Mindfulness is a hot topic right now, covered by everyone from Forbes and Goop to Men’s Health and GQ. And after the past year of pivots and pitfalls, never has it been so important. Described as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique,” mindfulness is often associated with the senses… touch, feel, sound, sight… and now, thanks to Lesser Evil Snacks, taste.
Originally founded in the early 2000s, Lesser Evil has undergone an evolution. Its flagship line of organic popcorn debuted in 2014 and has gone on to change the snacking game. Today Lesser Evil offers a variety of organic, vegan, paleo, keto, gluten, dairy and grain free snacks, checking all the boxes today’s health-conscious consumers are looking for.
Read more about the company’s products, story and mission here. Now, let’s get snacking!
You were in finance and trading before LesserEvil, have you always been interested in the food industry? What drew you to this company? Tell us a little about your entrepreneurial background!
Before coming to LesserEvil, I was working in finance. I didn’t necessarily know anything about the food industry at the time, but because I was starting a journey into a more holistic lifestyle that included healthier eating, I had developed an interest in organic food. As for the company, it kind of just fell into my lap at the right time! I was at my wits’ end with the finance world when a friend-of-a-friend’s father was selling the company. It seemed like an interesting opportunity, it wasn’t that expensive, and the name LesserEvil intrigued me. I also thought it wouldn’t require 24/7 of my time. Sure enough, the company required a lot of TLC right from the start. But while I had never owned a company before, I could still draw upon my experience as a trader for guidance. In that world, you’re essentially running your own business that you have to nurture and care for, and you only make as much as that business makes. Beyond that, as a child I loved to think of myself as a little entrepreneur. I tried to sell used newspapers, golf balls, cards…though that’s not quite on the same level as what I do now!
What do you think customers are most drawn to? How do you differentiate from other snack brands? Especially with keto, grain-free snacks being so popular right now.
Because of our commitment to using organic ingredients, including better-for-you oils and salts, I think the quality of our snacks is what distinguishes us most. Sustainability is increasingly important to our customers, so we’re particular about the farms we source from, the biodegradable packaging we use, and about making sure our factory is as energy-efficient as possible. Along those lines, most of our snacks are plant-based, and many are vegan. As one of the only vertically integrated snack companies in our category, I also think we’re unique in our ability to innovate quickly and make snacks that people get excited about, such as our seasonal flavors. So although all of our snacks are gluten-free, that’s actually not a primary focus for us. Our identity comes more from using clean ingredients than from being keto or grain free.
How has COVID impacted business? (The changes of employee relationships with remote vs. in-person dynamics since the pandemic and how it affects daily processes and overall business)
Surprisingly, COVID actually had a positive effect on our business in that it really brought the team together. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a scary experience. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was uncertain what companies in our category would survive because we didn’t know if our retail stores and distributors would be able to pay us. We also had to stop traveling and doing trade shows. But the situation really forced us to focus on solid business practices and saving money. In terms of employee relationships, everyone really carried their weight working remotely, but we did miss being able to feel that dynamic of collaboration. It’s much nicer having everyone back in the office in terms of morale, feeling, and faster turnaround on projects. Overall, I think the pandemic made our office culture more empathetic because it made us more sensitive to each employee and their needs. I think that’s definitely something that will pay off in the long run.
With the absence of sampling, how do you get customers to try?
One of our biggest initiatives this year was the introduction of our Sample Box, which lets customers try 7 of our most popular snacks at a low price, and it’s been a huge success. We also took advantage of the fact that we own our own factory to come up with a lot of new seasonal items during COVID. That helped us get a lot of off-shelf opportunities in stores who were excited about those flavors.
Let’s talk about scaling a business in terms of growth. What are the pros and cons of fast growth?
