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The Barcode Podcast is presented by Titanium CPG Insurance. Titanium protects forward-thinking consumer brands with a range of commercial insurance products and risk management services designed specifically for natural and organic food and beverage companies. Learn more at titaniumcpg.com

Our guest today is Mason Arnold, the CEO of Cece’s Veggie Co. Mason shares his journey bringing foundational ingredients to meals through noodled veggies. With dietary restrictions and gluten allergies, many people need alternatives to a spaghetti-style noodle. Mason was at the forefront of this industry, leaning on a background in engineering, Mason developed the best way to handle different vegetables and valued the fork-behavior (how the noodle picks up sauce) and mouth-feel (texture) for his products.

Mason and Ben discuss the challenges that can occur when your business is so successful. Problems still exist, and they’re bigger problems that have more zeros behind them! This is a super enlightening conversation for what to think through and plan for when you hit that magical consumer/product fit combination and your product starts flying off the shelves.

Continued below…

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TAKEAWAYS FROM THIS EPISODE

Simplify and focus. As Mason started his business, he perfected two types of veggie noodles (zucchini and sweet potato) before moving on to anything else. Because of the complexity to work with each vegetable, he didn’t want to take on more than what was necessary.

Luck and Risk are often involved in Success. Mason shares about obtaining his second facility. He ended up at the same location as his previous business and only had to change the name. The permit he already had for that location allowed him to start production right away.

Be smart about where your product is available. Mason took the risk of having his product in Target even though they are not known for their grocery items. By being in Whole Foods and Target, more people saw Cece’s Veggie Co. and wanted in on it.

You’re not always in the clear once your business is booming. In Mason’s words, “…Things can go really wrong really fast…” He says that things don’t get easier once your business gets bigger- “you just get a stronger stomach.”

When is it time to pivot? Mason shares some of the new products they sell and how branding has evolved over time.

LINKS

The Barcode Podcast is brought to you by Titanium CPG Insurance.

Check out Barcodestartup.com

Learn more about Mason Arnold

Learn more about Cece’s Veggie Co.

 

CLICK HERE TO VIEW FULL TRANSCRIPT

 

BEN                           Welcome to The Barcode Podcast. My name is Ben Ponder. I’m your host. Really excited to have you with us today. Joining me in the studio is Mason Arnold, who is the founder and CEO of Cece’s Veggie Noodle. We’re going to talk about all the intricacies of a rapidly scaling fresh produce company that’s now diversifying into all kinds of cool products. We’re going to dig into his story and the company’s story, and lessons learned along the way. I want to remind everybody before we get started that The Barcode Podcast is presented by Titanium CPG Insurance. Titanium protects forward thinking consumer brands with a range of insurance products and risk management services that are designed specifically for the natural and organic marketplace. You can always learn more at TitaniumCPG.com. With that, welcome, Mason Arnold.

                                    So glad to have you, man. To kick off, let’s talk a little bit about your best meal ever. You know this is coming.

MASON                   Yeah. Well, I think the relationship with food is more than just in the mouth. It’s a very full sensory experience.

BEN                           Very true.

MASON                   For me, I feel like the best meal that I’ve ever had, which I’ve had it several times, I have a RV and I love road trips, and I love when I find an amazing spot, and I wake up in the morning overlooking Big Bend or some amazing view. I do a relatively simple bacon and eggs with some Yellowbird habanero and some spinach in there, just some herbs that throw it together. Having a simple but quality ingredient breakfast overlooking an amazing view is my best meal.

BEN                           The cool of the high desert morning and all of that, that’s awesome. Is it a drivable RV, or is it a trailer?

MASON                   It’s a drivable, it’s class C, is what I’m into.

BEN                           Nice, nice.

MASON                   We’ve plenty of switch drivers on the road kind of thing, so I can go to the bathroom and then come back and hop back in the driver’s seat.

BEN                           High degree of difficulty, stuntman level stuff. That’s really awesome.

MASON                   Need a little bit of skill for it.

BEN                           That’s super cool. That sounds like an ideal breakfast, really with the best view possible as well. Simplicity and good quality stuff. I love it. Let’s talk a little bit about, so your company now originally was just called Veggie Noodle, but you added on Cece’s because of, that was the genesis of the story, which is your daughter, right? Tell us in a capsule version, what is Cece’s Veggie Noodle?

MASON                   Well, Cece’s Veggie Co, which we call it-

BEN                           Veggie Co, excuse me. Veggie Co.

MASON                   … Is where helping people eat healthier is the base. The way we’re doing that is taking what I call foundational ingredients to meals and then finding ways to make them out of vegetables. Since our first product was a noodle, spaghetti style noodle, I tried all the gluten-free ones. Me and my family, we had to go gluten-free in 2012. I remember I felt like no one had really hit the mark there on a gluten-free pasta. Especially always trying to get more vegetables into my kids’ mouth.

BEN                           Absolutely.

MASON                   It’s a constant battle there. I’d had a vegetable noodle on a cleanse quite a while before that, and thought it was a pretty good product. I was impressed with the flavor and the texture, and how well it performed as a pasta. I’d remembered that, and I was watching trends, always just trying to stay up on what was the latest and greatest for my customers at Greenling, and so I had thought about veggie noodles and was like, “I wonder if those could be a thing.” I went out and bought machines that make them, and I felt like they just didn’t quite make them in quite the right way to optimize the pasta experience. I think whenever you’re in a category, and you’re trying to change the way people eat, you either have to educate them on a new way to eat, new habits and such.

BEN                           Which is very difficult.

MASON                   It’s very difficult, but for this category, I felt like the best success was most closely trying to replicate what people were used to doing, which was that pasta experience. For me, that included things like what’s called fork behavior, where I like how it performs on the fork. Does it pick up sauce or not? And then mouth feel, the density that it needs to have once you take the bite as well.

BEN                           You need to be able to twirl it on your fork just like you would with a regular, grain-based pasta.

MASON                   Yeah. From a fresh vegetable perspective, that’s actually an interesting and difficult task. There are little homemade machines that you can do, but you end up with a very watery, the texture isn’t right kind of product. I have a chemical engineering background-

BEN                           Yeah, I was about to interject that. This is an interesting twist to the story, that you’re an engineer by training, right?

MASON                   Yeah.

BEN                           You’re going to bring an engineer’s mind to this and thought process. As an engineer, you set out to solve this problem.

MASON                   Yeah. I studied the microbiology of it. Also, a lot of entrepreneurs, I have a little OCD, and once I started, I was like, “I’m going to figure out and make the perfect noodle.” I spent six months studying the microbiology of it, studying what happens when you run a blade across a vegetable, and then trying to optimize for these different components, which required a lot of tinkering.

                                    What ended up happening was I invented the machine, a machine that made what I thought was the best quality noodle out there. Then, as we started to tweak the machine for faster throughput, and engineering things, we noticed that we hit it with version one, and then when we would change things, we noticed quality would go down in a particular way, or it wouldn’t be able to handle certain vegetables, and we were like, “Oh.” We learned more and more about the magic in a machine, to make the perfect noodle, and also be versatile across different kinds of noodles, because there were machines out there that could make a great sweet potato noodle, but then they couldn’t handle the high water content of zucchini, or vice versa like that. We were able to hone in on a machine that could handle a wide variety of vegetables, and then make them into pasta that behaved just like regular pasta.

BEN                           You had to engineer, effectively, the blade and the cutting motion and things like that, to make sure that it was, at a microscopic level, as it was cutting through that vegetable, the fiber of that vegetable, that it was either melting the edges of the starches or whatever had to happen there, because again, wheat and gluten is a magical thing. The reason why people have so much trouble replicating this is because the proteins and the way they create this spongy web of flexibility is very difficult to replicate in other ways. You had to really take a mechanical engineering mind to say, “How do I take equipment that takes a variety of different vegetable substrates and modifies those ever so slightly to make sure that the perform later, in a way that as closely as possible mimics this Holy Grail of regular pasta?”

MASON                   Exactly. As an engineer, I found it fascinating. I think a lot of people were like, “Oh, well this is good enough. Let’s move on.” I’m like, “No, no, no, no. We are getting down to this.” It comes all the way down to angles of blades and whether blades are single beveled or dual beveled, and all these forces. There’s a whole slew of actual physical forces that happen when you run something through.

BEN                           What’s the cutting motion, what’s the heat that’s applied through the friction, and all of those factors.

MASON                   Yeah, all those go in. That was the really fascinating part of the project. On the other side, I had been watching a store that I go to all the time is Whole Foods Lamar, downtown. That’s one of their flagship stores, and they try new things. It’s on the front edge of their mind, so I’m always watching what they were doing. I saw this value-added vegetable shelf go from an eight-foot section to a 32-foot section over the ten years I was doing Greenling. I was like, “Value-added vegetable, there’s something really going on here.” That was the other component.

                                    Then, when I would tell people about the idea, I’m like, “What do you think about vegetable noodles?” They’re like, “Oh, that sounds great. We’d put it in with the fresh pasta.” I’m like, “No, no, I don’t think it goes with the fresh pastas. I want it next to the salads and the cut fruit.”

BEN                           Right as you walk in the door.

MASON                   Yeah, 95% of eyeballs see that shelf, whereas maybe 40% see the fresh pasta shelf.

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   I wanted to be front and center. That shelf is full of a bunch of deep, rich colors from all of the vegetables that are in there. I really wanted the brand to pop out from that. That’s when I had the idea to do the chipboard sleeve. We have a white chipboard sleeve on top of what looks very much like a fresh made here kind of container, so that it would stand out from that shelf in particular. I created the brand around it.

BEN                           You guys really built that brand color palette, so much so that I know it. At trade shows and things like that, the whole team is wearing white shirts, white pants, and that sort of thing. It had a cool, retro-vibe and that sort of thing. Really, the genesis of that is, what’s the color that best contrasts at the shelf?

