When Myles Powell began selling his 8 Myles homemade mac and cheese dishes, he was seeking to fill a hole in the frozen foods market—by providing comfort food made with quality ingredients. But he never anticipated just how much people would be seeking convenient comfort foods when Covid-19 struck.
It turns out navigating the ups and downs of a pandemic were just a few more bumps in the road for an early-stage food entrepreneur like Myles to swerve around. Read more about his journey from foodie blog to cooking show, farmers market and food accelerator program below!
Growing up, did you have an interest in the food and beverage industry?
This is going to sound cliché but I grew up in a family of foodies and a family of entrepreneurs. My grandparents ran a small business, my parents had side hustle for a business as well, and because everyone was always busy, the one thing that brought us all together was food. And everyone loved to cook. No one was ever trained professionally but we loved cooking and we loved food. So I grew up with that mentality that like, if you love to eat, you gotta learn how to cook.
As I got older I really developed this passion for cooking, mainly because I loved the outcome. Just like I love eating. And the older I got, the more I explored the kitchen. The one food type that stuck out for me was comfort food because that was our staple growing up. Any food that was just like really good and made your soul feel good, that was my upbringing.
What made you decide to take that passion and turn it into a business?
When I graduated from college in 2012 and I moved out to an isolated area in Harrisburg, Penn. Because I didn’t have a lot of social interaction, that’s where I started cooking a lot. It was fun and it passed the time. Around that time, because I always had this entrepreneurial spirit in me, I decided if I wanted to start a business, it was going to be food-related because that’s what I love doing.
Also at that time I started a food blog. And when I applied for a Food Network show, the food blog got me recognized. This was late 2013 and I was on this show called America’s Best Cooks. I was 22 and I was in grad school. It’s still surreal. I just started cooking, it had been like a year. So I was still pretty new to the culinary scene and it was me vs a bunch of semi professionals. I felt like I had no business being there but that was a turning point because after the show, I made firm declaration that I was doing to start a food business. It felt right.
Why mac and cheese?
I was making homemade BBQ sauce and I wanted people’s opinion on them and they would tell me they were amazing. So I actually started the company out with BBQ sauce. I did that for two years but after two years I said, hey I love BBQ sauce but I also love using it in different foods. I had been making mac and cheese for a couple of parties here and there. Every time I made it people went crazy and said, you need to sell this. I was selling the hot sauces on a small scale in PA and then when I moved to DC but I realized the hot sauce market doesn’t move very quickly and there’s a lot of competition so I needed to do something different.
What made me really realize this that I used to do Famers Market every Saturday. I would set up at 8 in the morning and it would be 40/50 degrees outside and I’m looking around and no one is coming to my table because no one is buying BBQ sauce at 8 or 9 in the morning. People would be there buying produce and ready-to-eat foods, especially around 10 or 11am. The empanadas people would come in then and start selling like gangbusters. I thought, I should be making some food and that’s when I decided to switch in 2018.
For me personally, I love homemade foods but being a busy person, going to the grocery store I needed to buy something that’s frozen. Nine out of 10 times I wouldn’t be satisfied. I thought, there’s a piece missing here. I know people demand the same quality as I do from something that’s convenient that happens to be frozen.
What was the path to creating a frozen food?
When I started out, I was winging it. I found these little black containers with see-through lids that you click on. I had a sticker label. I was a little naive at the time. I put it together and I said, “This is awesome.” I was so excited about this and started selling to Glen’s Garden Market in NW DC.
At around the same time, I moved kitchens from Mess Hall to Union Kitchen. I joined their accelerator program. I let them know what I was doing and they said, “We need to step up our game to really attack the market.” It was great because I didn’t really know anything about it. That’s when I decided to go with the full line of new packaging and I revamped the whole brand messaging to appeal to this market. That took 3 to 4 months to switch everything up and the official relaunch was in mid-2018.
I’m still learning today but at the time I was clueless. I didn’t even have a distributor at the time either. So right away, Union Kitchen helped me define my process and my control points. They helped with me my packaging and advice and put me in contact with a great designer and a packaging broker. There were a lot of things I needed to work on to focus on this mac and cheese line.
What has been the hardest part of launching 8 Myles Mac and Cheese?
There are so many hard parts. I use the metaphor that running a small business is like playing whack a mole, because there are so many things that pop up that you don’t even think about until it pops up, and you can’t prepare for it. One thing that has come up recently is how do I attract customers’ attention.
I used to be in the mindset that if I can get my product on the shelf then I’m golden. I can sit back and watch the numbers roll in. But only half the battle is getting on the shelf. I can get the buyer to agree to bring it in, but how do I attract the customers walking down the aisle? And that’s been the hardest part. I’m still redefining that. I’m going through a design change now, and I’m tweaking my brand message. I’ve been working on that for two plus years.
How has Covid-19 affected your business, in either a positive or negative way?
It’s been two-fold. On the negative side, right when Covid started we couldn’t demo. And demoing was the surefire way to raise brand awareness and get people to try our product. So when that happened I was like, how am I going to get market now? So I’ve switched to focus on merchandising. I hired a company to go to all these Whole Foods markets in the area and make sure our product is stocked properly and have as much visibility as possible along with establishing and maintaining relationships with these buyers. That’s been an adjustment to Covid.
On the positive side, because of Covid, I got into Target. That was a temporary trial period with Target. I had been talking with them before Covid and they were interested, but when Covid hit, they asked to bring me on for like 5 weeks to fill some space in the freezers in 6 different stores. I said absolutely, I will do that! It was showcasing to Target that I’m a good vendor to work with. And now they are looking at the company under an official review for next May to bring 8 Myles on for 250 locations. It’s crazy to think about. I find out in November so my fingers are super crossed. I think I would still be under review but having being able to work with the entire Target team during Covid really helped.
What are you planning next?
I just released a line of mac and cheese bites and my focus now is how to scale these up. It’s an item thats really exciting and I want to be able to meet the demand. I realize recently there’s not a lot of competition for mac and cheese bites. The only companies that make them are private label for BJ’s and the like.
I’m expanding through Whole Foods pretty rapidly, and am going to be in New York in September. I am actually exploring an idea for freeze dried mac and cheese. That’s a brand new idea that I’ve been mulling around. That wouldn’t happen until next year. I’m also going to be hiring someone soon on the production side to scale the operations. It’s safe to stay this has been the craziest time in the company.
What advice do you have for other early stage food entrepreneurs?
Know your competition and know your audience, especially know your audience. That’s where I made a mistake. When I started the mac and cheese, I had assumed this product is for me, a youngish millennial coming right out of college that loves mac and cheese but is a little lazy sometimes yet still wants something fresh. That’s what I thought my target audience was but the world told me that the audience is going to be the mother, or the father, or someone who wants something for their child, and for themselves.
It took me two years to realize that. I was doing demos and everytime, I did a demo it was always a mom that bought the product and had their son or daughter with them. Once I realized that, I said I need to focus on this market. So that’s why I say know your audience. The world will tell you who likes your product, not who you think is going to like your product.