Believe us when we say we’re eggstatic to share this week’s episode. 😬🥚 We chat with Jason Jones, Cofounder of Vital Farms – a company created with revitalized farming methods that prioritize animal welfare!
Not only that, he’s an advisor to entrepreneurs and CEO of Exo Protein (🦗). And, before you ask – yes, we’ve tried their Whole Roasted Crickets! And yes, they’re amazing!!
Let us break it down for you…
[1:29] Meet Jason Jones, Cofounder of Vital Farms![3:31] Touching on conscious capitalism.[4:49] The “Pasture-Raised” difference – how the term and method was created to set a fresh, more ethical trend.[9:00] Recall how the food, beverage, and wellness landscape looked during Vital Farms’ inception. Were there any other brands created with transparency as a driving value?[10:18] Transparency sometimes means sharing the dark side of your industry – then, uplifting a positive message with your company’s mission. [12:44] Logistics! Egg breakage and refrigeration issues. How’d your team troubleshoot fragile packaging? Any tips for CPG brands with sensitive product?[15:33] Let’s move into your consultation biz. What’re some of the biggest pain points that entrepreneurs experience? [18:21] Some issues that result in failure for a new business more often than others.[21:00] What was your background leading up to Vital Farms? Wandering, but not lost.[28:26] Staying humble – a quick company culture blurb + when Karin met Jason.[30:28] How’d you end up at Exo Protein? Tackling new marketing challenges when you sell crickets to the U.S. market.[38:47] Barrier to entry for western consumers – how’re you solving for this today?
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Alison (Recorded):Hey, hey, y’all, Alison here, I wanted to quickly thank you for listening to our podcast. I know you’re about to get a lot of valuable information from it. But I also wanted to hop in and share with you guys a free SOP, which stands for Standard Operating Procedure. We use this SOP every single day in our agency to authentically grow and engage our audiences on social. It is 1000% free, and I’d love for you to have it, and use it in your biz as well. So, just go to umaimarketing.com/engage to go download. All right, cheers.
Alison:Welcome everyone to the Umai Social Circle, where we talk about CPG marketing to help business owners and marketers alike grow. This is Karin, and I’m Alison, we are the co-founders of Umai Marketing, and today we have Jason Jones. He is an entrepreneur extraordinaire, and CEO of Exo Protein. I added a little flair for you.
Jason:Hey, y’all. Good to be here.
Karin:Thanks for joining us, Jason.
Jason:I appreciate the invite. Good to see y’all.
Karin:Yeah, so a little bit of a background. Jason and I met while he was the president and co-founder of Vital Farms. This is my first real CPG job.
Karin:Jason, can you tell us a little bit about co-founding Vital and what those early days looked like?
Jason:It’s hard to believe it’s been 11 years, I think, since Matt and I, we started the company. So, to be clear, Matt and Katherine had the farm, so they purchased the land in ’07 and had chickens that they had put out to pasture quite literally with the idea of producing a better egg. In late 2008 or 2009, I met them, heard about what they were doing, heard about these birds that were running around outdoors in south Austin, and that just sounded like something that the world needed.
Jason:So, I met Matt out at the farm, and just loved what they had started there, and we formed a company. And, the meager Jones nest-egg went into the company as our working capital really, for a while.
Jason:And, we set out to bring that really honest and authentic, very small farming method. We wanted to, how do you keep it small and true to the ethos of high, high animal welfare that centered on the life that that bird got to enjoy in contrast to factory farming, which we’re probably all familiar with by now.
Jason:But how do we do that and keep it honest, keep it really legitimate on the farm, but scale it up? And, the early days were more humble than you would believe. There was a lot of mistakes that we made, but we really figured out on the farm, what it meant to raise a bird outside.
Jason:That’s very contrary to pretty much how any other egg at the time was being produced, and found some great partners in different parts of the country where it wasn’t quite so hot and dry, and that worked out well. We were able to find some good partners, some good supplier farms up in the north-west Arkansas area. That’s really the first place we went. And, climate worked out really great, and we found some willing partners who would do things our way, and worked out a model that was really beneficial for them.
Jason:Karin, you remember, we were always talking about our stakeholder model and that version of conscious capitalism that really, it’s not just all about the profit and the bottom line, and making the shareholders wealthy. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but business can and should be so much more. And, I think we’re all acclimated to that now, especially in the natural food space. And, here in Austin where everybody seems purpose-driven and mission-minded, we can go sell a lot of product and do well for ourselves. But, we really are making the world better.