MASON                   Yeah, yeah, exactly, and then building the brand around that. Two funny stories. One, when I launched it, I went to Shelf Studio and Alison, and was like, “Let’s build some packaging around this company. I have a company, we’re going to call it Veggie Noodle Co,” and she was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up. Shouldn’t we do an exercise around the name and figure out whether that’s the right name or not?” I was just like, “No, people don’t really know what a vegetable noodle is, so there’s an education component, and I know I only have three seconds on shelf when someone walks by, to grab their attention and then to convince them to pick it up. If they don’t pick it up in three seconds, they’re not going to pick it up,” I’m like, “So I need Veggie Noodle to be really big on pack.”

BEN                           Maximum clarity.

MASON                   She was like, “Well, that is going to limit you in the future. You won’t be able to move horizontally into other products if your name is Veggie Noodle Co. I told her, I was like, “That’s a high-class problem.” If we get to the point where I have to change our name because we have so many products, we’ll figure out what to do at that point.

BEN                           No, that makes a lot of sense. That’s where you started as Veggie Noodle Co. What was the first product?

MASON                   The first product was, we launched with two SKUs, zucchini noodles and sweet potato noodles. I ran with those for over a year, just the two SKUs. Everyone was like, “Oh, you should do this, you should do that, you should do this.” I was like, “No, I want this business to be as simple as possible, because the model to be simple, because operationally, we had to figure out how to make this product to scale.”

BEN                           It was already complex enough.

MASON                   Yeah, you can’t just buy pasta machines, because that product is a dry, flexible product that you can macerate and you can ply, and the vegetable is much more sensitive to mechanical damage. At the same time, it’s not a cut veg, where you’re just cutting it into squares and then running it down a flume. It’s somewhere in between. Most of the machinery out there to process either vegetables or pasta didn’t work for veggie noodles. I knew that our primary challenge, out of the gates and for the first several years, was figuring out how to actually make it at scale, because you’ve got to be able to do it in a profitable way.

BEN                           You made a decision early on. Again, you had invented a machine and a process and all of this kind of stuff, which is super valuable, and you had made a decision to simplify your product mix because of the complexity of the production. Was there ever a point where you thought about, or you tried to say, “Could I make this at a co packer?” Or did you know from the beginning that you wanted to control that production yourself?

MASON                   I felt like it was always a conversation. I feel like I always need to be open to that conversation. But early on, there was nobody doing it. We were the first ones.

BEN                           I’m sure you looked into it and you were like, “Well, it’s not an option.”

MASON                   We were the first ones to bring it to shelf, and when we would talk to people who were vegetable processors, they were just like, “No, no, no, no. You can’t do that.” I’m like, “Okay, well, we’re going to go ahead and figure it out.”

BEN                           That’s a common reaction from incumbents, because they’re like, “Look, I do what I do. I make plenty of money doing what I do. Why do I need to go out on a limb and solve this?” But as an entrepreneur, you’re feisty, you’re scrappy. You’re like, “I don’t think I want to take that no,” or, “The way we’ve always done it around here is this,” and you’re like, “I kind of don’t care the way we’ve always done it around here. We’re trying to do something pretty radically different and innovative.”

MASON                   Yeah. When investors or people would ask about it there, I was like, “Nobody knows how to do this. We would, one, 100% be teaching someone how to do it, and then what if they screw it up?” Having the control, like you said, I think was really important, since we still didn’t really know how to do it.

BEN                           Absolutely. Again, there’s some really interesting things here. On the retail side, so you make this decision to be in produce, which in virtually every grocery store in the world is what you encounter as you first come in the door, which is all very deliberate. It’s this sense of abundance and that sort of thing. As you mentioned, you have the most eyeballs possible there. You’ve been very focused. You’re like, “Okay, only two SKUs, and using this white color palette, we’re going to create some differentiation and distance from the other brands on the shelf.” How early did you know that this was working?

MASON                   Felt like there were indications, and then I would doubt. We launched on the shelf of Whole Foods Lamar. The regional buyer there, I just knew how to reach her, because Greenling, we’d done partnerships with Whole Foods.

BEN                           Just for everybody who’s listening and watching this, you had started a company called Greenling that was also a fresh produce company. You’d been doing that for how many years?

MASON                   10 years.

BEN                           10 years, so you understood this produce world and the produce buying world, and that sort of thing well. It wasn’t like you wandered in off the street and had never dealt with fresh produce before. Not that that made any of this easy, but you did have a background in it.

MASON                   It made it viable. I would never recommend someone go in off the street into the produce industry, because it’s extremely hard, and you need a strong stomach to deal with it. There’s intricacies about produce.

BEN                           Highly perishable. Lots of things can go wrong.

MASON                   Yup, yeah. And there’s certain things that you have to pay really close attention to, because you won’t know that it’s messing up the product until it doesn’t make shelf life and it fails early, and then you’re like, “Wait, what happened?” By then you’ve had weeks of production where you may be putting out bad product and not knowing it, because the load got delayed four days at the border or something, or cold damage.

BEN                           Right, because you have a global supply chain, you have high moisture content products that are coming from other climates and other regions and things like that. You’re particularly susceptible to spoilage and mold and mildew and all kinds of crazy stuff, too.

MASON                   Yeah. The thing that I was not familiar with was velocities, and what was good and what was not. I asked the regional buyer to lunch, and we had made, just with, call it version .5 of the machine had made a little bit of product in the kitchen. I got it, I had it, got the sleeves, so I was able to bring her, “This is what will go on the shelf,” not knowing yet how or where I was actually going to make this product for the shelf. She took one look at it and was like, “How quickly can you get it?” I’m like, “Just give me two weeks, I think?”

BEN                           That’s right, yeah.

MASON                   She was like, “Okay, two weeks.” I was like, “Okay, now I have to figure out where and how we’re going to make this product.” Started making the two SKUs, got it on the shelf at Lamar.

BEN                           Just at Lamar, or did you immediately launch into more of the Southwest region stores?

MASON                   Just at Lamar.

BEN                           Just at Lamar. So again, you were super-focused again. I think this is really instructive for people, is that the goal, and I think people will understand in a moment that the company scaled rapidly, but you didn’t attempt like, “I’m not trying to launch this globally out of the gate. I’m very, very focused. I have two SKUs, one store, super focused.”

MASON                   Yeah. Everyone was like, “What was your marketing plan year one?” It was demos. That was it. That was my only plan, was demos.

BEN                           Try it, yeah.

MASON                   I ran the first, somewhere between 20 and 25 demos. I convinced the Lamar store to let me set up at a space where I was opposite where the product was, so I could watch people interact with the product.

BEN                           Which is very valuable data that is better data than you will ever get from any syndicated data service, when you actually watch people interact with the product, whether it’s at a farmer’s market or at a demo or something like that.

MASON                   Yeah. I would sit there, and I would count how many people came by, how many people it caught their eye, how many of those picked it up, and then how many of those put it into their basket in the slow periods. In the fast periods, I was just trying to-

BEN                           Slinging noodles.

MASON                   Yeah, slinging noodles. I asked the regional buyer after about a month, I was like, “Okay, zucchini is selling at about 120 units per week, and the sweet potato was selling 60 to 70 units.” I’m like, “Is this good? Because I have no idea.” She was like, “Yeah, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” Them I’m like, “I don’t like that answer.” I called someone else. I’m like, “Is this good at Whole Foods?” I’m like, “Is this good?” A friend of mine who was at global, and he was like, “Yeah, that’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” I’m just like, I’m not liking these answers.

BEN                           Those are really curious answers.

MASON                   Then I start to call up some people who have been in CPG forever, an operating partner at TSG Capital and some other private equity folks. The first one I talked to, he was like, “Okay, well how fast is it moving?” I was like, “Well, zucchini is moving 120 units per week, and sweet potato, 70.” He’s like, “No, no, no, no. You’re mistaken. That 120, that’s across all of your SKUs. How much just for the one?” I was like, “No, no, that’s zucchini.” He was like, “No, no, then you must be doing it by month or something.” I was like, “No, no, zucchini spirals sells 120 units per week in this store.” He was like, “Holy shit.”

BEN                           Exactly. Because again, for people who aren’t as familiar with this, it’s all over the map, and different categories have different expectations. But your slower moving products in the baking aisle or something like that, if you’re doing two units per SKU per week, you’re like, “Okay.” You’re doing fine. 120 is really high velocity. It’s even high velocity if you were a grab-and-go, ready to drink beverage. You’re headed down a really good path right there. You’re this innovative product in a single store, but you’re moving a lot of product.

MASON                   Yeah, and so I think that was a point, kind of a month or two when I got validation from someone else, and from someone else. I’m like, “Okay, this stuff if flying off the shelf.”

BEN                           Were the Whole Foods people playing you a little bit? Were they sort of underselling how well it was doing?

MASON                   Yeah, I think so. Because I think it was three months in, I go to her and was like, “How do we compare?” She was like, “Oh, well this is a top 20 item in produce.” I’m like “Okay, that sounds pretty good.” She’s like, “Yeah, you’re up there with apples and bananas. You’re doing great.”

BEN                           That’s where you want to be.

MASON                   I was like, “Okay, great.” I was like, “Well, when can I expand?” She made me move a little slow in terms of stores within the Southwest region, which was great. I probably would have moved a little faster than I should have, because on the back end, we don’t have a kill step, and so we have to take extreme care to make sure that pathogens are not in the product.

BEN                           It’s really a clean room environment.

MASON                   Mm-hmm (affirmative). That part is really easy on paper, and then hard in practice. It’s training, and it’s day after day execution of making sure that every single person on the floor is adhering to GMPs, good manufacturing processes, and ensuring that nobody is sneezing or doing anything that gets anywhere near the food. That takes time to build up.

BEN                           It does. You had to build out your own manufacturing operation, which already sounds difficult, but one thing I think that people either who haven’t done it or maybe they’re from other cities, don’t understand this, that Austin, though it has become a hotbed for natural and organic food and beverage products, doesn’t have the same legacy infrastructure around manufacturing that a lot of other cities have.

