons they have learned while part of Kraft Heinz’s Springboard​ incubator program about what to expect after launching to ensure long-term viability.

Kumana’s decision to enter the food and beverage world by jumping into the deep end and launching at Expo West was made in part on the trusted advice of the chairman of the company’s board, but also in part because the three founders didn’t know what they were getting themselves into.

“We were thrilled we had a product that we were launching [at Expo West], but also terrified because we didn’t know how it was going to go,”​ or what to expect, Co-Founder Francisco Paven told FoodNavigator-USA.

“As soon as you walk in [to Expo West we saw] all these companies and you think, ‘I gotta compete with all of these products?’”​ added Co-Founder Todd Vine. But, he noted the trio quickly realized “we have something so unique, we are not competing with [the others, but rather] we are educating. And it was really fun.”

While the trio ultimately enjoyed Expo West and saw the launch there as one of their best decisions, they acknowledge a lot went into preparing for the show ahead of time so that once they were there they could make the most of it.

“You only have one shot … especially at an event like Expo West, which is probably the most important one, to make sure you are really, really ready for it,”​ Paven said. Which is why he recommends dedicating at least three to four months to preparing for the show. “If it is in March, don’t wait until February to starting thinking about it.”

Perfect branding

A top priority during the months leading up to Expo West – or any trade show – is to ensure your branding, and your booth are on point, and clearly communicate the company values and what products are available.

Paven explained that Kuman worked with three branding firms before they found a team with which they connected and felt comfortable using to create not only their packaging, but also their marketing and booth for Expo West so that everything had a coherent theme and consistent messaging.

“When we saw our booth, we were super happy,”​ said company co-founder Roberto Paven, adding that if an entrepreneur is unsure about an element of branding they should stop and try again until they have it right.

Francisco Paven agreed, noting, “It has to feel 100%. Ninety-nine percent for branding is not good enough.”

Perfect your storytelling

In the run up to Expo West, the team also hashed out how to best sample their product and tell their story to visitors.

Because the company markets sauces they need a platform to showcase the flavor, texture and versatility of the product that wouldn’t break the bank. That meant backing off the original plan to sample the sauce on dumplings in order to reign in expenses.

“Make sure you get all the quotes ahead, and you know exactly how you want to showcase your product,”​ Paven said.

Just as important as handing out samples, is sharing the company’s story with visitors. The team practiced answering possible questions visitors might ask, but when the show began they found they needed to be flexible because visitors came for different reasons and had varying amounts of time to stay. 

While much attention will go to the booth and the people who visit it, the trio also recommends setting up meetings with key players in advance, if possible. To do that, they reached out through their board and broader network to make connections ahead of the show and, even if someone couldn’t meet with them, the trio made sure those contacts knew where to find the booth.

Launching is just the start

While launching at a trade show like Expo West and getting on to store shelves is exhilarating and exhausting, it is also just the start. To help keep up the momentum and better understand the industry that they were now apart of, Kumana’s co-founders joined Kraft Heinz’s Springboard incubator.

“The primary thing that drew us here was mentorship. I think in your professional career, as an individual, you are always seeking that mentor that is going to teach you something. Somebody who has been there before, who has done your job and can guide you. And as a company, we viewed Kraft Heinz the same way. We wanted that big brother, that mentor who knew our field, and no one does sauces better than they do,”​ Paven said.

One of the most pivotal lessons the company has learned while at Springboard was how to ensure sell-through on store shelves.

“It is not enough that you got on the shelves. That is never enough. You have to make sure that your products are being displayed correctly and to make sure they are being not out of stock, and are being merchandised,”​ Paven said.

Under Springboard’s direction, Paven said, opted to hire a merchandising team and people to visit stores and ensure the products are properly displayed.

The benefits of teaming with Kraft Heinz

Springboard also helped the company better understand their category’s dynamics by sharing key marketing data, Paven added.

Looking forward, he said, the brand hopes to take these lessons and create a new subcategory of sauces that are distinct from the other options currently available.

“If you look at the sauce aisle, it hasn’t had innovation in a long time,”​ Paven said. “When you walk into supermarkets you usually see red or brown and Kumana is a naturally green product”​ that is avocado-based and “completely different, so we can probably create … a new major subcategory.”

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