· By Absurd Snacks
How We Sold Into Our First Whole Foods Market Store!
We sort of have a funny story as to how we started selling into Whole Foods Market. One thing that we’ve heard from our community is how much y’all love the behind the scenes content, raw founder footage, and showing what it’s like to be a small but mighty team.
We started our relationship with WFM all the way back in March of 2022 when we were seniors at the University of Richmond and working on Absurd Snacks as a class project. Excited to pursue building Absurd Snacks after we graduated, we received our former buyer’s email (she’s transitioned since then) and basically cold emailed her every single week for about two months.
One day, we emailed the buyer saying that we were “going to be in Silver Springs, MD” (where her office is) for a meeting and that we would love to take her out for lunch, since we were in the area, of course.
If you couldn't tell by now, we were, in fact, not going to be in the area but figured instilling a sense of spontaneity would catch her attention. But we were dying to share with our buyer the unique origin story of Absurd Snacks and how we planned to create the best tasting allergy friendly snack.
As the story continues, I was at track practice on that Thursday morning when I quickly glanced at my phone to see that our buyer had said YES to the lunch meeting. The only problem was that Richmond is about 2 hours from Silver Spring, MD, and I couldn’t leave practice early.
As soon as I was done, I basically sprinted back to my dorm and called Eli to tell him that we were leaving in 20 minutes for our first ever Whole Foods Market meeting!
We jumped in the car with excitement, prayers that there wasn’t traffic ahead of us, and a ton of samples in hand. We met this mysterious buyer at PLANTA in Bethesda, MD, an awesome plant-based restaurant minutes from our buyer’s office in Silver Spring.
As soon as we all sat down, she ripped open our Magic Maple Cinnamon and Chocolate (now discontinued) trail mixes. Eli and I sat and watched, nervously, as she chomped down on our college-apartment creation.
Let’s put it this way - she definitely didn’t love it, but it was clear that she didn’t hate it, which was enough conviction to stop nervously sweating.
The first question our buyer asked was, “so where do you see these on the shelf?” In undergrad, they definitely don’t teach you CPG 101 and topics like category placement and competitive cost analysis. Our answer was simply, “we’re not sure yet but we’re getting feedback from people on how they eat Absurd Snacks.” This essentially meant that at the time a LOT of y’all were eating Absurd Snacks as an accessory to yogurt, oatmeal, and eating it like a cereal.
This caused some confusion for our buyer because we were calling it a snack, which lives in an entirely different area of the grocery store than granolas, an accessory to a meal.
The buyer said we basically had two choices: the granola category (higher velocity but greater competition) or the functional snacks category (lower velocity and less competition). Through interviewing customers and creating internal goals, did we want to become an allergen free granola or an allergen free snack mix?
Well, you guessed it. We ultimately decided on the functional snacks category. From that nerve-racking conversation on, we knew we had recipe improvements in our future. We didn’t want anyone to be confused about how to eat Absurd Snacks.
We agreed to keep our buyer updated of progress and improvements as we neared graduation and thereafter. We could tell our founder's story caught her attention.
So, we did. And you could probably guess what happened again.
Crickets. So. Many. Crickets.
We graduated in May 2022. It was quickly summertime and we were invited to take part in Idea Factory and ICAP, two Virginia-based programs that allowed us to dive deep into customer discovery and test new flavors. Throughout these 8 weeks we continued to keep our buyer in the know.
And finally one day, she emailed again. This time with some juicy content. She encouraged us to apply to their Local Accelerator program called LEAP (Local and Emerging Accelerator Program). There was no guarantee that this would lead to in-store placement, but we knew our buyer wouldn’t send us this application for no good reason.
We applied, and made it into the top 30 semi-final round out of 600+ brands spreading across the nation! We were ecstatic. We thought we had it in the bag.
Well, we didn’t. In July we pitched via Zoom to eight individuals in Corporate across logistics, innovation, and leadership. I remember feeling so incredibly confident when we got off that call. We high fived and yippe-ed then got in our cars to drive back up north from Richmond to visit our families. We were so excited to tell our families.
At the end of the summer we received an email from our buyer herself sharing that we were not chosen to take part in the 10-brand cohort. However, the email ended with, “We’re excited to share with you an invitation for placement in select Whole Foods Market locations.”
WHAT?! So, we didn’t make the program, but they wanted to launch us in stores instead. This meant skipping over programming AND no longer being subject to an equity investment, AKA we would retain 100% ownership of the brand (until we raised our first round, that is). You can just feel the excitement in this picture.
We remember this moment so clearly. We were at my family’s lake house at Smith Mountain Lake. At 4:59 PM, as we were enjoying some cold ones with the fam, that email came through. Talk about “You’ll be notified of next steps on July 15th by EOD.”