MASON                   Right.

BEN                           This is a new thing. This is not like, “Oh, we’ll just recruit a bunch of people who have been doing this down the street.” You’re having to really start from scratch.

MASON                   Yup, yeah, and train people from scratch. It’s a very tight labor pool for this kind of work. Then you add on top of that, because we don’t have a kill step and it’s a fresh product, everything is made in a cold environment, in 38-degree coolers.

BEN                           It’s hard to retain people in a 38 degree environment.

MASON                   With a 4:00 am start.

BEN                           That’s right, yeah, yeah.

MASON                   4:00 am, 38 degrees, eight to 10 hours of sitting there doing the exact same thing over and over again, it’s a special type of person to be able to do that.

BEN                           With really sharp blades and all the things there, too.

MASON                   Yeah, yeah, exactly.

BEN                           This is serious business. What did it require of you and your team to really dial in, as you’re scaling up in a measured way on the retail side of the business, to really dial in the manufacturing side of things?

MASON                   Like you said, we had product market fit and timing perfect, and we knew this thing could blow up. We didn’t have manufacturing experience either. The first thing that I did was, luckily from my Greenling days, I had a really extensive network of friends who were entrepreneurs and then the Austin vibe, everyone is helpful. I went to some people who had kitchens, and was like, “Can we sublet some space from you so that I can make this? And then I would like to learn from you as well.” John Anderson, he did Zilks, and he’s got the ATX specialty co-packer now, he gave us some space and all of our PPE, everything. We were able to use some of his resources to flex.

                                    When we got into that space, we were like, “Okay, we think we can make some more than what we’re making for,” at that point we were in five stores. We’re like, “We think we can go to the whole region.” We expanded to the region, and those velocities create pretty massive amounts of vegetables we have to move through, even when you’re just getting into dozens of stores.

BEN                           Absolutely.

MASON                   He was like, “Mason, you’ve got to get out of here. I can’t run my business because y’all are just constantly taking it over.”

BEN                           You’re taking it over. Again, first world problems.

MASON                   Yeah, first world problems. Even the fast growth stories have moments of extreme luck that are a part of the story. One of our big moments of luck, because there was no legacy manufacturing infrastructure, when he’s like, “You’ve got to get out of here,” I go look around the city and there’s nowhere to make food.

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   Talked to the city, and they’re like, “Well, if you’re going to make food, this is a nine-month process.” I was like, “Oh. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

BEN                           “What are we going to do?” Yeah.

MASON                   I get a call from someone who, because my last company, Greenling, I sold it to another company, and they’d moved into the Greenling space. Them and the landlord had something where they were no longer going to be in the space. Someone who was working there called me up and was like, “Hey, we’re leaving this space in six or eight weeks.” I called the landlord and was like, “Hey, would you consider renting it back to me?” They were like, “No way, Mason.” They were not fans of Greenling as a use for this space. He was just like, “No way. We’re not doing this again.”

                                    I was like, “No, no, no, this one is very different. This is food manufacturing, lower people,” because we didn’t have enough parking there. I was like, “Here’s all the ways that we know we were pissing you off at Greenling, and how we wouldn’t do it here.” He was like, “Okay, I think I’m into this.” The part that was a lock and was I think one of the biggest risks that I took was that the way that I read the regulations and the way that a couple people had advised me, even though they had taken over the space at Greenling, they had never transferred over the permits with the city. City permits are in an individual’s name. So, the city permits were still in my name. We had already amended it. We had a value-added kitchen at Greenling, so we had amended it to do light vegetable processing. Our permit allowed for this use. The city didn’t know all the shifts that were going down.

BEN                           Which entity it was.

MASON                   Yeah. So, I signed the lease just guessing that they were going to let me move into this space and do this and do vegetable processing in this space. For the city, all I did was apply for a change of name. We didn’t change anything about the permit. If you change it with food, you have to go through full site plan review, and that’s the nine-month process.

BEN                           Austin, in particular, is a very, very slow, laborious permitting process around all of this.

MASON                   Yeah, which I have some stories around that over our new facility. For this one, we move in and I say, “City, come out. I just want to change the name. We’re still going to be doing the same types of things that we’ve been doing, but we’re changing the name.” They come out and they do an inspection, and they’re like, “Okay, great. Name change, you’re good to go.” So, day two, we were able to start manufacturing in that facility. We went from 500 square feet of sub-letted space of 7000 square feet. That allowed us to grow dramatically. Then we brought on H-E-B, who is just massive. We’re in hundreds of stores.

BEN                           When you launched into H-E-B, did you launch into all H-E-Bs, or just a subset of H-E-Bs?

MASON                   Subset. I feel like most natural brands have the up stores, and then about half of their core stores. We’re in 160, 170-ish stores, which we’re still in about that amount now. They came on, and just blew up, and then several other Whole Foods regions were like, “We want this too,” because they were seeing the velocity.

BEN                           And because success begets success, too, right? When you have those early velocities at Lamar, that opened up the door for the rest of the region. You had those successful velocities in the region. That opened up other opportunities for you. That’s why having this very focused approach can be a really savvy move.

MASON                   Yeah. I have always been velocity, not doors. I don’t care about doors. I care about what the velocity is, and I’d rather be in a small set of stores with really high velocity than 5000 stores with low velocity.

BEN                           Absolutely.

MASON                   Just six, and then all the other things in get the way.

BEN                           Absolutely. You’re going to have more spoilage; you’re going to be discontinued at some of those other stores. It’s going to look good on paper to certain people, but the reality is, you’ve made your business exponentially more complex, and if you could have one store that sold all of your products, and sold the same amount as 1000 stores, that’s a lot simpler business that you’re going to run a lot better.

MASON                   Yup, and it will be more profitable.

BEN                           Right, all business.

MASON                   Usually.

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   We quickly even grew out of that space. We had trailers that we would pull up and load up with either raw or finished goods, and then pull off and park for a little while. Then, the landlord was like, “Oh, the space next to you is opening up. It’s 10,000 refrigerated.” I was like, “I need it. I need it. Right now, I need it. How can I get it?” There was some kind of dispute with the prior tenant around who was going to pay for a bunch of repairs. It was delaying things, and we were just busting at the seams. I finally called the landlord. I’m like, “How much is this dispute?”, and they were like, “It’s about $20,000 in repairs that they don’t want to pay for.” I was like, “I’ll pay for those repairs right now.”

BEN                           “Can I please get in the space?”

MASON                   Yeah. They were like, “Oh, well, if you want to pay for them, yeah, sure.” Then I’m like, “Great, let’s do it.” Then we were able to expand even more. Our production space was around 2000 square feet, and there it took about a year to grow out of that, as we continued to move into retailers, which I thought it would last three years.

BEN                           Of course.

MASON                   We grew out of it faster than we expected. Now, another, I think an interesting thing on the retail side, my strategy also, I wanted simplicity, I wanted velocity, but I also wanted saturation within a market before I moved on to other markets. I wanted to be in every grocery store so that we would have high awareness, and I could start running marketing campaigns around the conversion funnel, because we were everywhere that everyone could be. It’s really market based marketing plans. But we were being pulled by these other regions. We were like, “Well, I don’t know how to get it up to Illinois,” and they were like, “We’ll pick it up.” I’m just like, “Okay, pick up the product.”

BEN                           “Okay, I guess.”

MASON                   We’re going to do it. We launched in four Whole Foods regions, and then I brought on someone to help, my number two, help with business development and sales. He’s like, “Look, so these other retailers, they have a really long sales cycle, so we should be going after a Costco and a Target now, because it’s going to take a year or more to get it on the shelf there.” One of the most fun moments, I’m like, “Okay, these are going to take a really long time. Let’s ask them for a meeting.” Both Costco and Target, and then Publix was calling, and they all accepted a meeting within a few weeks. Then I look at the guy, I’m like, “We can’t do this.”

BEN                           Can’t even make enough product.

MASON                   He’s just like, “I don’t know. This isn’t the way it goes.”

BEN                           That’s right, yeah. You used the word “pull”. The market, the buyers of these retailers and the consumers were pulling the product off the shelf. It wasn’t you pushing and begging and pleading with people, “Oh, would you please take my product?” “Oh, would you please buy my product?” To me, that’s the nature of true product market fit. It’s that feeling, like if you’re hitting a baseball or a golf ball or tennis ball or something, and you hit it in the sweet spot and it just flies off the bat, and you’re like, “Wow, that was different.” It’s like you hit that.

MASON                   Interesting, I’ve been a mentor at SKU, so I’ve been around, and at Greenling we saw so many brands come and go, and so many of them would struggle with that product market fit. They would do re-brands, they would do reformulations, they’d keep trying to tweak their product to make it fit the market. When I originally launched, I was like, “It’s either going to go gangbusters, or I’m going to drop it. I’ve got five ideas right behind this one.”

MASON                   I’m a bootstrap entrepreneur at my core, and so when I created this product, one, the packaging designer, I gave her a little bit of equity for the work, to make that cheap. I got the product on the shelf, food safe, fully packaged, ready to go product. We were on Lamar, I’d spent less than $25,000, and I was prepared to lose that money if it didn’t fly off the shelf. If we hit the shelf and it wasn’t moving, I was scrapping the idea.

BEN                           It was a contained investment. You were like, “Okay, I’m willing to lose $25,000. I’m not going to lose more than $25,000, but this is the experiment. It’s either going to work or it’s not going to work.”

MASON                   Yeah, and I’m not going to struggle with it and try to push it through.

BEN                           Which you see a lot of people do, and it’s painful to watch.

MASON                   It is painful to watch. I understand their connection to their product, and some really great stories come out of that.

BEN                           Eventually, you can pivot and reiterate again and again and again.

MASON                   Yeah. For this product, I didn’t want to do that. Knowing all the risks around it with it being a fresh product and pathogens and everything, I was like, “This has got to work right away, or I’m moving on to something that doesn’t have pathogens that can kill people lurking around.

