Investing in the Future of Food: Mason Dixie drives ‘explosive’ growth with data-driven decisions

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Innovation Product development startups Entrepreneurship Investing in the Future of Food

While there is something to be said about following your gut as an entrepreneur, the founder and CEO of Mason Dixie Biscuit Co. advises that following the data often is a more reliable strategy for sparking retailer interest and launching products that resonate with consumers.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga, who launched Mason Dixie Foods in 2014, explains that while the idea for her ready-to-bake, clean-label frozen biscuits was based on her belief that others would share her desire for healthier Southern comfort food, the brand’s expansion across the country into new retailers and new channels with new products was fueled not by instinct but by data.

“The growth has been explosive and honestly. I think, I attribute a lot of that to us being a very data-oriented company. Since the first day we could attain any kind of data, we chased it, and we did a great job analyzing where we won early, and where we didn’t,”​ Abuelhiga said.

Like many startups, Mason Dixie could not afford expensive market data when it first began, but Abuelhiga said she collected and leveraged the data that was available to her from her retail partners and from conversations with consumers at demos. Based on these insights, she charted a successful strategy for expanding distribution across retailers and channels.

“We were really lucky to be a brand that was bolstered by Whole Foods in the early stages,”​ because the retailer “gives you the opportunity to demo and watch your customer and understand their patterns and behaviors, what is in their grocery cart, what is not working about the packaging, what is working. So, those are the types of things we really learned and amplified in our search as we moved on to the next chapter.”

Based on conversations with Whole Food customers, Abuelhiga identified other regional and conventional retail chains where her product might succeed based on their broader shopping habits.

As Mason Dixie expanded into the conventional channel, Abuelhiga said the need and ability to buy data increased. She says she scoured it to identify “highly concentrated zones of influence,”​ where she could make the most impact with her brand.

Beyond the data, Abuelhiga said she also evaluated potential retail partners based on their support of emerging brands, and the those brands ability not only to increase sales but also secure additional shelf space and move into new categories.

“Then we also looked at other partners who were going to value who we are as a brand. So, obviously we are a very diverse group. We are 99% minority run and managed. We are 100% certified woman owned business. So, it was really important to find some retailers that support supplier diversity, and that is what launched us into Ahold and Albertsons because they have huge initiatives and want to bring that in,”​ she added. 

Data-driven innovation

Mason Dixie also used data from Nielsen, its brick and mortar store and a consumer survey it conducted to expand beyond biscuits with the new launch of its frozen scones and sweet rolls.

The data revealed that consumers wanted “sweet biscuits,”​ which Abuelhiga said translated to its new scone line, which will hit shelves at select retailers this spring and summer.

The line includes cranberry-orange, blueberry lemon, chocolate chip and coffee cake – all of which were determined based on feedback from consumers as well as Nielsen data for flavor preferences in baked goods, desserts and breakfast, and at cafes and foodservice.

The company’s sweet rolls, which also will hit shelves this summer, “were kind of a happy accident,”​ discovered by the brand’s R&D team that also held its own when pitted against the data, Abuelhiga said. That line includes cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, orange rolls and strawberry cheesecake rolls.

Leveraging free data & knowing when to ‘take that hit’

While Mason Dixie’s strategy to lean heavily on data has paid off for the brand, purchasing expensive data is not in the budget for many startups. But that doesn’t mean they are out of luck.

Abuelhiga advises entrepreneurs starting out to work with their brokers to access and crunch data. She also notes that retailers should share key metrics if brands explain that doing so will help them boost sales and basket size. Finally, she notes that surveying consumers is an inexpensive – and sometimes free – way to gather key data.

Sometimes though, Abuelhiga said, brands need to “take that hit”​ and buy data to understand how they are performing and where to invest their energy and limited resources most effectively.

Frozen breakfast is ripe for innovation

Looking forward, Abuelhiga said she plans to continue to build on Mason Dixie’s momentum by combing the data for additional areas of development.

She says she sees additional room for development in the frozen breakfast space, such as with ready-to-heat handheld biscuit sandwiches and sweet breakfast pastries. She also sees potential in fresh and food service, and particularly in school meals.

Ultimately, Abuelhiga said she believes the sky is the limit for Mason Dixie, but, she adds the brand will continue to ground each new venture in data that is tangible and actionable.

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