Jason:Anyhow, we tried really hard to embody that from the beginning of Vital, and I give that really purpose backbone that we always worked off of. I give that a lot of credit for the success that Vital has seen, in addition to the wonderful people we had, like yourself, who were part of that crew in the very beginning, and then kind of in the middle bit, and now today in its current incarnation there’s great people walking around who are championing that very important message that we can do better, and we ought not have to compromise the well-being of another sentient creature to get cheap food.
Jason:And so, it feels good to do that. And really, it’s validating because customers are out there, willing to buy these products and usually pay a little more for them. And, we did that at the right time in the right place with a lot of the right people like yourself. So, it’s been quite a run.
Karin:Giving me all, saying a lot of nice things. So, Vital Farms really did champion the term “pasture-raised”. It was something that we always, everybody else was cage-free. They were free-ranged. And, what do you think Vital did so right in making it such a huge explosion of the term and a way of raising animals?
Jason:Yeah, that was a very conscious decision. I remember having a discussion with Matt very early on, how are we going to talk about our product? What is the label claim, or the term, that we’re going to use to talk about this stuff, how the birds get to live, truly, every day?
Jason:And, it was always pasture-raised because that felt like a term that had not been adulterated yet. You got to rewind 11 or 12 years from where we sit today. The concept of even grass-fed beef was not nearly as prominent as part of the vernacular as it is today.
Jason:So, we needed a term that hadn’t been bastardized, unfortunately, by larger producers. Cage-free was a thing back then. And, that’s arguably a step up from being in a cage. But still, it’s not a great way to live if you’re a laying hen. And then, there’s free-range, which conjures up a certain, I think, a mental picture for most people until you really get educated on the matter, and you realize that means you have access to the outdoors, but you may not be taking advantage of it, or it’s not really a nice lifestyle.
Jason:So, pasture-raised, it was really, as of then, it was undefined, and we saw that as, we definitely needed to claim that term and be very proactive in defining it, so education was always, arguably, what we were doing. We were marketing, but we were really educating, not very sophisticated, but we were really honest about it.
Jason:You know, we were always talking about transparency and authenticity. And, somebody had a question about, what did pasture-raised mean, and we would tell them. And, we got as specific as they would want to. You can’t put all that stuff on your carton, but it needed to be somewhere for the consumer who’s interested. And, we would tell them whatever they wanted to know. We would even talk about some of the less shiny parts of farming. The chickens don’t live forever, that kind of thing. What do you with them when they get some age on them? And, we would just be transparent.
Jason:And, I think we got a lot of credit for that. But, it was much more about, what does pasture-raised mean that it was about Vital Farms, the brand, in the early days. And, people didn’t really know about us yet. I think today, we’ve advanced quite a bit, although there’s still loads of room for people to be buying better eggs.
Jason:But, when you’re a new brand, you can do what you can to get your name out there. We had a great logo and imagery, and stuff you were doing on social, Karin, was really getting us out there in a big, big way. But, there’s a lot of people, a lot of consumers out there. And, because Vital Farms wasn’t recognizable yet, we would feature that term, pasture-raised. And so yeah, we definitely were more about, what does pasture-raising mean than, here’s our cool brand. Let us tell you about our sales. It was more, let’s describe, really, this farming method.
Jason:And, that was at a time when everybody was hungry for more information. Michael Pollan had been writing his books for a while. And, we’d seen some documentaries that were telling us we needed to be more careful about the food choices we were making, how we were voting with those dollars and that kind of thing.
Jason:And, we were there to meet that education, not starved, but hungry consumer, and take them wherever they wanted to go. And thankfully, I think pasture-raised now stands up as a term. It has not been green-washed or homogenized in any way. I think people see that now. You’ll see it on a carton of milk. You’ll see it on butter and eggs, obviously. And, I think people really do know now that basically the animal got to live like it was intended, running around outdoors at least during the day.
Jason:So, we were a part of that, I think, not all of it. But, I’m really proud of what we did.
Alison:No, you’re good. So, I wanted to ask, when was Vital Farms? When did y’all found it?
Alison:2009. So, when you guys were founding? Wow.
Alison:When you founded Vital Farms, were you looking at other CPG brands that we also as transparent as y’all? Or, were y’all carving that path?