BEN                           That’s right, absolutely. Super high stakes.

MASON                   Yup, yup. It worked, but I wanted saturation, but being pulled in these different directions was like, okay, we’ve just got to go with it. When these big retailers came around, we actually told Costco and Publix, we were like, “Just not yet. We can’t do it yet.” It was like, Target, I was like, “Target is not a grocery store. They’re trying to be, but they’re not.”

BEN                           And they tend to change their strategy pretty frequently as well.

MASON                   Yeah, yeah, once a year or every couple years.

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   I asked Target to send me their category sales data, and their top selling products on the value-added shelf was some broccoli florets and Brussels sprouts, and they were selling seven to 10 units per store, per week. I was like, “Okay, we can take on a few hundred Targets.”

BEN                           You were confident at that point you could outperform that metric.

MASON                   Yeah, yeah. Not Costco, not Publix, but Target had a low enough velocity in grocery that I felt like we could do it.

BEN                           Which is a funny thing to do. You’re like, “I want to go into a retailer that I’m not going to sell too much product.” Most people are not really thinking that way, but the reality is, and this is why I like going into Costco, it’s so huge that it can crush your business if you’re not careful. You have to be judicious about who you say yes to.

MASON                   Yeah, and if you say yes and then you can’t deliver the product, and they drop it, you don’t get a second chance.

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   So, moved forward with Target and being in Whole Foods and Target, somehow everyone in the country was like, “What on earth is this brand? And we want it.”

BEN                           Because they’re sort of taste-making retailers in many regards. There can be a lot of “me too”, or herd mentality around that stuff. Clearly these are the smart people. They’ve discovered this is the next new thing. I need to have the next new thing.”

MASON                   Yup, yup. We still weren’t doing trade shows. We were trying to fly under the radar, because we knew we had this operational capacity limit that were just eking away at, and slowly growing, and figure out how to do it faster. There were key components in the process that we were trying to figure out, and when one would hit, we’d be like, “Okay, now we can all of a sudden make 50% more, so now we can take on some more.” But then we hit the space constraint again, where we just didn’t have the manufacturing space to be able to make enough. But we were doing great, pumping it out seven days a week, 20 hours a day. When we finally moved out of that facility, I was like, in a year it looked like we had done ten years’ worth of wear and tear.

BEN                           Absolutely, absolutely. A tornado had come through.

MASON                   Yeah, everything. It took moving out to see it all and to be like, “Whoa, those walls are almost worn away.”

BEN                           Just plastered with zucchini.

MASON                   Yeah and rusted because we used so much water. Water kept getting into our neighbor’s space. We eventually just caulked and sealed the entire room. Then there was still some getting around and it was through the door. There were all these problems we had to solve. Meanwhile, we weren’t able to fill even the orders that we had. That added to some of the market hysteria, because they’re like, “Whole Foods has got it, but the shelf is empty all the time. That means people are buying this product,” which was true, but also we couldn’t deliver enough.

BEN                           Out of stocks are really not a good thing in the grand scheme of things. Again, maybe it’s that signal. Temporarily when you have a run on the product, that can be kind of cool. But ultimately, if people can’t buy the product, you’re not making that revenue.

MASON                   Yup. It was fall of 2016, and I was like, “Okay, we’re filling orders at 50%, and we’ve got twice as many customers that are on basically a waiting list as were doing it.” I’m like, “Okay, now it’s time to raise money. I’ve got to build a facility.” We hadn’t even been in business two years. No bank was going to give me any money.

BEN                           Which was always really funny, because again, a lot of these traditional institutions don’t like the fact that you’ve grown this fast.

MASON                   Right.

BEN                           Right? It’s like, “Ooh, that’s risky. That’s weird.” You’re like, “I thought this was why we all did business, but okay.”

MASON                   Even some of the non-traditional ones, which I’ll call out Able by name, because their whole model was financing a model that allowed people to get debt that wouldn’t normally. Because you’d get friends and family to do 25%, and then they do 75%, but they’re first in line. They were able to mitigate some of the risk. It was a cool model. Applied to it, and they came back and were like, “So, we see it looks like in the last three months you went from $100,000 a month to $400,000 a month. How is that possible?” I’m like, “Wait, I don’t understand the question.” They’re like, “That’s not something that we see.” I’m like, “Okay, but what’s the question again?”

BEN                           “Isn’t that good?”

MASON                   They’re like, “We don’t believe it.” I’m like, “Well, do you want to see the invoices? We sent you our books. Are you accusing me of fraud?” I’m still struggling, and they’re like, “Our investment committee just doesn’t believe that you can grow this fast, and so we’re passing on the opportunity.” I’m like, “You are fucking kidding me. I grew too fast, even for you to give me money?” They’re just like, “Yeah, sorry.”

BEN                           Wow. A lot of people don’t have the mental categories for what to do with that, when you’re, again in one quarter, you’re tripling or quadrupling the business on a monthly basis. Again, for a lot of businesses, they’re like, “We’re aiming for 2% annual growth this year.” We have like a 100% monthly growth.

MASON                   Yeah, it’s insane. There’s a lot of ways to fail while that’s going on.

BEN                           Absolutely. The scale, you’re having to invest, and this is where you get to that point where you’re raising money, because you’re investing ahead of growth. You have to invest to build the capacity to be able to fulfill those bigger Costco and Publix and other orders, right?

MASON                   Yup, yup, exactly. That’s when we built our shiny new facility on the east side, which was a crazy whirlwind as well, because I had had another deal that fell through, because it didn’t have enough utilities for us. I’m just like, “We are going to lose these customers if we don’t increase capacity.” We’re just busting at the seams where we’re at. I didn’t even have an agent, because there was no space that fit our needs, really. One came up on LoopNet, I was monitoring LoopNet and I saw it. I personally just dropped what I was doing, drove out and drove around the facility. Our particular use, we needed a lot of dock doors, and then we also still needed a lot of parking, because we had big crews running the production.

                                    I drove around. I was like, “This is a lot of parking and a lot of dock doors.” A lot of new construction industrial is 200-foot bays now, so you only get one door per 4500 square feet or something, which was not enough for us because we had so many in and out.

BEN                           You have a lot of rapid, produce coming in, produce coming out, all of that.

MASON                   Yeah, and because we manufacture pretty much to order, and we want raw to have as little days on it as possible, trucks are coming in, and as they’re coming off, we’re unpacking it and producing with it. We don’t build inventory for anything, so we need a lot of dock doors. I saw it, I think it was in March, middle of March.

BEN                           This was March of 2017?

MASON                   ’17. Middle of March is when I kicked off the fundraising. I kicked it off at Expo West and had a bunch of meetings out there. By April, I’d signed the lease, and then I called in a favor at the mayor’s office to get me this new, experimental program they were doing with one day permitting, where they just got everyone around a table, and all the trades signed off on it. I had architectural drawings by the end of April. I had the one-day permit.

BEN                           You pay extra. It’s an expedited permitting process.

MASON                   Yup, yup. Then we started construction May 5th, and we got our certificate of occupancy September 4th.

BEN                           For Austin, that’s very, very rapid. Did the facility have any refrigeration stuff in it already?

MASON                   No.

BEN                           So you had to add all of that.

MASON                   We actually chipped out 70% of the floor as well, to put in all new plumbing and then all new slopes for everything.

BEN                           Right, because you have a lot of water. You need a lot of floor drains. You’ve got to make sure that you’re not seeping water out between rooms and all that kind of stuff as well.

MASON                   So every part of the process, general contractors have this timeline. By the end they hated me, because I would look at it and be like, “Why can’t we do this one at the same time as the other one?” They’re like, “Well, you have to because of XYZ.” I’m like, “But what if you did it this way?” They’re like, “Well, that’s not the way we do it.” I’m like, “But what if you did?”

BEN                           “Could you?”

MASON                   They’re like, “It would probably cost extra.” I’m like, “Okay. Let’s shorten this timeline.”

BEN                           “You know what also costs me extra? Not being able to fulfill these orders.”

MASON                   Yeah, exactly. Every one of those decisions, I would be like, “Okay, we are making $20,000 a day of product. I think we could be making $50,000 a day of product. That’s my delta right there, and that’s my opportunity cost for every day of delay on this project.”

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   I just having to hammer that into their ears. I’m like, “So what if it costs $10,000 extra? That’s not even one day of lost revenue that I am experiencing right now, because we can’t get this thing done.”

BEN                           Which is a very different perspective than they’re used to, right? It’s like they think, “You want me to keep it as cheap as possible.” You’re like, “Yeah, I don’t want to waste money, but it is actually wasting money if you delay this any longer, if you slow foot it.”

MASON                   But then, on the other side, then the general contractor is like, “Oh, okay. You want signs? That’ll be $10,000.” I’m like, “I know these costs $50 to make the sign.”

BEN                           That’s right. There’s a little bit of a markup on that.

MASON                   He’s just like, “You want it fast, right?” I’m like, “Well then wait on the signs. We’ll do the signs ourselves.”

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   You still have to check up a lot on them.

BEN                           “I’ll have my daughter do the signs.” That’s right.

MASON                   Exactly.

BEN                           So then how big was this facility?

MASON                   40,000 square feet.

BEN                           48,000?

MASON                   40.

BEN                           40,000 square feet. You had gone from 500 square feet to 7000, to 40,000.

MASON                   Yeah, within two years, and 30,000 of it cold.

BEN                           A little bit of office. A lot of –

MASON                   Whole lot of cold. We actually went a little lighter on storage. I designed the facility for what I thought could handle four lines, which would be about $150 million dollars of annual revenue throughput, but storage was only $70 million to $90 million dollars’ worth of throughput storage. I overbuilt production, under-built storage, because I knew storage is one of the cheaper things to get.

BEN                           That’s right. You can always ship things offsite or spin up another facility.

