Lil Bucks to emerge from pandemic as a stronger brand: 'I think it’s provided me with the ultimate business bootcamp'

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: Lil Bucks
Photo: Lil Bucks

Related tags Buckwheat COVID-19

On a crusade to make buckwheat "cool" -- which has taken strong digital marketing efforts to educate the consumer in a demo-less landscape -- founder of sprouted buckwheat brand Lil Bucks, Emily Griffith, has made the leap from shared kitchens and farmers markets to distribution at Whole Foods Midwest, Kroger (Mariano's banner), and L.A.'s Erewhon Market.

Griffith, who won the Good Food Financing & Innovation Virtual Pitch Slam​ last week, which among other prizes includes a booth at Expo East, now feels the pandemic was a blessing in disguise for the brand, which had just entered Whole Foods Midwest stores in March 2020.

"I think it’s provided me with the ultimate business bootcamp,"​ Griffith told FoodNavigator-USA.  "We’ve shifted a lot of strategies over the past year due to the changing landscape."

Griffith's background in digital marketing came strongly into play, and her focus on the brand's online presence and branding helped the company solidify its omnichannel strategy. 

"I was so focused on Whole Foods, which is obviously such a great account, but there’s a really effective way to get our product into the hands of people that want it the most and are already searching for these things online,"​ she said noting how e-commerce has kept the brand growing in the past year. 

"We quadrupled our e-commerce revenue during the first four months of the pandemic, month over month."

Lil Bucks​ has hired a marketing coordinator to help drive and support the company's online digital growth.

"I think of all of these things have led to us building a better brand and a better business,"​ noted Griffith, who is laser focused on creating a strong omnichannel brand.

"I think investors are more interested in brands that are omnichannel, and you need to be able to be nimble,"​ she said. 

Sometimes referred to as a 'pseudo-cereal,' buckwheat  is gluten-free and contains relatively high levels of protein, fiber, vitamin B6, iron, and magnesium. It also has significant levels of other minerals such as zinc, copper, and manganese, according to University of Missouri's Division of Plant Sciences​. 

Typically grown in China and Eastern Europe, buckwheat is also gaining traction in regions of the US such as Minnesota and North and South Dakota (Griffith has transitioned her sprouted buckwheat supply from China to a mill in Minnesota last year). 

There's also evidence that buckwheat can be a profitable cover crop for farmers because of its short growing season and its above-average ability to increase levels of available phosphorus in the soil (one of the key nutrients for plant growth), improving the overall health of the soil composition for the next crop grown.

A pantry staple

Griffith hopes that Lil Bucks can be as ubiquitous in home pantries as Quaker Oats one day, and believes that buckwheat is following a similar early path to market that quinoa did years ago,

Lilbucks-11 copy

and is currently in a "slow build" phase of growing consumer awareness for buckwheat's versatility.

"Interest in healthy eating has skyrocketed over the past year, and I think there’s a general better understanding of how your diet can impact your body’s immune response,"​ she said. 

It also helps that consumers are spending more time preparing breakfast and have taken an interest in general wellbeing, keying into incorporating new superfoods into their diets, she noted. 

Lil Bucks, said Griffith, is "the ultimate smoothie bowl topper."

"Where it may have taken two or three weeks to go through a Lil Bucks bag, you’re now going through a bag a week because you’re putting it on your breakfast every day,"​ said Griffith.

Griffith added that as it learns more about its consumer base, the brand will be shifting the messaging of its ClusterBucks. Rather than leading with "adaptogenic"​ and highlighting ingredients such as myrtle and reishi, the brand will be including more recognizable language such as "granola"​ on the front of its packaging.

Available in two varieties (chocolate reishi and turmeric lemon myrtle), the brand will soon launch a third SKU in it ClusterBucks line featuring matcha as the primary ingredient.

Evolving retail strategy

While Lil Bucks loose sprouted buckwheat seeds were the brand's original feature product, Griffith believes that its snackable ClusterBucks will be a stronger point of entry into new retail accounts as demonstrated by the product's debut in Erewhon Market stores in L.A.

"Without demos, marketing, promotion, brand ambassadors, or events nearby, and store traffic down over 50% we had very strong velocities in Erewhon,"​ she said.

The brand has recently expanded its retail reach entering into KeHe and UNFI's distribution networks and will stay focused on increasing sales momentum in the Midwest and West Coast before expanding to new regions, according to Griffith.

"Basically what we’re trying to show is high velocities in two opposite regions of the country before expanding to the East Coast,"​ she said. 

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