The journey of becoming a food entrepreneur is rarely a simple one. Sometimes, it takes a few careers before you get arrive at the right place. That was certainly the case for Brenden Schaefer, founder of Bright Foods, a whole food energy bar brand based in L.A.
Why leave a successful job for the uncertain world of building a food brand? “The fear of not doing this was ultimately more powerful than the fear I felt jumping off the cliff,” Brenden said. And his choice is paying off, with Bright Foods landing distribution in stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts. We caught up with Brenden to learn about his entrepreneurial path, his inspiration, and more.
Where did the idea to start a food business come from?
I actually was planning to become a jazz musician. Throughout my teenage years, I played upright bass professionally. I moved to Paris after I graduated to go study with this bass player who I really admired. While I was out there, I started to have second thoughts about doing music. That’s when I discovered food. It was a ‘hallelujah’ moment when I cooked my first meal. I just thought it was magical.
So at 21, living in France, it dawned on me that I loved food, and found this business stuff fascinating, so maybe I could create my own food company.
I worked for a really small food company for a year, I did a stint at a management consulting firm, and then I got a job at 27 working for the CEO of Pepsi. I ended up staying there for 9 years. I worked for them in Asia, then they moved me to California and I ran marketing for Naked Juice and Izzy and One Coconut Water.
I loved it, and I learned so much, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking I had to start my own thing. When I made it to a certain level in the company, as an executive, I looked around and realized that a lot of decisions being made were not necessarily the right decisions. They were being made on the basis of values, and my values are different in some areas.
At the same time I realized, wow, I actually know some stuff now. Finally I had this idea for Bright, and I did a lot of vetting. When it actually came time to quit, it was absolutely terrifying. I had been on a great track, I had a lot of options at the company, I could move anywhere in the world.
The night I told someone who’d been a mentor of mine that I was quitting, it wasn’t a good conversation. I woke up at 3am and thought, ‘what have I done? Did I just make a huge mistake?’
But the fear of not doing this was ultimately more powerful than the fear I felt jumping off the cliff. I thought, if I’m 80 and I look back and didn’t do this, I’m going to regret it.
Why this idea specifically?
It was born out of a personal pain point and trends that I saw in the industry. The personal pain point was that I eat a lot! I do a lot of vigorous yoga and cycling, and between those things I’m always hungry. For years I ate bars, but they sit like a brick in your stomach and they have tons of sugar. I tried juices, but they have sugar and no fiber, so you spike and crash. Then, I would bring fruits and vegetables with me to work, but it was too messy.
I wanted a way to eat real food, and at the same time I saw five trends: veggies moving to the center of the plate, the demonization of sugar, the rise of snacking, a focus on fresh and real, and the natural and organic categories.
I saw Perfect Bar had trained consumers to go to the refrigerated section for a bar, I saw High Pressure Pasteurization and what Suja and Evolution were doing, and how good the products were. I thought, if I could make a bar out of whole veggies and fruits, put in superfoods, have no sugar and a super clean ingredient label, and then use HPP to make it taste fresh and real, that would be amazing.
I told my friend who works in market research about it, and he said we should concept test it. So we put it online, and the scores came back, and he said they were the best scores he’d ever seen. I hired a raw chef to make an initial version. I got it to a point where I had a customer who had signed on, I had a co-packer, and I thought the economics looked right. I had done a lot of diligence, so then I quit, and a lot of that stuff, pardon my French, went to shit.
Well, I went to the co-packer who had signed on, and I said ‘I’d like to launch this next month at Expo West.’ The woman running the co-packer said, ‘how much do you want to charge for this bar?’ I replied, ‘$3.99,’ and she said, ‘there’s no way you’ll make any money at that price point. You have simply too much labor. You want to make it, you want to dehydrate it, you want to take it out, put it in a package, you want to do HPP. You have to cut out the dehydration step completely.’
I was two months out from quitting my job, I had a 1 year old daughter, and I had no product. I came home that day and I thought, alright, how are we going to do this? I started working with a different raw chef, and we recreated an early version of the product.
