As witnessed by the number of new products to market, grain-free is having a moment. But for Indiana-based snack food company BeeFree Gluten Free, it’s been the name of the game for nearly 10 years. A pioneer in the grain-free snack category with its line of nut and seed-based granola (rightfully called Warrior Mix), BeeFree started in a family kitchen as one mother’s pursuit to cater to her sons dietary needs and has grown into a brand with national distribution.
Like many, Jennifer Wiese’s road to starting a food business is an unlikely one. See how this former fashion executive and mother of four took her passion for family, health and community to build a mission-driven health food brand.
Can you tell us the BeeFree origin story?
After my oldest son was diagnosed with Autism, my husband and I started to look into the idea of “food as medicine” and the benefits of a diet free of gluten. We scoured our local Whole Foods for products that Auggy could eat, but ultimately everything ended up in the trash. So my mother and I took to the kitchen to develop gluten free versions of our son’s favorite foods.
When did you decide to turn this into a business?
We started developing the original recipes back in 2008 before gluten free products were readily available, so we would bring special foods for Auggy everywhere we went. Our friends and family were interested in trying, and with their positive feedback we figured there were others in our situation and we wanted to offer a solution to fit this need.
What were the early days of business like?
BeeFree started in 2010 as a one girl show. It was me in the kitchen making product, delivering orders and working local farmers markets. The farmers markets were a good proof of concept. It wasn’t until 2013 when we got involved with our local Crossfit community. Athletes loved the convenience, versatility and clean ingredients of our Warrior Mix, so it was this product that we really decided to focus our business on.
How did you land upon Warrior Mix as your flagship product?
When we first started selling at farmers markets or product portfolio was much larger… cookies, cake, muffins, breads, etc. It wasn’t until 2013-2014 that we landed upon Warrior Mix after positive encouragement from our Crossfit community. Because of the convenience and longer shelf life, we figured Warrior Mix was a viable product to build the business on.
You started making BeeFree before paleo/keto really started taking off, how have these trends impacted your business?
We have definitely seen growth in recent years, yes. It has been really exciting to see customers resonate with our products. With the shifting trends and customer demands we have seen retailers open doors a little quicker. Since we have been in the market for nearly 10 years now, we have a bit of a leg up, are able to build trust with buyers and retailers and, most importantly, our customers.
You have some very impressive accounts under your belt (Target, Costco, etc.). How and when did you reach this level of growth?
It took years to reach this growth… We would do in-store demos and make direct connections with buyers. Showing interest in growth and being able to share your story as the face of the company did wonders. Relationships are so, so crucial. The timing wasn’t always ideal, but we were persistent and never took no for an answer. Persistence builds trust and credibility.
Something we found to work to our advantage was the versatility of our product; it can be sold in a number of different areas across the store. If there wasn’t space in the granola set, for example, maybe it would work in the snack set? We did our homework on which brands BeeFree should be next to, staged our product on shelves and helped buyers think creatively. Going this extra mile and making the buyer’s job easier not only helped us get into stores, it also helped build relationships and trust.
What does a typical day at BeeFree HQ look like?
As every person working in a startup knows, no two days are alike. This is what makes it so fun! BeeFree is a team of just five, so we are very close knit. Though not everyone is working in office everyday, we are collaborative and lively. All the women working for us are mothers, so we have this common bond.
How do you take time for yourself as a founder?
There is always work to do, but I know that it is important to listen to your body and mind. I am an early riser and spend this time to get in a workout, pray, write, read and center myself to prepare for the day ahead. As a founder, if you do not take time to show up for yourself, you cannot show up for your team.
What hardships have you overcome, and how have you managed?
There have been many hardships over the past 10 years, primarily with the day-to-day stress of running a business! The key is to focus on the positives, stay true to your mission and surround yourself with a great team. Having a good support system is everything.
The key is to focus on the positives, stay true to your mission and surround yourself with a great team.
One major hardship was in the early days of BeeFree, when we got our first major order with a deadline. The manufacturing facility we were working with was not going to have product ready in time, so to make things work the entire team put on gloves and hairnets and got to work. We finished production literally as the truck was pulling into the parking lot.
Where there’s a will there’s a way. Because we were hungry, scrappy and believed in what we were doing we were able to turn that hardship into a win.
What has been your proudest moment looking back on the past 9-10 years of business?
It’s impossible to choose just one. It was selling that first bag, then selling that first case of 12. Then selling 10 cases, then a full pallet. Really, what fulfills me is seeing how our customers embrace our product and brand. Being a part of something larger and selling products that have a positive impact in people’s lives is something to be proud of.
Do you see any new products on the horizon beyond Warrior Mix?
We have two new flavors of Warrior Mix launching soon and are constantly listening to customer feedback to come up with new product ideas! This is how our 3 oz. snack size bags came to life. I’m also always on the lookout to see what’s missing from grocery store shelves and how BeeFree could be the solution.
Do you have any advice for early-stage entrepreneurs?
Starting a business takes guts, but if you have a product and a passion behind that product, I say GO FOR IT. Surround yourself with people who support you. Believe in yourself and what you’ve created. And don’t take no for an answer!