In the 34 weeks to Oct 24, 2020 sales in the once sleepy category surged 29.3% year-on-year.
Which is making for exciting times at BOU, a New York-based startup on a mission to disrupt the category with gluten-free, lower-sodium, MSG-free bouillon, gravy, miso broth cubes and instant soup cups, says CEO Louise Todd, who joined the company from fast-growing snack brand Hippeas in September.
“We see two types of shoppers. First you have the traditionalists, people that have always shopped the category, and now they’re buying more. Then you have the trialists, people that are suddenly cooking at home and getting bored of the five meals they know how to cook.
“So we’re converting some of those traditionalists that have traditionally gone for the big brands, but maybe something’s changed and they are looking for lower sodium or gluten free, but we’re also bringing in the trialists, people that are new to the category.
“Our marketing for next year will really target this group, who have maybe never used bouillon before, so we need to teach them how easy it is and how much flavor it can bring to a meal… plus it suits the budget, so there are no barriers to purchase. We're getting recipes out there, pushing our Instagram and Facebook to teach new consumers what you can do with BOU."
Flavors that appeal to millennials
She added: “We’ve got traditional flavors [beef, chicken, vegetable] but we’re also reinventing the category with new flavors that appeal to young millennials [roasted garlic, ginger, cinnamon and coconut].
“What really excited me about joining BOU [Todd used to work with BOU founder Robert Jakobi in the UK and has a background in operations] is the category. There’s still so much innovation that we can bring to the market and we’ve got some interesting stuff you’ll see from us in 2021, but we’re also working on an 18-month to five-year pipeline.
“Ultimately, I want BOU to be a household name, so that if people see our brand in other parts of the store, they know that the product will be healthy, it will taste good, and it will be easy to use.”
BOU - which was launched in Whole Foods in late 2017 and is already in around 8,000 stores including Walmart, Kroger, Target and Whole Foods – recently relaunched its ready-to-eat soups at a lower price point with updated packaging and re-vamped recipes in 1,500 Walmart stores, said Todd.
“We’re the fastest growing soup in the ready to eat category, which is a fantastic statistic to share, and we will be rolling out to other retailers over the coming months.”
'The one thing people that are at home are looking for is a quick and easy lunch'
While the team had been concerned that the microwaveable soup might not resonate as much with consumers during the pandemic, it has proved surprisingly resilient, said Todd.
“We were very nervous about the soup cups, which are ideal for lunch on the go, students on college campuses and so on, but honestly, the convenience category hasn’t actually suffered during the pandemic.
“The one thing people that are at home are looking for is a quick and easy lunch, and our soup cups are perfect for that [users add cold water and microwave for 2 mins] and they are performing very well.”
BOU Easy Soups are packaged in a microwaveable recyclable cup with a custom see-through lid, utensil, and a sachet of freeze-dried veggies with grains. Consumers then add cold water and microwave for an instant meal on the go. There are three flavors: Soup’ed Up Chicken Noodle, Shroomy Beef & Brown Rice (gluten free), and Veggie Good and Brown Rice (gluten free and certified vegan).
As for e-commerce sales, “there was certainly some pivoting at the start of the pandemic where everyone was switching to buying things online,” said Todd. “But the good news is that we’re about to launch on Amazon Fresh, which is testament to the fact that they see the potential of our brand."
The BOU direct to consumer offering is also a key area of focus in the coming weeks, she said. “We’ve got some improvements to make in our offering and fulfilment, keeping up demand has been challenging so we’re going through a process of overhauling our offering there as there is a lot of opportunity we’re not capitalizing on.”
BOU raised $4.76m in December 2018, said founder and chairman Robert Jakobi, who remains the largest shareholder in the business. Todd - who runs the business day-to-day - also sits on the board along with BOU's lead investor from its Series A round, and the manufacturer of the core product, who is a founding shareholder in the business.
“We had a lot of demand in that round, so we extended it and raised just over $6m; our plan is to do another round next year.”
Asked if BOU had been approached by large CPG companies interested in buying the business, he said: "Any young exciting brand that's innovating a stale category attracts interest, but we're not even entertaining anything yet. The business is still small and growing nicely and we want to build it for the long term."
*Nielsen total US xAOC
BOU was founded by Robert Jakobi, a Brit who attended college in the US and worked with Barclays Capital in New York before jetting back across the Pond and starting his own snacks company. A serial entrepreneur, his first food product - chocolate and yogurt covered edamame under the Pod bites brand – was quickly picked up by upmarket UK retailers such as Selfridges and Harvey Nichols.
He went on to co-found a snack company with Julian Metcalfe which became the fastest-growing, privately-owned food and drink company in the UK, spun off the Metcalfe’s Skinny popcorn brand and sold it to Snyder’s in 2016.
Buoyed by the sale, he headed back to the Big Apple and turned his attention to bouillon.
He packaged his chicken, vegetable, and beef stock cubes in a jar, pitched them to Whole Foods in June 2017 with a promise to deliver incremental growth by bringing more Millennials into the category, and hit stores nationwide just four months later.
Today he is on a mission “to get into everyone’s pantry in the US."