Jason:Yeah, it’s a great question. It was definitely the early days of the industry. And, by this time, in natural CPG, I think Vital is one of the more, one of the pillar brands I would say. There wasn’t a lot of this going on. You had Organic Valley. You had Niman or Niman Ranch, I’ve never actually known how to pronounce that. You got the sense that they were doing things right. And then, they’ve been other brands like Maple Hill up in New York doing really amazing, truly grass fed and pasture-raised dairy.
Alison:Love their milk.
Jason:Oh yeah. The cheese is so good. It’s different from the cheese we grew up on. You know something’s different about how that cow is living, which is a good thing, but it’s a different taste profile.
Jason:But yeah, there weren’t a whole lot of models, honestly. Really, we were focused, we were always very careful, and this can be a tough needle to thread if you’re a natural, organic, better for you food company. You need people, in certain cases, to understand kind of the dark side of what you are an alternative to. And in our case, it was, our chickens don’t live like this. They have it really good. And, if you were a chicken, you would want to be on a Vital Farm than opposed to a big factory situation.
Jason:But, you don’t want to lead with the negative. You want to have a positive message that talks about the good aspects of what you do. And, it’s tricky. Karin, you remember this. We needed people to understand where most of their food was coming from and what that was like, and then, present a better alternative without having a downer message. I think by that irreverence and bit of a humor that we established, I still remember stuff you were doing with hashtags and stuff, “Put an egg on it”, and stuff like that, it kept it light, but also got people to think, because consumers in the age that we’re in with all the information we have and questions that get raised that maybe 10, 20 years ago just wouldn’t have happened if you grew up eating out of a Campbell soup can like I did. We were there to meet that.
Jason:And yeah, now it’s everywhere, especially in our neighborhood, or neck of the woods, of the industry here with all of the better-for-you concepts and brands that are getting launched. It’s a great time to care about what’s going into your body, what you’re feeding your family and your kids, and that kind of thing.
Jason:So, all of us say this a lot. We’re all doing the good work, from the ground up, changing an industry for the better. We’re not depending on some government agency to change a law or something. We’re just putting better alternatives out there for people. And they go for them, once they understand why it’s worth it.
Karin:Yeah, and I think defining the term, setting really stringent standards and abiding by them and sharing them transparently, I think that was such a huge portion of people’s passion. They believed it. And, little touches, like the Vital Times in each carton, it was like, even while you were growing and the brand was growing, there was still little pieces that made it seem really like small farm. And, I think appeals to a lot of people. Well, being honest too, because the eggs do come from a lot of small farms. So, very cool.
Karin:I did have a quick question about logistics, and off the marketing, but the breakage, the refrigeration, looking back on it now, with all the brands that we’ve worked with, I’m just like, how on earth did y’all handle that? And, what would be your best advice to an entrepreneur that has glass jars, and they experience a lot of breakage and challenges logistically?
Jason:Yeah, man, it turns out when you take an egg and ship it across the country, lots of stuff can happen. And, we would have bouts of this where a truck driver just wasn’t careful or maybe the road was icy because they were coming through the Ozarks or something. And, as it turns out, eggs are fragile.
Jason:The first thing that you’ve got to do is to plan for it. You don’t want to be starting your brand, coming up with your unit economics, and telling a buyer, here’s our pricing, and this is what we will give you in trade-spend. You can’t forget about spoilage of any type, whether it’s, something gets broken in transit, or it gets hung up, or it’s not moving, and it goes out of code-dating while it’s sitting in a warehouse somewhere.
Jason:You need to plan pretty conservatively, especially when you’re small because you just don’t have the scale to smooth out bumps like that, and they will come. So, I guess the first thing I would say that may sound somewhat intelligent anyway, is just plan for it so that your model accounts for a healthy degree of that, especially in the early days because issues are going to come, and I’ve worked with companies like you.
Jason:I’ve done a lot of consultative stuff and mentoring younger entrepreneurs or just road-stage companies. And, there’s some unfortunate stories where you know what it costs you, so you come up with what the economics you think are going to be, and this is how much cash you’re going to need to keep it all going, and you didn’t plan for the $80,000 charge back you’re going to get from the big grocery customer if any number of things go south. And, there’s the front end, and the consumer story, and the branding, and all that. And then, there’s the reality of, you can’t run out of cash. And so, planning for that, well ahead of when you’re going to need to get through that batch of broken eggs, or expired product, or your co-man put your labels on upside down, and it’s just going to take three weeks to get it done.
Jason:Stuff happens. And, that’s just the struggle of needing to have good partners and be able to control your destiny a little bit. It’s just harder to do when you’re small and in the early stages. I don’t know, the first thing you should do is plan for things to be a little rougher than you think they should.
