From bread baker to (healthy) chocolate maker: This Portland-based foodpreneur took a lifelong devotion to health and community, and paired it with her craft for making delicious goods to found and scale a pioneering wellness-focused snack brand, Honey Mama’s, while learning to be vulnerable and ask for help along the way.
Before founding Honey Mama’s, what were you up to?
I have always worked in the food business and have had an interest in the crossover between food, wellness and community. Prior to launching Honey Mama’s in 2013 I, along with other family members, ran a bakery that sold gourmet products (think cinnamon rolls, pecan rolls, danishes) at local farmers markets and later a brick and mortar retail location.
What was the inspiration for Honey Mama’s?
Around 2011, one of my close friends was diagnosed with a severe autoimmune disease. She went on a raw food elimination diet and quickly saw improvements, so I decided to give it a try as well. I was surprised at how amazing I felt! It was then that I had this “aha” moment and began looking at food as medicine.
Being familiar with the CPG landscape from my time at the bakery, the entrepreneur in me began looking for ways to turn this food-as-medicine idea into a business. At first I was experimenting with fermenting vegetables, but really wanted to create a product that was a purely pleasurable experience… like chocolate! After experimenting in the kitchen I took the first Honey Mama’s products to the Portland Farmers Market, and it quickly took off.
What were the early days of business like?
When first starting out it was just me, myself and I. Using the core ingredients (like sprouted almonds, honey and cocoa), I made all four of our original flavors by hand. From my experience owning a brick and mortar bakery business I knew I wanted to focus on a simpler concept. I figured a CPG product would be a better platform and used the Portland Farmers Market as a launching pad.
I first got in to local Portland-area co-ops, renting space in a commercial bakery kitchen to produce product. Within the first year of business I was self distributing to regional New Seasons and Whole Foods (about 25-30 grocery stores). Since this was on the cusp of the gluten-free trend, people would get excited about our products because there was nothing else like it on the market. By the end of second year I had outgrown our rented space and built our first manufacturing facility.
What was your experience like working with buyers? What does distribution look like now?
The farmers markets were a great place to test how product was received. I really had faith and confidence in what I was making (and the story behind it), so when it came to approaching buyers I would just give them samples. I was open to seeing what would happen – either they’d love it or wouldn’t. Once they tried the product… they understood.
As mentioned, I started by self distributing. By the end of the second year, we were working with two regional distributors. This grew our distribution exponentially; we went from 30 to 200 stores overnight. By our fourth year we received national placement in all Natural Grocers, and are continuing to grow!
Production: In-house or co-man?
When first starting out I had built a small production space, but quickly realized we needed to grow into a larger space or take on a co-packer. Because of our unique production requirements I ultimately decided to build a second (10,000 square foot!) manufacturing space, which we have been in since 2017. To afford this, I did a small round of friends and family funding.
Where have you focused most of your budget?
When growing a business there are often tradeoffs, and a priority for us is production and growing our distribution network. Really, marketing has not been a huge focus for us as we have not done a whole lot beyond in-store demos, tradeshows and social media. Social media has been huge for us!
Any advice/insights on Instagram partnerships?
We’ve had great success with our Instagram partnerships. My biggest piece of advice when it comes to partnering with other brands is to make sure it is a natural, organic fit. We partner with brands that have shared values. Having an audience and following that aligns makes all the difference.
View this post on Instagram
This is what dreeeeeeams are made of! Introducing @TheCoconutCult's Triple Choco @HoneyMamas Dutch Fudgsicle Probiotic Coconut GELATO! *Activate freak out mode* 😱😝 . We're not kidding when we say our friends at @TheCoconutCult have created a concoction so delicious it will make your tastebuds break out in song 👆(thanks for the inspo @hilaryduff) BUT HURRY, this rich dark chocolate carton of joy is only available for limited time so order yours NOW! #LINKINBIO
You started making paleo products before paleo/keto was a trend, how has the industry changed since starting?
When I launched HM in 2013, it seems that Paleo was just beginning to pick up some speed. I was aware of the diet a bit and essentially understood it to be an anti-inflammatory focused lifestyle. I didn’t follow it, but recognized the alignment with what I was bringing to the market. It was a very exciting/empowering time in the food-as-medicine space. The day I put “Paleo” on the sign at my farmers market booth my sales doubled. I was days away from printing a new run of labels for the bars and added the “paleo” banner to the top of the label – it’s been on there ever since!
Keto has picked up a TON of momentum these last two years, which is fantastic. I don’t know a ton about the Keto diet except that it is incredibly effective at managing disease and mental, emotional and physical issues. I would guess that in general it is only a positive for us as it deepens awareness in the conscious eating trend in the US – which is wonderful for everyone, including Honey Mama’s.
How have you overcome hardship as a founder?
Really, one of the hardest things about being a founder is learning to get out of your own way, get out of your head and to stop trying to do everything yourself. Asking for help is hard! One of the smartest things I have done is bring on a team of people who are smarter in certain skill-sets.
As a founder, what do you do to take care of your health, “turn off” work?
Health and wellness has always been a priority. Time with friends and family, exercise and rest give me the energy needed in order to be my best self for the Honey Mama’s team. Also, bringing on a business partner has been one of the best gifts, providing more time for me to focus on projects that require my attention while continuing to grow the company.
What has been your proudest moment so far on your entrepreneurial journey?
That’s a hard one. The journey has been spotted with many amazing as well as challenging moments. The amazing ones usually go hand in hand with the challenging ones. One of my proudest moments, though, was when Bon appetit Healthyish published an article about us. First off, it was the only national press we’ve ever received, but it also crossed the bridge into celebrating our bars as true culinary mastery. That made me so proud! I started the company to help influence the food as medicine movement but a HUGE part of that was to do it in a way that also brought absolute delight to their tables.
What advice do you have for early-stage entrepreneurs?
BE REAL. Transparent. Authentic. Vulnerable.
When you are struggling: Stop for a minute. Breathe. Let the answer emerge. Use vulnerability to gain awareness and make choices. And then solve! To start, recognize what area of your business you need guidance. See it, manifest it and bring on a team that can support these needs.
Do you see any new products on the horizon beyond the flagship bars?
Oh yes I do! I can’t tell you about those though. Top secret! Expo West is right around the corner, though.