MASON                   Exactly, and much easier to build than the production facility as well.

BEN                           Correct.

MASON                   One of, I think, the crazier stories of the growth was when we had brought on Kroger. Finance department did not tell me that they didn’t pay their first several bills, and so they worked up $400,000 of AR on our side. I was actually on a weekend vacation for a wedding in Cabo, and Friday, my bank starts blowing me up. I finally answer. I’m like, “What is it?” They’re like, “Your account’s overdrawn.” I’m like, “Oh, shit. Okay. Let me try to figure out. How many checks? How much is it overdrawn?” She goes, “$150,000.”

BEN                           Oops.

MASON                   What? I told my girlfriend, I’m like, “You go to the wedding.” I close the blinds and I was on the phone the entire day, trying to raise an emergency amount of money without telling the private equity group we were in final negotiations with for a multi-million-dollar round that I ran out of money to the tune of $150,000. I’d been with my bank a long time, and so they saved the day there, where what they would do, which I didn’t even know banks could do this. They would hold checks in pending and they would clear the amount of checks that our checks would come through, and then they held them for several days, where they just wouldn’t clear checks, and then as checks came in, they would clear out the oldest ones. Then, over that next week, I closed on $300,000 of emergency loans with high interest from insiders without telling the private equity group, and then several weeks later, we closed with the private equity group.

                                    We cut that one so close, where the day before we closed, the general contractor was like, “If I don’t have my first construction payment tomorrow, I’m filing a lien. All the crews are leaving, we’re shutting down this project completely. If you want us to ramp it back up, it’ll be after we finish another project.” He’s basically like, “We’re going to leave for several months if you don’t pay me tomorrow.” We gave on a couple of terms, and we’re like, “We need to close this right now.” You don’t want to spook the private equity group, but we have the closing call, and I’m like, “When is this wire going go to go through? Is there any way to get it through today?” He’s like, “I mean, I guess. Do you need it?” I’m like, “Yeah, it would really help a lot.”

BEN                           That’s awesome. Absolutely. I think that’s super instructive, too, because I think that people, when they’re starting out, they assume that once you have some success, then you’re in the clear, but it really is just a different set of problems. It’s more complex, and there’s more zeroes behind it. You might be in a situation where the business is growing like gangbusters and you’re overdrawn on your account $150,000. You’re like, “Uh oh. I thought I was in the clear. I’m not in the clear yet.” That’s enough money that you’re like, “I can’t just cover that really quick.” You can get into some really, really sticky situations.

MASON                   Yeah, and things can go really wrong really fast from that point if you’re not really on it. There was this operations crew, and we were growing, and one of them was like, “Man, I don’t understand. I thought when we got bigger, things would get easier.” I was like, “No, no, no, no.” I was like, “Things don’t get easier. You just get a stronger stomach to handle it.”

BEN                           They get different.

MASON                   They get different, and there’s extra zeroes on the problems. You just get a stronger stomach to deal with the extra zeroes on those problems. If you don’t, and if you freak out, then that can be really bad.

BEN                           That’s right. You do have to have that strong stomach to say, “Okay, take a deep breath. What are we going to do now?” You closed this round. I think it’s helpful for people who think, “I need to raise money.” One thing that’s, I think, important for folks to understand is, in general, and I’m going to speak in some general terms here, in the consumer-packaged goods space, investors tend to invest based on traction. It’s not like technology, where people will write you checks for your swell idea. Even if you’re pretty experienced and things like that, in general, they want proof. They want data.

                                    You worked really hard, you’d given some of this early indicator data that, hey, this is working. This has the ability to scale. And then you decided, “Okay, now is the time to add rocket fuel to this.” Was that a fast process? You mentioned that you began taking some meetings, having some conversations at Expo West earlier that year. How long did that process take?

MASON                   We ran a very fast process.

BEN                           There was some urgency.

MASON                   Yeah, there was a lot of urgency. All the investor groups that we talked to; they understood the urgency. Because we opened up Expo West, so the first week of March. We said, “We need terms sheets by April 1, and we want to close by the end of April.” Most groups were like, “That’s impossible.”

BEN                           That’s very, very fast.

MASON                   Very fast. We’re like, “Here’s our situation though.” Several groups were like, “Okay, we will drop everything and try to figure this out.”

BEN                           It’s probably more normal, just so people know, for that to be a six-month process.

MASON                   Yeah, absolutely. I would normally account for a six-month process, and I had help figuring out how to word it and manage those relationships to where we didn’t come across super arrogant or anything. We’re just like, “We really need the money because we have this much business waiting at the door for it.” Some groups understood that. My prior company, Greenling, we had gone through five different fundraising rounds. Two of them down rounds. We had a contentious board at the end. There was some that the progression of terms sheets through the fundraising rounds, and how the capital waterfall evolves over time, I had some recent wounds from.

BEN                           Absolutely, because you can be the founder of something and through enough of those negative financing situations, and contentious board situations, where you might not make any money out of this deal.

MASON                   Yeah, you get diluted down to where your upside is very little, but you’re still on the hook for a whole lot. That becomes a really painful situation and is no fun at all. I should have raised money a little earlier, but because I had those wounds, I was like, “I’m waiting until the very last minute, because I know as soon as I do this round, it starts a timeline that I can’t stop.”

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   It’s either, things are going great, or I’m handing my company over to someone else.

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   Those are the only two options.

BEN                           That’s really, I think, an important insight, and you’d lived that already. Now, you were having to make a really thoughtful decision about, “Am I ready to go there? Because if things continue to go gangbusters, then this will be great for me and it will be great for the investors, and everybody will be giving each other high fives. If there are bumps in the road, this could get dicey. There could be a situation where, as we grow, I’m not in charge of my own company anymore.”

MASON                   Yup, exactly. The other really important thing that I gave a lot of thought to was, I didn’t take the best terms sheet. I took the terms sheet from the group that I thought added the most value to what I was doing. It was a private equity group called Encore Consumer Capital, out of San Francisco. They had so much operating experience, especially in the fresh field. There were lots of groups that we talked to, where once I started talking about the parameters around fresh, it was just like they couldn’t even wrap their heads around it. I’m like, “No, no, no. This is different.” The questions they would ask me, I’m like, “I understand what you’re trying to get at, but that question is not relevant to our department.” We don’t have free fills. There’s all these things that center store companies deal with that we don’t.

BEN                           Which, most of those investment firms specialize in that center store world, right?

MASON                   Yeah. Then there’s a bunch of things that we deal with that nobody else deals with. We picked the group that we thought had the most relevant experience and could help us scale.

BEN                           So it’s value-added because again, you’re not just raising money. You’re raising this deeper bench of expertise and access to even more expertise, and access to more resources that you know you’re going to need as you begin to take it to that next level.

MASON                   Even from day one, it was a minority round, but I knew I had to listen to them. It’s a partnership, and that relationship is something that has to be nurtured the entire time. If I disagree with them, I need to have thoughtful, considerate conversions with them, rather than be like, “I’m just going to go do it my way.”

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   That was also important in choosing a partner. We were lucky in that because we were the pretty girl at the dance, and that we were growing so fast, I got to interview and pick who I was going to work with, whereas I think most of the time, you’re like, “Okay, who’s actually going to give me money?”

BEN                           Absolutely.

MASON                   That’s the more common situation, and that’s what I went through all of Greenling, was just like, “Okay, who’s actually going to give me money?” I said no to more money at Greenling than I said yes to, but there were certainly times where it was like, “Well, we need the money, and they’re ready to give it.”

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   “So, we’ve got to figure out how to work with this new partner and make sure they understand the business in a way that they can be helpful and not hurt the business.”

BEN                           That is a fundamental, again. Gets back to some of your original decisions around getting that traction, getting those velocities up, and having those early wins. That created a market. When you finally decided to raise money, there was a market in place. It’s like trying to sell a house in Austin or another hot real estate market, where you put the house on the market and now you’ve got however many cash offers.

MASON                   Bidding wars.

BEN                           Boxes of chocolates or whatever the thing is. At that point, it’s a very different deal to sell something when there’s a market, versus when, “Anybody? Anybody want to buy this thing?” Then you’re not going to get the same frenzy. Then at that point, you have to be choosy about, you’re not just taking that highest offer. Whether that’s a minority or majority stake, to your point, you’ve kind of got a boss out of the thing. Or you at least got a partner in the business who you can’t just run roughshod over, or things are going to get really bad.

MASON                   Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly.

BEN                           You scale this up. You bring on the partner. You’re now in a new facility and positioned to be able to seize some of these other opportunities. Now, at this point in your life, in the life of the company, what are the biggest challenges? What are the things that are keeping you up at night at that point?

MASON                   I felt like one of my primary jobs the whole time is risk mitigation. Because we were being pulled through the market, I didn’t need to spend my mental bandwidth figuring out how to push into ways. That side of the business was kind of running on autopilot as we’re ramping up. For me, it’s about what are the things that can kill this business and how do I mitigate that? There were really big things early on, but then having our own dedicated facility that we have full control over and we built to the specs was the last, call it major risk point. Then, once I felt like we had mitigated most of the major risk points, other than food safety is always the number one risk.

We had a team, and we felt like we had a strong team addressing that, especially in the new facility where we could create our environment the way that the want. From that point on, then we turned to competition and the marketplace.

BEN                           Because at that point, in addition to investors, large incumbents are realizing, “Wow, I think this whole vegetable noodle alternative thing is maybe a deal.” Because they have data. They’re paying for the syndicated data, so they know how well you’re doing. They say, “Well, maybe we should knock this product off.”