Karin:Cool, well seguing out of Vital and into your consulting work that you just mentioned. What were some of the biggest pain points of the entrepreneurs that you worked with? What did you just hear constantly?
Jason:Well, entrepreneurs, especially the more visionary types, they’re their own breed of cat. And, I think it’s really hard for anyone to be a super well-rounded, I guess you’d say leader, where you come up with a concept. You can breathe life into this thing. You can sell the shit out of it, whether it’s to a consumer or a buyer or people online, and then also get all of those nuts and bolts we were just talking about where the rubber meets the road, much less the economics of the exercise. And, you’re out raising money and trying not to run out of it, keep your investors happy, whether it’s your uncle or some equity firm.
Jason:So, there’s a lot of disciplines going there in this exercise. And I guess, one thing I’ve come up against more than once, is just a founder who birthed something into the world, and it definitely has its place, and they have some level of momentum.
Jason:But, it can be hard for visionary types to get out of their own way. I’ll say that nicely. And, either take advice about, hey, I can see around this corner, because I’ve been to this movie before. And you should prioritize this and maybe put a little more focus on, getting a good accounting system underneath you, or maybe getting a better co-manufacturer because this one’s totally killing you. It just reads like a book, even though it may not be that clear to you.
Jason:Rare is the visionary who is also a great operator. And so, that’s advice I would often end up hearing myself say to somebody, is like, hey, it’s time to go get maybe somebody who really, really has moved a lot of stuff around the country before, and not just somebody, a friend or relative, who you’ve put in this position, or an expert in accounting who actually understands CPG, and trade-spin, and the games that UNFI will play with you, and how they extort you this way and that, instead of the guy who’s done your dad’s taxes for the last 20 years. Yeah, he’s an accountant, but he doesn’t understand this industry.
Jason:So, I guess knowing when to bring in seasoned help in certain disciplines and from the industry, that’s something that it probably takes everybody a while to learn, but, the quicker you do, the quicker you, like I said, can get out of your own way and start delegating to people who actually understand a certain function better than you, because it’s quite enough to be a visionary and put something new out in the world.
Alison:Have you seen a lot of great entrepreneurs with a lot of product fail because of that in your time as consultant?
Jason:Yeah, fail, I guess there’s a spectrum of that. I’ve seen a lot where they should be much further down the road than they are. By the way, I’m not trying to come off as some expert who would do everything right or knows all the right moves. I sure don’t.
Jason:Nobody. But, I’ve seen businesses fold, for sure, because you just run out of cash because you weren’t planning well, or you weren’t focused. Another thing that happens a lot, is being so eager to launch your next product line when you have way more room to go do what you’re already doing much more deeply. And, those are things you can get kind of a sixth sense for just being in the industry a while.
Jason:But yeah, unless you have a billionaire backer who just keeps writing checks, and I’ve actually seen that happen before too, which is, you could argue, equally unfortunate because sometimes, things just need to run their course and get cleared out of the way. But, it usually does come down to the economics one way or the other, and it’s a ruthless game. I don’t think it’s quite as tough as, say, opening a restaurant, where, I guess, what I’ve heard, is 90% of those don’t hang around.
Jason:But yeah, it’s tough like any industry. There’s lot’s to rope together and get right. And you have to be in a favorable set of conditions. I won’t call it luck, but you could look at Vital. We put this out in the market at perfect time. We were really just ahead of the crest of this wave of awareness and desire for something better. We were also in Austin, so right up the road you have Whole Foods, and then an hour the other way, you’ve got HEB.
Jason:You’re in Texas, and I was talking about this earlier today, there’s such a pride for whatever it is that makes Texas, Texas. I was talking with somebody earlier who spent a lot of time abroad in the first part of their career, as did I, and we, just saying, you can be in a bar in Roppongi in Tokyo, and somebody hears you’re from Texas, and you got something to talk about, because that’s like its own brand, and even within that, Austin, as we all know.
Jason:So, not sure where I was going with that, but…
Alison:So you’re saying, if you have a CPG brand, and you don’t live in Austin, you better get down here quick.
Jason:One way of looking-
Jason:We’re not going to mention that city outside of Denver that shall not be named.
Karin:It’s where I went to school.
Jason:You were smart.
Karin:It’s a nice place.
Jason:I think I would check that one out too, if I had it to do over again.
