Matt McLean, who established Uncle Matt’s Organic more than 20 years ago and remained with the brand when he sold it to Dean Foods in 2017, said it “feels wonderful, really, to be back in charge” of the company he loves after Dean Foods filed for bankruptcy in November 2019.
He explained to FoodNavigator-USA in an exclusive interview that while “Dean was a great company for us to partner with” and “gave us a lot of freedom to do things, they were still an $8b publicly traded company that had to do things through a certain process that was very different than a small company. So, it feels good [to be the owner again] from a lot of different standpoints.”
While he laments the “sad ending” for Dean and the negative impact of the bankruptcy on friends and colleagues at the company, he described the chance to buy back his business and house it under a new parent company named Harmoni, Inc., as “one of those things in life that you probably don’t get the opportunity to do more than once, so we definitely took advantage of it.”
McLean said he was able to seize the opportunity because he is “fortunate to have a group of industry friends who are talented and successful and willing to come alongside and invest with us.” These include Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Organic; John Foraker, former CEO of Annie’s and co-founder and CEO of Once Upon a Farm; Andrew Abraham, CEO and founder of Orgain; Nicole & Peter Dawes, founders of Late July Snacks & Nixie Sparkling Water; and Matt Rogers, founder of Nest and Incite.org. The venture capital firm Renewal Funds also helped make the deal possible.
From an economic perspective, buying a company during the ongoing pandemic may sound risky, but McLean said that the immunity-supporting, nutritional punch offered by organic orange and grapefruit juices make the company well-positioned for growth.
In addition, McLean said, Dean helped elevate the brand and set it on a path for success, which he plans to continue down with a focus on expanded distribution, innovation and consumer education.
“Dean had a very good sales team and they were able to penetrate into some new channels for us, including food, drug, mass, the dollar channel and the convenience segment as well as some food service. So, they really helped us begin the journey into those other channels … that are hard to break into as a small organic brand,” McLean said.
“We are really excited to build upon those and other channels, as well as our existing natural food industry distribution … to really make organic more accessible,” he added.
New products expand beyond traditional juice
Dean also helped the already innovative brand create two new products that launched in the first quarter of this year, including frozen Probiotic Pops, which include a billion GanedenBC30 probiotics per serving to support a healthy immune system, digestion and protein absorption.
“We are so excited to put functional in the frozen case,” McLean said, adding that pops also “are sweetened only with fruit juice, no cane sugar, and have 30-35 calories each, making them a healthy, nutritious treat that is good for the whole family.”
The second product is a No Sugar Lemonade that comes in classic and strawberry flavors and is sweetened with stevia and erythritol to offer a sweet taste but only 10-15 calories and zero grams of sugar per service.
“It is a wonderful treat that I can give to my kids and have a guilt free experience around lemonade without sacrificing your typical sweetness from sugar,” he said, adding that “they don’t have the typical stevia bite” thanks to using high quality ingredients and blending with erythritol.
Coronavirus opens door for juice to come back
McLean also hopes a robust consumer education campaign will help attract shoppers seeking immunity-supporting products during the coronavirus as well as those who turned away from juice over the past decade out of fear from its sugar content.
“In the past decade, around the world, the citrus growers have seen a declining category because of the demonization of sugar, including natural sugar … in fruit juices, which we always felt was unfairly thrown in under the same umbrella as sugary sodas and donuts,” McClean said.
“I think it is finally getting back on the radar and consumers are starting to understand that this is a healthy beverage. All you have to do is turn to the Nutrition Facts and you see the difference from the vitamin C and B vitamins and then all the powerful bioflavonoids and antioxidants … that are hidden gems that aren’t on the label,” he said.
To reinforce consumers’ return to juice and its connection with health and wellness, McLean said the brand will push information out through social media as well as work with the citrus growers, other brands and trade associations to “get that message across so it isn’t just one tiny voice in the world, but rather a whole industry that is finally able to get more of a spotlight on it.”
Using data to understand shoppers
Finally, McLean said, Uncle Matt’s Organic also will continue to leverage several strategies that he learned while the brand was under Dean Foods – including purchasing and analyzing data to better tell the brand’s story.
Dean Foods’ sales team “was really good with data and metrics and really looking at what was driving sales from a consumer standpoint, where they were losing sales to what other categories and what other channels, and they definitely taught me lot around how you look at a customer and consumer and how you look at data to tell your story and really drive innovation and your business,” McLean explained.
For example, he said, when Uncle Matt’s first joined Dean, the team did a deep data dive with the brand and discovered that consumers who buy the brand’s juice have the highest dollar per basket trip to the store and their basket size is 30% greater than the brand’s closest conventional orange juice competitor. In addition, the data showed that consumers who bought the brand tended to make the most trips and be in-demand millennial shoppers.
“So, while our velocity on shelf wasn’t as great obviously as conventional brands that had been there much longer and had more shelf presence, we still had a lot of attributes that are valuable to a retailer,” and the data helped show that, McLean said.
He added that even though his company doesn’t have as many resources as Dean Foods, “we will still tap in and work with and buy some of that information.”