MASON                   Yup, yup. That was going into 2018. Through 2018, we probably had a couple of dozen copycats hit the shelf in various parts of the country. Some big incumbents, some small startups, some private label chop shops. Everyone started making noodles. There’s one company who figured out how to build a machine that made it at a decent rate. We bought the machine, and we’re like, “It still doesn’t make a great quality noodle. It can make it at a higher rate, but it’s not a great vegetable noodle,” but we knew that’s what everyone else had, and so we’re like, “Okay. We know we can still beat these people in the marketplace with quality,” and then also, generally, throughput, because we were figuring out how to automate the process before anyone else was. A lot of these people, all the big incumbents, they have facilities that already have lines going, and they’re trying to figure out how to add a product to a line, rather than build a whole new line for the prep.

BEN                           Right, right.

MASON                   We had the advantage that we custom built a line for this product. That kept us with a runway, but there were still just a lot of people out there nipping at our heels, and so we were getting pricing pressure and distribution pressure and shelf life pressure, regional shop. Because very short shelf life product, and if it takes us four to five days to get it to a store…

BEN                           Which again, if you’re transporting it across the country, it just takes time.

MASON                   Yup. If they can get it for two extra days of shelf life from a local partner, then plenty of people did that. They would drop us to go with a local partner. Then it became really about positioning versus competition, and what are the areas that we can optimize to stay ahead of the competition and win against them, even with some inherent disadvantages around location nearby and such. That’s what we focus on for the next, call it year or so. One of the biggest sources of competition that we did not anticipate, we reviewed it in a board meeting, we saw that several companies were launching frozen versions of the veggie noodle. We did a cutting, we brought them in. We were like, “These are really poor-quality noodles, but when you have a Giant, B & G Foods, a ton of the frozen shelf all over the country-”

BEN                           They can block that off.

MASON                   I heard they spend over $5 million dollars in slotting fees to get their vegetable noodles on the shelf in 25,000 doors in under six months. Not only did they do that, but they also gave retailers free fill, and so they were retailing at $2.99 for frozen product, when we were $4.99 to $5.99 for fresh product. That took a big chunk out of the growth of the category, and we think, created a poor experience within the category.

BEN                           Which can lower people’s perception of, just generally, the category. You’re like, “I’ve tried some of those vegetable noodle things, and they’re not very good.” You’re like, “No, no, no, you didn’t try mine. You tried this inferior knock off.”

MASON                   Exactly.

BEN                           But it still has a negative ripple effect on you.

MASON                   Absolutely. Part of what we’ve been battling in recent history is that chunk, and people creating poor experiences, and then how do we recapture those customers, and give them a quality experience, so that they continue to pick it up off the shelf? Then, we’re like, “Okay, well the category is starting to flatten out. We still need a brand block.” We turned our attention to more of the heat-and-eat and grab-and-go, which is trending just across the board. Retailers are still trying to figure out what to do with it. No one, I think, has a great strategy. H-E-B has a pretty good strategy with their Meal Simple. They’re doing a lot of things right, but every retailer is trying to figure it out.

MASON                   Several of them bought these meal kit companies, and then threw them in the stores. I think there’s some disconnect there, if it’s all the ingredients and you still have to put it together, why would someone go to the grocery store to do that? I don’t think there’s a bright future for putting all the ingredients together in a grocery store. But like Meal Simple, where it’s the heat-and-eat portion, and you’re getting the people to-

BEN                           You cut out some steps in the process.

MASON                   Yeah, yeah. That’s what we’ve been doing lately, is coming out with heat-and-eat and grab-and-go items.

BEN                           You’re not just providing the raw materials for a meal. You’re actually providing what is almost a ready to go meal.

MASON                   Yeah, but still based on our foundational ingredients, the rice’s, the cauliflower and broccoli rice’s and the noodles.

BEN                           That’s awesome. When you first got started, I’m sure you were buying produce from local produce suppliers and things like that. It’s growing quickly, and you’re scaling up, and all this is exciting. But when you start doing this at scale, you’ve got to get really sophisticated about how you’re buying that stuff. How did you and your team learn that world?

MASON                   One, we had a really hard lesson, where a local supplier, we had a transient pathogen come through, listeria. We actually had to do a very, ended up being an extremely small recall with several mistakes in process along the way that led to that recall. But it was that point where, and we consulted the food safety community, and they’re like, “Well is the farm food safety certified? Do they have their primary certification?” They didn’t. They had some smaller certification that wasn’t as rigorous.

                                    We meet with these larger operations. We have one partner that’s growing in the central valley of Mexico, which is very similar to the valley in California, which is great soil, great water. We pull up to their farm and they make us stop at the front, and they spray down the vehicle with disinfectant so that we don’t bring pathogens onto their property. At the edge of the property, they’re doing that to ensure that their product is safe. That’s when we were like, “We have to work with farmers who understand how easy it is for a pathogen to run through.”

                                    Greenling was all about local food, and so I’m all about supporting local agriculture and local infrastructure, but for a product like this where we don’t have a kill step, and where we are creating massive quantities of it-

BEN                           At scale, it’s very different, too?

MASON                   Yeah.

BEN                           It’s all well and good to be able to buy from your local co-op or something like that, but then if you have to have 50 truckloads of it, that’s just not possible.

MASON                   Yeah, yeah. I’d call it one of the sadder moments, where it’s just like, “Okay, we would love to work with you, but you have to go get the certification, because we have to trust that when the food hits our dock, it doesn’t have any pathogens in it.” That’s when we moved to these larger organizations which, the produce industry, once you start to get into these massive quantities, is just a really fascinating industry, full of mostly really good people. Farmers are good people. There is definitely some cutthroat competition, as you move up in size. One of the farmers that I was talking to, he gave this perspective. Farmers can get wiped out by a flood or something at any time.

BEN                           Absolutely. Very risky.

MASON                   We would have fields where just a hailstorm comes through and we’re like, “Sorry, we can’t take any of the zucchini because these indentations break the skin, and thus pathogens can get in there.” They just have to plow a field of dented zucchini under.

BEN                           They just till it back under, yeah.

MASON                   I’m like, “How do you deal with that?” He’s like, “Look, farming is a five-year cycle. You have four years of barely making it. You harvest at the wrong time, or it’s the same time as everyone else and the price is through the floor, you have weather challenges, and then one year you get product at a time when no one else has it, and you go gangbuster, and you make a ton of money. It’s just enough to make up for those other four years where you barely made it.”

BEN                           That’s right. That’s right, yeah. Farmers are gamblers at heart, really.

MASON                   I think farming and teaching are the most noble professions on the planet.

BEN                           Sure, sure.

MASON                   We do everything we can to support them. We’re talking about firing back up some local programs where we’re actually holding their hands, too, and helping them get to the point where that they can supply us with product.

BEN                           Right, yeah. No, that’s really great. As you now enter into this new phase, what was the moment where you knew you had to re-brand? It’s not a re-brand, because again the trade dress, the packaging, it all stayed very similar, but you added Cece’s at the beginning. You discussed early on, you’re like, “Eh, I need people to know what we are.” Then that worked, people knew what you were, but now you have the challenge of, “Now we have to tweak it a little bit.” How did you make that decision, and was that straightforward or was it tough?

MASON                   It was tough, I think. It was really pushed by the private equity group. Also, we tried to get the trademark on veggie noodle, and we couldn’t. They were like, it’s too descriptive, too many people use it. We’re like, “Okay.” Private equity group was like, “You have to own your name. It’s just one of those things, and as you grow, and if you want to sell, you have to own your name.”

BEN                           Because there’s so much value in the brand itself.

MASON                   Because Kettle Chips, they don’t have a trademark on Kettle, but they own the category. They’re like, “We created this category.” So, I used Kettle as a case study, and I was like, “They commercialized and they branded kettle cooked chips, and so they own that category.” I’m like, “We created this category. We can own the category.” The private equity group was like, “You’re right, Mason. You can do that. It is an option.” They go, “At exit, it’ll cost you 10% to 20%.” I’m like, “What do you mean?”

BEN                           They’re going to discount it.

MASON                   “They will discount it because of that, whether it’s justified or not. They get to, because they own their name. Everyone owns their name, and so they get to use that as a leverage point to negotiate against us, at exit.” I’m like, “Okay, we’ll change the name.”

BEN                           Well, no. That’s right.

MASON                   But it was a difficult process, because I felt like we still needed that education on the pack. It was a really fun process, though, because the private equity group got together these really smart branding minds. Thought guys who created Method, a guy that had worked on Pirate’s Booty, someone who had worked on Gardein. All these really strong brand minds, and we all got together for a one-day exercise to choose a name.

                                    We had this process laid out of how we were going to go through it. I educated everyone on what our brand tenets were, what we wanted to communicate, where we were in the marketplace, to give everyone context. I’m like, “So here’s a brainstorming session that we can do. But I just have to say that my daughter’s name is Cece. She was our first product tester. When she was born, I bought all of her domains.” I was in the tech world before, so I was like, “I own all the domains around her name. It kind of adds to the authenticity of the brand’s story.” I’m like, “Just throwing that out there.” Everyone’s like, “Okay, that’s good to know.”

BEN                           “We’ll put that in the hopper.”

MASON                   “Let’s go through our brainstorming session.” At the end of the brainstorming session, whittled down and whittled down, and then it was either going to be Mason’s or Cece’s.

BEN                           You’re like, “Let’s make Cece the face of this.”

MASON                   Yeah, yeah, exactly. Greenling, I had to be really high profile, and anytime anyone would let me talk anywhere, I would do it and be like, “Here’s this thing, Greenling.”

BEN                           Notoriously, you drove around a Prius that had a giant banana on it for a long time, too.

MASON                   Yeah, the six-foot banana on top.

BEN                           You were not trying to be subtle in those days.

MASON                   Everyone knew where I was. No matter where I went, people were like, “Mason!” Like, “Hey.” I was really enjoying Cece’s flying under the radar. I did not want to be high profile. It was so nice to just live my life and go to dinner, and also not have to worry about where I parked my car.

BEN                           That’s right. That’s right.

MASON                   Which can have some complexity. It required eight foot, two inches of clearance for me to park in a garage.

BEN                           You couldn’t go in a parking garage.

