It’s not often a rather green entrepreneur launches a product one week, and then watches it land on the shelves of a major retailer a few days later. But as gurus in the startup space can attest, timing is everything and Cassandra Curtis entered the baby food market at a time when parents were demanding quality — and not finding it on the shelves.
Curtis co-founded Once Upon a Farm in September of this year, and not even three months later the company’s organic baby food products are selling in grocery chains from coast-to-coast. Retailers that have recently jumped on board include Costco, Jimbo’s…Naturally, Bristol Farms, and Sprouts in Southern California, Whole Foods and Wakefern on the East Coast.
Curtis, who serves as chief operations officer at the company, attributes much of the company’s traction to industry connections. The company’s advisory board includes some of the most well-known health food executives in the region, including John Foraker, the CEO of popular organics brand Annie’s; Greg Fleishman, the former Kashi and Coca-Cola marketing executive who led campaigns for acai brand Sambazon and juice maker Suja Life. Even Suja’s own CEO Jeff Church is on the company’s advisory board.
The Heat Is Off
In fact, Curtis said that Church has been key to making Once Upon a Farm successful. It’s no surprise, considering the similarities between the two companies. Suja sells organic, high-quality juice that has been processed using high-pressure processing, or HPP. The manufacturing method is popular with health fanatics as the food can be preserved using pressure rather than heat, which is said to kill enzymes in fruits and veggies and compromise the nutritional density of the food.
This processing method is the hallmark of Once Upon a Farm, which boasts that its organic, cold-pressured and Non-GMO baby food is one of the healthiest on the market. Curtis knows a bit about the topic, as she holds a master’s degree in psychology with an emphasis on how nutrition affects development. Curtis launched the company out of her own personal frustration concerning the lack of convenient, healthy baby food in the grocery stores. Like many other new mothers, Curtis tried making her baby food at home — blending fresh, organic ingredients and jarring them herself.
“But I was also working full time, and it just wasn’t realistic to do it all,” Curtis said. “I wanted to be able to buy something fresh from the store, and nothing like that existed.”
Developing Their Tastes
Nearly all baby food brands offer quick, convenient food in jars or easy-to-hold, squeezable pouches, the latter of which is popular for when babies want to feed themselves. But both the jars and the pouches technically fall into the “canned food” category, and are subjected to heat during manufacturing. This process of exposing fruits and veggies to heat during manufacturing is increasingly unpopular to the health-conscious crowd. Not only is the process said to kill enzymes and compromise nutrients, but “cooking down” the fruits can also condense the sugars, Curtis said.
“If you take a banana and heat it on the stove, it will condense down because the water evaporates and creates less volume,” Curtis said. “So you have to cook down three bananas to get the same volume as one raw banana. The extra sugar from the two extra bananas makes the food sweeter.”
And sweeter foods in early-stage development can be damaging to the child’s health, Curtis said, especially as the child ages.
“What babies eat in those first three years in life are supercritical for what they prefer later on,” Curtis said. “If their baby food tastes like real food — carrots, beets, mangos — then, they’re more likely to eat those foods as adults. Those super-sweet tasting foods that are currently on the shelf contribute to kids wanting more sweet and sugary things later on.”
Once Upon a Farm is currently the only HPP baby food in a pouch on the market, according to Curtis, and products are pricier than shelf-stable brands, selling at $3.69 per pouch. Curtis said the company’s biggest competitors are major players such as Happy Family, Plum Organics and Gerber. However, due to the refrigerator placement of Once Upon a Farm’s products, the company won’t have to directly compete.
Curtis and her co-founder Ari Raz, who serves as the company’s CEO, recently won the InnovateHER San Diego competition earlier this month, where the two competed against 11 local entrepreneurs who offer novel products that benefit women. Hosted by business accelerators Hera Labs and CONNECT, the regional competition took place at Hera Hub in Sorrento Valley and drew 75 applications in its first year.
The award earned Once Upon a Farm a spot in the national Small Business Administration’s InnovateHER 2016 finals, where the company will compete for one of three top prizes totaling $70,000 provided by Microsoft.