Junea Rocha, co-founder and chief marketing officer Brazi Bites, recalls in vivid detail the struggles – and excitement – of launching her Brazilian cheese bread, empanada and now breakfast sandwich business, and wants to spare up-and-coming leaders some of the hard lessons she learned as well as offer an infusion of funding with no strings attached through the new Latino Entrepreneur Accelerator Program.
Launching on Sept. 15, which also marks the start of Latin Heritage Month, LEAP will offer one winner a $10,000 business grant and 12-week mentorship program with Rocha and her team. Three other finalists will get a marketing and PR boost from Rocha and her team.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Rocha shares details about what the program will include, what she is looking for in successful applicants and what inspired her to launch the program. She also shares lessons from her own roller-coaster journey, including highs such as appearing on Shark Tank and lows when she felt stymied and as if her business wouldn’t succeed.
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‘These are tough times to be an entrepreneur’
While launching a new business has been never easy, Rocha says now is a particularly trying time for entrepreneurs because not only do they face the same steep learning curve as their predecessors, but they also must manage once-in-a-career inflation, supply and labor challenges as well as ever-tightening resources – all of which LEAP is designed to help navigate.
“These are tough times to be an entrepreneur. These are tough times to start a business, to grow a business, to raise capital. And, there are all kinds of obstacles that are exacerbated right now that have always been there,” Rocha said.
Many of these macro trends are even more difficult for minority business owners who often are already at a disadvantage, she added.
In response, she said, she created LEAP to uplift Latino founded brands at the most critical time in their journey, which she defined as making less than $1 million in annual revenue – after which it becomes easier to secure funding.
The winner will be selected this year and the prize awarded early next year so the recipient “can start the year off with a lot of excitement,” Rocha said.
Rocha expects selecting a winner will be challenging, but she says she is looking for someone whose passion mirrors her own and whose product is just as delicious as Brazi Bites’ Brazilian Cheese Bread.
The power of mentorship
Unlike many other accelerators or incubators that offer startups help in exchange for equity or a portion of profits, Rocha says she created LEAP as a way to pay forward the help she received from many mentors over the past 12 years she has spent building the business – which is also why mentorship is a key component of the program.
“I am a huge fan of peer mentorship and it is something that is amazing in our industry – we are always helping each other out and giving advice” about how to avoid mistakes, refocus and overcome challenges, Rocha said, noting that she has grown in large part thanks to these relationships.
“I don’t think about having one mentor that showed me the way. I don’t think that exists. I think that is kind of a bit old school, to put all your eggs in one person and follow their path. And I think you have a lot of different options now” with the explosion of podcasts and social media and networking to have several mentors, she added.
Success comes with ‘laser focus’
As Rocha prepares to take on the role of mentor she recalls some of the hard lessons that she learned over the past 12 years building the Brazi Bites business, including during the tumultuous first few years when winning over retailers and investors was a hard sell and in the years after the brand appeared on Shark Tank and Brazi Bites saw exponential growth.
“I founded the company with my husband, Cameron, and … we had to learn the industry from the ground up,” including how to make the product, secure sales, hire employees, work with contract manufacturers, raise money and more, she said.
“It was not an overnight success… the first five years we were really on the ground knocking on doors, opening every single door and bootstrapping the business,” and then we continued to evolve after appearing on Shark Tank, which gave the brand a lot of exposure and validated the concept, Rocha said.
During this period, Rocha said, she learned that the most important elements of Brazi Bites success was the team’s laser focus early on in driving demand for its flagship product before introducing additional SKUs so as not to overextend herself or her budget.
She did this by going door to door to educate retailers, demonstrating the product and connecting directly with consumers, listening to shoppers’ reactions and iterating the product as appropriate.
She also practiced telling her story – not just to consumers but also potential investors, which Rocha says didn’t come naturally at first. Rather, she says, she had to build this skill the same way one builds a muscle – through repetition and incremental increases.
Even as Rocha’s business and confidence grew, she says investors continued to turn her away until she reached $1 million in sales, which can feel like an impossible threshold with limited resources and why she is limiting access to LEAP to companies under this point.
Connecting with startups can revitalize established brands
In addition to returning the favors from which she benefited from mentors, Rocha says she also is excited about the accelerator program because she finds the passion and creativity of successful entrepreneurs to be a source of inspiration that helps her stay connected and relevant to the always evolving consumer.
“I just love being in the middle of the younger brands and being involved with them,” and seeing how they connect with consumers and are driving change, she said.
“I like to stay close to that creativity, that speed and this way of being a very young brand,” she added.
From TikTok to breakfast: Where next for Brazi Bites
With this in mind, Rocha says one of the places where she sees the most creative potential for not just Brazi Bites but businesses across the board is through TikTok.
“I’m very excited about the ability of TikTok to touch a massive new audience, and it is being adapted much faster by the more creative and crafty entrepreneurs” to introduce consumers to “a whole new wave of products,” she said.
Beyond marketing and consumer outreach, Rocha says she is excited to expand Brazi Bites lineup before its flagship Brazilian cheese bread. Early iterations included a line of empanadas that were basically filled versions of the cheese bread, but now the company is pushing into new formats and new day parts with the recent launch of its breakfast sandwiches.
The Homestyle Breakfast Sandwich has a thinner bread that crisps similar to a panini thanks to a crisping sleeve used in the microwave, which Rocha said helps deliver a sandwich that is not soggy inside.
Looking forward, Rocha sees a bright future not just for Brazi Bites but also the industry as a whole as tradeshows and opportunities to network in person return. She says these are foundational for fueling collaboration and creativity, which as demonstrated by Brazi Bites story are essential to long term success in both trying and celebratory times.