MASON                   Yeah. Some garages I could, but most I couldn’t. I was like, “I do not want to put my name on this thing.” Cece’s a better story anyway. We were like, “We think we want to do this.” I’m like, “Okay, now I have to go to my family,” because I hadn’t talked to them about this before at all.

BEN                           That’s right, yeah.

MASON                   I co-parent, and I called my kids’ mom first, and was like, “We kind of think we want to go this route. What do you think about it? I don’t want to do anything that could affect her emotionally, in the future.” Their mom had a great perspective. She was like, “You know, this is what’s going to pay for their college,” and I had already set up some trust for the kids within the company. She was like, “This is what therapy is for down the road.”

BEN                           She used that money to pay for therapy.

MASON                   Exactly. I was like, “Okay. That’s a great perspective. Hopefully it doesn’t create that situation, but good perspective.” Then I had to go to my kids, and Cece has an older brother named Daxton, that’s two years older. At the time, she was five and he was seven. I get them at the table, and I’m like, “I have something we need to talk about.”

BEN                           “We have to have a business meeting,” with a five and seven-year-old.

MASON                   I was like, “Cece, we think we’re going to name the company ‘Cece’s’. We have to change our name, and here’s the reasons why. And Cece is actually a nickname. Her name is Cecily, and she had an endearing story where she was less than two years old and just started saying, “Everyone call me Cece.” We were just like, “Okay.” She didn’t know how to spell yet, so we’re just like, “How do we spell that?” We had to have a meeting and be like, “This is how we’re going to spell her nickname that she wants to be called.” Every day, she was like, “Call me Cece.” We’re like, “Cecily,” and she’s like, “Call me Cece.” We’re like, “Okay, she wants to be called Cece.” I told her we’re going to name the company Cece’s. She’s like, “Yeah, that’s cool, whatever.”

BEN                           “Do I get extra noodles or something out of it? Tee shirts?”

MASON                   She didn’t even ask any questions. I’m just like, “I need to just take this answer, but I kind of wish you would give it more thought, but I need the yes, so I’m just going to be okay with the yes.” Then, “Daxton, what do you think of that?” She just gives him this look like, “I’ve got a company named after me.”

BEN                           “What do you have?”

MASON                   I was like, “Ugh.” He gave her the wonk eye. He was like, “Well, can we name my next company after me?” I’m like, “Maybe, Daxton. What kind of company would you want to do?” He goes, “A Minecraft training company.” I was like, “Yes. Daxton, we can name that company after you.” He was like, “Okay, I’m good with it too.”

BEN                           Daxton’s Minecraft Academy. That’s perfect.

MASON                   They were both good with it, and I’m like, “All right. Here we go.”

BEN                           That’s great.

MASON                   But I still wanted that veggie noodle prominent. Also, we had built some brand equity. It wasn’t a ton, we didn’t have much ACV, but we had some fanatical customers. The way we devised it was to do a brand transition where we had Veggie Noodle Co, and then first part of the transition, all we did was put “Cece’s” above it. We didn’t change any of the imagery, the sizing of the font, anything. All we did was add “Cece’s”. We did that for about six months. Amazingly, we still got calls of people being like, “There’s a new company that’s ripping you off.”

BEN                           That’s amazing.

MASON                   We were like, “No, we just added a word. That’s still us.” They’re like, “Oh, okay.” Then, from there, we took the “Noodle” and put it below the “Co”, so then it was Cece’s Veggie Co, Noodled, and we added a “D” at the end. The fonts were the same size, everything was the same, we just changed the order of the words on the package.

BEN                           How long would each of these transition periods last?

MASON                   About six months. It was really based on packaging.

BEN                           Yeah, you had to move through the packaging.

MASON                   We did an order of sleeves. Then we of course run into the issue where the really slow-moving SKUs at that point still had sleeves that said, “Veggie Noodle Co”.

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   We’re like, “Okay, we’ve got to retire those.”

BEN                           You’ve got to eat some of that, yeah.

MASON                   Luckily for us, because the product was turning fast, it was pretty small write-offs that we had to do, compared to people like Rhythm who said they had a quarter million dollars’ worth of packaging they had to toss, or something like that.

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   It was pretty small write-offs, there was one period where we had three different packaging designs on the market at the same time, and that’s when we were like, “Okay-”

BEN                           You have to orchestrate that.

MASON                   We’re like, “Okay, we’ve got to cut it off. We’ve got to order new ones that all say “Cece’s Veggie Co”, and then we played with the weight a little bit to where the brand block was all consistent, a certain size, and then the category. We had noodled and riced. At the time, there was a controversy around the word “rice”.

BEN                           Right, because the rice industry was pushing back against all of that.

MASON                   There were states that outlawed it. You couldn’t say “cauliflower rice”. From the get-go, we saw that controversy coming and so we always called it “riced” cauliflower, rather than cauliflower rice. Based on our research of the FDA definitions and everything, we skirted the line.

BEN                           Because ricing is a process, whereas rice is a commodity.

MASON                   Yeah, exactly. Which is arguable. There will be a battle over that that is second only to the dairy battle, the milk.

BEN                           Almond milks, that stuff, that’s right.

MASON                   We tried to take the safe route and it fit better with our structure on our packaging. With “noodled”, now we’re not even calling things noodles. We’re like, “It’s noodled vegetables and riced vegetables.”

BEN                           You have noodle-ized vegetables.

MASON                   Exactly. Then meals is our most recent category. Those are all the categories that put on them, and then you have descriptions of what the actual product is.

BEN                           No, that’s great. You interact through Naturally Austin, and SKU and other informal networks. You’re interacting with first time or less experienced founders pretty regularly. What do you find you’re often talking to them about, either from your experience, or what are the common questions that you get from these earlier stage companies?

MASON                   I feel like what I always end up talking about is that velocity thing, and people are all about, “I need to get into this store. We’re going to add 800 doors.”

BEN                           More doors, yeah.

MASON                   I’m like, “But if it’s not selling off the shelf, you’re going to lose those doors within a year.” I’m like, “Velocity, velocity, velocity. Once you get into a retailer, support them and make sure that they’re happy with how fast it’s moving, and figure out ways to help it move fast, because it’s hard at CPG.” In fresh, there is no D2C components. Center of the store there can be, but retail component is the whale. You have to be able to keep those retailers happy, and so I end up saying over and over again, I’d rather have a few doors moving a lot of product than a lot of doors moving a little product.

BEN                           Absolutely.

MASON                   Most, I think 75% of people’s sales and marketing efforts should be supporting velocity and 25% going after new doors.

BEN                           Yeah, that’s great advice, and some that I resonate with in my own experience and advice that I give as well. What’s different about operating in fresh and produce versus center store, dairy, or frozen, or those other things?

MASON                   There’s been some evolution that has gotten it a little bit closer. When we launched, and up until really the end of 2018, produce department had no planogram anywhere. It was just kind of a free for all because everything is so seasonal, and if there’s a bumper crop of delicious cherries, that’s going to take over the produce department. Everything else gets pulled back, and so you lose facings.

BEN                           Is that a store level decision?

MASON                   It’s usually a region, DC decision within a store, so a set of stores. It can be very different in Florida versus California, and so Florida might be all about, “Let’s promote Veggie Noodles right now,” and California is like, “We just got a shipment of peaches, and no one’s promoting anything, because we want to sell these peaches, and because they go bad pretty quickly as well.”

                                    The seasonality and the flexibility of things is extremely different than center of the store. We’ve tried to develop our product architecture around seasonality now, so we have products that are only in the summer. We have this grilling, Z-cut plank with butter over it that is a summer SKU, and then we have these ramen soups that are a fall/winter SKU, because we realized that the retailers, that’s how the produce department works, and they’re used to swapping things out rather than having one product all of the time.

BEN                           It’s very seasonal, yeah.

MASON                   We’re like, “If we don’t bring them new things to swap out and try, they end up dropping what we have,” because they’re like, “Well, we have all these other things people want to try.”

BEN                           Yeah, they get bored.

MASON                   Yeah, exactly. Produce is a little more reactive than I think other departments. There’s much more of just, “Well, sorry, green beans are going crazy and so I can’t even meet with you.” Our Costco buyer is like, “Don’t call me from April to September because watermelons are the only thing on my mind for that entire period,” and it’s crazy. He has 120 suppliers of watermelons all coming out of the fields at different points, going to different DCs. He’s just slinging watermelons for several months.

BEN                           Selling who knows how much watermelon.

MASON                   Yeah, massive truckloads for a club, you know?

BEN                           Probably hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of watermelons.

MASON                   You have to learn when you get in with these people, but then also try to align around their resets, because they do multiple resets a year, whereas center of the store sometimes it’s only once a year.

BEN                           That’s right, yeah.

MASON                   We end up with less opportunity to promote. People are like, “What’s your trade span?” And we’re like, “It’s around 3%.” They’re like, “Oh, that’s amazing.” We wish it was more.

BEN                           We would like to do more. We can’t.

MASON                   Yeah, we can’t because of apple season and cherry season and berries. Once berries get going, you just take a backseat until the berries are dwindling off again, and then we’re like, “Can you put us on sale and draw some attention to us?”

BEN                           How do you mitigate that? Do you still have a pretty aggressive demo program? How are you trying to raise consumer awareness if you don’t have that option?

MASON                   It’s tough. It changes by retailer, by region. You end up having to have a pretty extensive knowledge set of what works where. Demos have fading ROI wherever you do them.

BEN                           Certain stores just are better demo stores than other stores, too.

MASON                   Some stores require you to use their people, and their people are used to cutting up sausage and putting it on a toothpick, and they don’t even know how to prepare.

BEN                           They couldn’t talk about anything.

MASON                   Yeah, and they don’t even eat vegetables sometimes, these people. Demos are a really tough game for us. When they work, they’re great. We know they’re not going to work for long, though.

BEN                           They were really important when you were personally doing the demos in your first store, to get that initial traction, but it’s harder to translate that across the country.