Would you believe that it took an entire year for us to officially land on shelves from the day of that email?
From July 15, 2022 to August 16, 2023 (when we received our very first purchase order), so much had happened.
- We found manufacturing. That’s right. We didn’t even have manufacturing set up and running from the time we first talked to our buyer at PLANTA until February 2023. This was a scary process and we definitely don’t recommend hyper pre-selling your product before you have your core legs of the business figured out.
- We raised our first round from friends, family, and angel investors and closed in January 2023. We were ecstatic to propel the business forward in 2023.
- We gave our existing recipes a complete makeover and even booted one of our original flavors: chocolate. After doing a ton of customer interviews, we poured real customer insights into the existing recipe. From flavor combinations to protein content to finding solutions to “what kind of snack is missing from your current allergy friendly options?” And yes, all the people we interviewed had one or more allergies to the top 9. For flavors, we whipped up a ton of batches of various flavors in whoever’s kitchen we were crashing at over the summer and tested them at farmer’s markets and events. By the end of summer 2022, we proceeded to work on launching the fan favorite: Rosemary Sea Salt. Our now beloved Rockin’ Rosemary Sea Salt was recently awarded the Best Savory Snack by StartupCPG!
- We completely rebranded based on, you guessed it, customer interviews. From the tone to the positioning to refining Beanie. We wanted to give Absurd Snacks the makeover it needed. Plus, the original branding was concerningly similar to another brand, which we won’t get into… (just make sure you do your due diligence before you give your freelance designer free reign). Shoutout to Thinkhouse - our amazing design team!
5. We relaunched the brand in March 2023, exactly one year after the initial launch as college students! We initially only sold into independents and a handful of university accounts. We started small, hyper focused on Richmond before expanding to Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, and then a handful of new states through the wholesale platform Faire. Before we knew it, we were distributing regularly to about 50 stores by summer 2023.
6. We won the Best Savory Snack award by Startup CPG and were featured in several news articles.
7. We continued to pitch, and pitch, and pitch to get our name out there and even rack up some grant funding through competitions (that’s a Kroger buyer second from the right!).
You’re probably wondering, what happened to Whole Foods?
The new Absurd Snacks re-launch was super exciting but also super scary. The communication with our buyer was so sparse and we started hearing whispers of internal reorganization at Whole Foods. We were so nervous that our buyer had left and we were left in the dust. This is NOT uncommon in the grocery world. All the hard work we put in, the money we raised, the story that we had told, we thought, was all thrown in the trash and we couldn’t do anything about it. We thought we were going to have to start over.
If Whole Foods Market was an event coordinator, I’m certain they would only throw surprise parties.
Onboarding forms! They were sent straight to our inbox. We were thinking, okay, this is a great sign. We weren’t forgotten. We quickly filled them out and turned them back in within two weeks. Then came mandatory photographing ($$$) and contract reviewing, case price readjustments, negotiating with distributors, submitting promotional allowance, and so much more which was so overwhelming as first time founders. Even though we talked to a ton of other founders to see if we were doing this right and trying to learn the pitfalls before they happened to us, it sometimes felt like we were shooting in the dark and crossing our fingers.
Submitted. Done. More silence. More anxiously waiting for next steps.
At the time of submission, these were the questions keeping us up at night:
- How many stores would they put us in?
- Would we have to give free product to every single store?
- How do we forecast our inventory if we don’t know where we’re selling and what our average sales will be?
- Who is our main point of contact for all of our stores?
A lot of these questions were unfortunately not completely answered immediately and we continued to seek advice from other founders in the space.
Because we continued to hear nothing but crickets from our buyer, we once tried scanning our bar codes in the Arlington location to see if things were moving along behind the scenes. And they scanned! Look at those smiles.
But still, no direction from our buyer.
Fast forward a couple months, on August 16th, 2023, we received a super interesting email.
It was a purchase order. Sent to Eli’s email. There was no heads up. But hey we were jumping for joy. It was happening! We immediately reached out to our buyer and she said, “Go store to store and start selling!”
It had been a total of 18 months from the first conversation we had with our former buyer at PLANTA.
Now, we were in our cars multiple times a week visiting each and every store throughout Virginia. Word started getting around amongst other locations and we started receiving purchase orders from Maryland and even New Jersey.
Today, we’re so excited to be selling in 22 unique Whole Foods Market locations with a goal of distributing to all 55 mid-Atlantic stores by March 2023.
But we need your help! Click here for our store locator. We’d love for you to share our story with your friends and support us in-stores! Word of mouth pushes us forward and increases our brand awareness to new customers.
Thanks for reading. We hope this was interesting and even sheds some light on the hoops founders have to jump through to get their product on the shelves.
Feel free to drop a comment below with any questions or feedback!
Grace + Eli