Then there was a Whole Foods store opening, and my friend was a vendor, and told me the president of the region was going to be there. I had an insulated backpack, a product wrapped in Saran Wrap with a sticker for a label, and I walked up to her. I showed it to her, and she tasted it, and she loved it.
We had a meeting a month later. We had to remake everything, because only one of the products was half-decent, and the others everybody thought were terrible. In April 2016 they said they’d like to launch.
I said ‘terrific, but I’d like to take a slightly different approach than just putting them on a shelf. I’d like to take them to a farmers market for the next few months and use that for market research.’ I did that, and every month we’d meet and I’d tell her what I learned.
It took a total of 2 years from when I was accepted in WFM to launching on the shelf, because we had to figure out how to do so many things. We were doing something that was new to the world.
Coming from a food industry background, were you prepared for the entrepreneurial journey with Bright Foods?
I would say that I knew 65% what I was doing. I learned a lot, but most valuably I learned how to identify opportunity, how to craft an idea, create a brand, target a group of consumers, and build a proposition. I knew enough about some of the other stuff to think that it was going to work. All of that was helpful because what we ended up coming out with was so different, and there’s a lot of intellectual property, which is really rare.
The reality is that there’s a lot I didn’t know. Everything related to manufacturing, product development, and supply chain, was all foreign to me. Where I have a lot of experience was in domains that are pretty cerebral.
Where I got tripped up was the physical process – finding equipment, knowing how it works, manufacturing. I’ve learned a tremendous amount, and now I have people on our team who are infinitely better at it than I am. But that was pretty rough.
What early resources did you use to fill those knowledge gaps?
I started out with a virtual team. I was the only one working on it full-time for about 2 years. I had different contractors. I had someone helping with the packaging design, a raw chef helping with product development, help sourcing equipment, legal counsel, an accountant.
The big thing was my partner, Adam, who came on full-time in March 2018, a month before we launched in WFM. He and I had worked together for four years. He had come up through operations and finance, and was the CFO of Kevita after Pepsi acquired it.
I divide the world into Before Adam and After Adam, because all of a sudden, in the areas where I’m not strong, I had somebody world-class.
What have your biggest wins been so far?
Launching at Whole Foods was a big one, and pretty surreal. And when we debuted at Expo West, we were named the most innovative product at the show. Bright Foods also just launched nationally with Sprouts last week.
On the business side, it’s been really amazing to see people who truly love the product and to hear from them. When I sold the first-ever bar at the farmers market, it really blew my mind that someone would hand me a $5 bill and buy one. I think a lot of the best moments of the past year have been from the people who have come aboard the team. We have an incredible group of people. I’m so grateful I get to work with them.
Do you have any secrets to hiring?
I like people who are ambitious but humble. That combination of qualities is really special. Obviously smarts, but there’s all sorts of different types of intelligence. And then people who live the lifestyle. It comes down to, do you love food and the industry?
Another thing I’m really big on, which is a sister characteristic of humility, is intellectual honesty. If you don’t know something, that’s okay. Say that. Ask a question. We’re all learning together.
What motivates you on the days that aren’t as fun?
Steve Jobs gave this famous graduation speech years ago where he said that every day when you wake up, you should ask yourself, if I died today, would I be happy with this being my last day? I think it’s an important question for everybody to ask themselves, because life is finite. If the answer to that is no, for too many days in a row, you need to change what you’re doing.
There are days when I wake up and I’m not excited about the things I have to do, but I ask myself, if today were my last day, what would I want to be doing? And outside of the obvious things, like spending time with family, this is what I really want to be doing.
It’s work, and sometimes parts of work are not enjoyable. But there’s a nobility and deep sense of accomplishment when you push past the things that are not enjoyable and do the things that are hard.
What tools or services do you use to run Bright Foods?
We use Quickbooks, we’re about to get onto an order management system called Activate. The one that is most critical to our company is Slack. We have field sales people, people in different geographies, and Slack has been a game changer for us. It’s incredible, because you can organize by topic, like sales, or R&D, and then you can search it all. We use it a lot.
There’s also a free resource from Stanford called How To Start A Startup. It was organized by Y Combinator. They have really incredible people who talk about all sorts of different aspects. I’ve gotten a lot out of watching those.