MASON                   Yup, and it usually tails off. One product we launched was this butternut shells and cheese. People are fanatical about it. When you know how to cook it, it’s a really amazing dish. But it demos so poorly because it can’t sit there warm, waiting for someone to pick it up, because the butternut breaks down and you just end up with this pile of mush. It’s hard to drive trial on the item, and so the velocity of that item never really took off, because the demos were chasing people away, we learned, but it took us several months to learn that. We’re just like, “Okay, why are these demos not working?”, and we go out into the field and we’re like, “Oh. Because they’re overcooking it, and then putting it in these little things, and letting them sit there under a heat lamp for 20 minutes.”

BEN                           That’s the worst. You’re like, “We’re investing in all these demos and actually our velocities are suffering.”

MASON                   It’s chasing people away. That was really painful. We end up with this mix. What we’re trying to invest in more now is the digital shelf. Every retailer has a different set of relationships where they’re doing online delivery, click to pick, or click to park, some of them call it.

BEN                           Everybody’s keeping up with Amazon in some way or another.

MASON                   So you have all these different methods of that. We’re trying to make sure that one, we look good, because sometimes they just go take a picture of product and put it online. It’s like, horrible lighting, and it might be close to expiring so it doesn’t even look very good. Managing that aspect, and then digital coupons are something that we’re finding some success with as well. When people walk into the store and they’re like, “Okay, what’s on sale right now?” They usually start at produce, and so we’re able to get some pretty good traction and ROI off of that.

BEN                           That’s good. Was social media ever a really important part of your trajectory?

MASON                   I struggle with it. We certainly have a strong social media presence, and we do a lot of lifestyle shots. We hired a CMO who was very national accounts and agency oriented for a while so we were getting some great press in national magazines, and then he would do these great activations and these partnerships, but it was really hard to see how it connected straight to revenue.

                                    Then, from a social media perspective, the goal that we’re trying to do there is, at this point, we think there’s pretty good awareness around what a veggie noodle is, so now we’re trying to educate people on different recipes, how to cook it. I struggle with it, because you can Google “zucchini noodle recipes” and Google will give you 5 million results in .2 seconds.

BEN                           Of course, yeah. But I think that’s also part of the magic of what you built is, yes people could do this on their own at home, but you made it a lot easier, and you made the quality much more consistent, because if they did it on their own at home and they don’t have the right equipment, and they don’t have the right approach, it’s going to be an inferior product.

MASON                   Right, and so given moving from the occasional, this is a novelty item, we’re going to make zucchini noodles with marinara, to getting into their habits is where, I think, social media comes in for us, and engaging with that customer. Not poking them, but just being there when they’re thinking about food, which we all do every day.

BEN                           Top of mind.

MASON                   It’d be like, “Hey, you can also put cheese on our cauliflower rice, and you actually have a really good side dish for kids that they’re going to eat up and not complain about the cauliflower because it’s covered in cheese.” All the different use cases there are to try to build that. We think we’re worked through a lot of the, like I said, the novelty or the first time, like, “Oh, let’s try this once,” and now we want to build than fanatical customer base that is buying two to three a week.

BEN                           Right, absolutely. Because you’re a vegetable company, is there a lot of pressure to have all of your recipes be vegan?

MASON                   At this point, we’re finding vegan can be a little polarizing in the marketplace.

BEN                           Sure, yeah.

MASON                   We find we’re not getting a ton of pressure for everything to be vegan. Where we end up, some of our fanatical customers are the people that want to eat more vegetables, but they have this set of recipes in their head that they run through and pasta’s on the menu two or three times a week. When we created the shells and cheese, we had a with cheese version and then a vegan version. There were some stores where the vegan would do really well, and it sold really well. But it wasn’t very many stores, and it was particular stores within a region. It just becomes a more difficult product to support. Our new line, we have a cauliflower and cheese product that’s another mac and cheese style product, where we figured out how to break down the cauliflower into the small florets, like quarter-sized florets, but then to have a little bit of the stem on it so it holds a bunch of cheese. It’s the product that’s now a staple in my house, because my kids will eat it every week.

BEN                           Just go to town on it.

MASON                   But for this one, we just did the regular cheese. I’m dairy free and my kids are dairy free, so I buy the six pack of Daiya cheese, and so I buy our cauliflower and cheese and I toss the cheese and make it with the vegan cheese. I feel like a lot of vegans are probably used to having to do that, modify things.

BEN                           It’s a little bit more work. Yeah, absolutely. Did you feel like you had to ride the cauliflower tidal wave as well through this?

MASON                   Yeah, I think so. When we look at noodles, and when sometimes if we have velocities that are tapering off, I make sure that as our board, that we look at cauliflower, because cauliflower rice was around before I created Veggie Noodles. It’s a more mature category. I say, “Look at what all’s being done with cauliflower,” and certainly it’s creating a lot of competition for us, not even the direct competition, but a cauliflower pizza crust, someone looking at cauliflower rice or cauliflower pizza crust, they’re going to give themselves the same vegetable credit for either one of those.

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   Whether they make a pizza or then they figure out what to do with this thing.

BEN                           Are we having spaghetti tonight or are we having pizza?

MASON                   We’re competing in the vegetable substitute world. I firmly believe that Veggie Noodles will continue to grow and will be staples for a lot of people. I think it’s going to go through ups and down, and cauliflower, the difficult thing about the cauliflower tidal wave is the price of raw cauliflower.

BEN                           I’m sure it has gone up.

MASON                   It becomes really hard to make money off of selling this product. It just remains strong. In early 2019, there was a gap where nobody could get cauliflower, and the price of it went through the roof. We were losing massive amounts of money on every cauliflower product that we sold, but we had to keep selling it to keep the facings and the distribution. The cauliflower tidal wave is almost a sore spot, more than an opportunity.

BEN                           Oh sure, yeah. But you have to be present in it at the same time, because that’s where the market is today. Now, on the other hand, you’ve got the ketogenic thing. You’ve got these underlying macro trends, and then there are the fad elements that maybe you have some peaks and valleys along the way. I’m sure you also have benefited from some of the keto stuff as well, right?

MASON                   Yup, yup. Part of our market timing was, paleo was kind of hitting its stride, but keto, which just becoming a real trend. But when I interviewed people, I met people who had been keto for five, eight years, and they were like, “I’m amazing and healthy. I’m going to be this for the rest of my life.” It’s kind of like the allergen diets, where there’s a small, growing, fanatical customer base, and then when you create a trend on top of it, and everyone is trying it, that’s when you’ve really hit the mark.

BEN                           They might not even self-identify as that, but they live, or they eat according to various guidelines. Maybe they’re resistant to the label, but the reality is, that’s how they’re eating.

MASON                   A common thread among all of them is low carb.

BEN                           Absolutely, and that’s the macro trend.

MASON                   Yup.

BEN                           Yeah. Absolutely.

MASON                   Cauliflower hits that, but zucchini hits it better than anything else on the shelf.

BEN                           Of course.

MASON                   They’re like, 11 calories per serving and two grams of carbs.

BEN                           Right, yeah. You’re going to win that competition head to head every time. Well Mason Arnold, this has been really just a fascinating conversation, and we’ve been able to track with you what’s a roller coaster journey, for sure. Yes, it’s been successful, but even in the successes, there are scary moments. There are little ups and downs, even if the general trend is up, there’s twists and turns along the way. I feel like you’ve really painted a really great picture for us of what it’s really like to have a tiger by the tail, and say, “How do we do this? We solved early on this product market fit thing. Now, how do we actually deliver on all this demand? We have to supply it at this point,” and there’s plenty of challenges along the way, and then how you’re thinking through it, and your business is evolving. When you’re successful, you attract new competitors to the marketplace, and I guess, again, first class problem, but still.

MASON                   It can still take you under.

BEN                           Absolutely. It’ll be exciting to see where you go from there. What’s next on the horizon? What are you excited about for Cece’s Veggie Co going forward?

MASON                   I’m excited to, as we have gained distribution, our most recent product is dinos and cheese. It’s our first kid facing product. We felt like a lot of these products kids will eat, but actually marketing to them and getting kids to eat more vegetables I think is a really exciting proposition.

BEN                           It’s a big deal.

MASON                   We’ve invented a whole new machine that creates little dinosaur shaped slices of White Hannah, white sweet potato which has a mild flavor. There’s nothing that all kids like, but 60% to 705 of kids really like it. Some of them don’t even realize it’s a vegetable, and to me, that’s the Holy Grail, when they don’t even know they’re eating vegetables.

BEN                           That’s right.

MASON                   Ans we’re getting them to eat healthy. I feel like I have the opportunity to try to create more products, and we have strong retail partners that are like, “What’s next? What’s next?”

BEN                           Yeah, when you have that success you’ve got options. To me, that’s the fun part. I hired a president last year. He’s doing a phenomenal job of operating the company, because I’m not a manager. That part I really struggled with. I knew I had to do it, but I really struggled with.

BEN                           Your giftings were really more around that creativity and innovation side.

MASON                   Yeah, yeah. I consider myself an innovator, not a CEO or a manager or anything. I feel like I finally have been able to carve out a role where I get to play with that. That’s a lot of fun, and I’m excited for what we can do moving forward.

BEN                           That’s pretty cool. Awesome. Well, thank you, Mason, for joining us today.

MASON                   Thanks for having me.

BEN                           This has been a really great conversation. I want to remind everybody who’s listening and watching that you can download the transcript, you can read the transcript of this conversation at BarcodeStartup.com, and whatever your preferred podcasting platform is, whether it’s Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, we’re available there. Please check it out, subscribe, rate, review, all the things, and then share it with your friends and co-workers and colleagues and peers in the industry. If you find these useful for how you’re thinking about your business, it would be really meaningful to us if you shared it with them. Again, that just builds up. It’s a rising tide for entrepreneurship across the country in that way. Thanks again for joining us, and until next time, we’ll see you. 


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