Scaling a business is very tough because the faster you grow, the more cash you need. We really had to scale up our efficiency in terms of factory processes, dollars produced per pound, how fast we turned over our inventory, watching our accounts payable versus accounts receivable, and making sure we were in constant contact with our investors in case we needed emergency liquidity. When you’re growing really quickly, you have to be careful who you’re taking on and make sure you’re growing with customers who will pay you in a timely manner. Our philosophy is to grow as fast as our profitability will allow. So if we’re sitting in a good cash position, we’ll invest in new partnership growth. If things start getting tight, we’ll draw back a little bit. It’s an ebb and flow, but every year we want to be as close as possible to breaking even.
We understand that Lesser Evil has its own factory…do you recommend this over working with a co-manufacturer?
Having a factory definitely requires a lot more work, so entrepreneurs should be sure they’re ready for that kind of commitment before investing in one! But with that commitment comes a lot of advantages. The reliability of manufacturing is a huge one. We’re seldom out of stock. Our innovation cycles move much faster too– the pipeline is much shorter, and we can play with a lot more ingredients than a co-packer can. We also control product quality, which allows us to continually get better and better, and I think that really sets us apart from our competitors.
As an entrepreneur managing a growing business, how do you maintain balance?
I maintain balance by using a schedule. I plan my weeks out in advance and make time every day for the things that are most important to me: spending time and eating meals with my family, journaling, meditating, stretching, and exercising. I usually step away from the business on the weekends to keep them free for family time.
What advice do you have for other early-stage food and beverage entrepreneurs?
You have to have a great product, but more importantly, the market has to want it. It’s helpful to have situations in which you can really test your idea, because even if it’s something that’s really in demand, it will almost always have to be tweaked. It’s important to be able to continuously pivot, both with the product itself and with language surrounding the product’s benefits. As if that weren’t enough, you also need incredible branding. The importance of packaging is something I’ve experienced firsthand as someone who designed a lot of my own packaging at the beginning. It’s not that I did a terrible job, but we quickly saw the power of a slickly packaged, quality product after we got some help making our products look more cohesive. On the business side, it’s good to have some foxhole buddies– people who are willing to go deep with you. If you’re completely by yourself, it’s a hard and lonely road. It’s much easier to manage with people by your side. Finally, you need some angel or venture capital investors who trust you, and you need to give them a good enough deal upon entry that they’ll stay flexible and back some of your mistakes. Everyone likes to think they have this great idea, so they’ll get investors at a fairly lofty evaluation, but then when things don’t go as well as they predicted, their investors get impatient. So it’s important to not be greedy at the beginning.
What 3 items do you always have in your grocery cart?
Avocados, organic eggs (my family goes through 48 per week!), and spinach.
What other brands and founders do you admire in the CPG space?
I really admire Peter Rahal, one of the founders of RxBar. He’s been so helpful and generous with his knowledge, and I’ve been able to move the business forward substantially thanks to him. In terms of brands, I’m a big fan of Allbirds for their commitment to sustainability. I also love the awesome plant-based companies nutpods (I use their creamers in my matcha!) and REBBL. I’m a big fan of adaptogens and anything that improves physical and mental performance naturally.
What’s next for LesserEvil? Tell us more about your packaging evolution and shift toward sustainability!
We love working with NEO Plastics for our packaging. It contains an organic additive that accelerates the microbial digestion process, and it’s the best thing out there when it comes to sustainable, disposable packaging. In terms of energy efficiency at our facilities, our next big push will be to install solar panels on top of the factory. For our snacks, we’ve always been enthusiastic about replacing animal byproducts with plant-based options, and we’ll continue to find ways to do that. We think that plants are the future of protein, and we’re hoping to eventually launch a plant-based Power Curl (our egg white protein snack). We also have an eye toward replacing ingredients with large water consumption in favor of crops that are more water-efficient. Finally, we want to get even more into functional snacking with products that provide benefits even beyond being organic and grain-free.
- Follow Lesser Evil Snacks on Instagram @lesserevilsnacks
- Connect with Charles on LinkedIn
- Shop Lesser Evil online HERE