Alison:But, what was your background before Vital? Were you in CPG? Were you just interested in CPG space? Or, what were-
Karin:We were just interested in chickens.
Alison:Or, do you like eggs a lot?
Jason:I just couldn’t get enough eggs in the morning. Maybe, I don’t know, wandering but not lost. I didn’t have a background in agriculture, didn’t really think a great deal about the food space. I guess, my journey, I always knew I would peel off and do something more for myself as opposed to being in a larger company. I guess in 2008, I had been at Motorola, which was a Fortune 50. You’re talking 40+ billion in revenue, 150,000 employees when I joined.
Jason:And, that was amazing for a lot of reasons, learned so much. It was a great, in some senses, place to kind of come up and cut your teeth. But, I always knew because it’s been in my family’s blood, we’ve always just kind of done our own thing, I supposed, and finished my grad school up in Chicago. And, we just wanted to be in Austin.
Jason:So, we got down here mainly because we just love the town, and love the vibe and the energy that was here, and we also knew it was friendly for young business. And, that certainly proved to be the case.
Jason:What I really knew I needed to do differently, was I needed to care about what I was doing when I popped out of bed in the morning. And, in a big, massive company, it’s easy to feel like it doesn’t really matter what your function in your cubicle is. I couldn’t deal with that anymore. It was soul-crushing.
Alison:Real quick, what were you doing at Motorola?
Jason:Man, everything because I would get bored. So, I started out in finance. I did audit. I got into a risk management strategy role for the CFO, traveling abroad a lot, which was super cool, especially before family and stuff. But then, I got into supply chain for a couple years. And then, my last role there I was managing the global marketing strategy for mobile devices.
Jason:Ah, it’s a fancy, long title. What it meant was, that I was super frustrated because we could all see that smart phone was coming. This was, iPhone launched in ’08, and we just knew that the wrong people were driving there. We were over-engineering products and totally missing what the consumer really wanted. And, a lot of us knew that, but weren’t able to impact it due to the culture of that once-great company, very unfortunately.
Jason:So anyhow, that really, I guess, teed me up to say, enough of this. I need to control my own destiny more, and I need to care about what I’m doing. I needed to be advancing something important in the world, and I just didn’t feel that was. And so, getting in to Austin was part of another young venture, kind of an international tourism play with some friends. It was doing well, but it wasn’t going to scale quickly enough. And, that’s when, like I said, I met Matt and Katherine and the farm they had started, and I guess, the bones of that brand. And we kind of formalized it and grew it from there.
Jason:And what I knew was, it’s kind of funny, it was more of a heart decision than a head one. I was that early consumer who was looking for something better, and preferred organic, and this was before gluten-free and all these other nerd badges you can throw on something. But, just being that consumer, I knew there was a place for it, without having any sophisticated market research or anything. We just had a napkin, and on the back of that, showed that, hey, if we get a little slice of this, if people are willing to pay, and we found out very quickly they were.
Jason:So anyhow, I wasn’t a farmer, but I also wasn’t, I don’t deserve credit for much. Maybe I do for at least being humble enough to have had a really nice, secure, high-paying job and fancy degree from Kellogg and whatnot. But, you fast-forward a couple months, and I’m out kicking around in the dust, chasing chickens around with a fishing net, quite literally.
Alison:Is that literally how you catch a chicken?
Jason:The longer the handle on the net, the better because they are fast.
Jason:Oh yeah. We went through a lot of nets-
Alison:Like a pole skimmer.
Jason:That would have been smart. They were quick, man. We were going to Academy like twice a week to buy more nets. It was ridiculous.
Alison:Oh my gosh.
Jason:There was so many stories. But you got to be humble enough to go knock around in the dirt in the 100 degrees and figure out what the hell does a chicken need when it lives outside, especially down here, and go to farmers’ market and schlep your eggs that you’re really proud of. You can’t really be above anything when you want to part of getting something off the ground.
Jason:And yeah, it just always from the beginning felt really good to be in the food space because we can all relate to it. It’s all, in times of COVID, it’s essential. If there’s anything essential, it’s this. And, to be elevating that and improving, I really do believe, the quality of people’s lives, and health, and wellness, and our consciousness too, depending on what you believe. Nobody would feel there should be more suffering in the world. How about we don’t cram chickens into a, let’s cut off the front of their face, and cram them into a cage with eight of their friends? That’s not a good way to live, and we can do better.
Jason:And, it’s a cool time to be alive because there’s a lot at our disposal, but let us make advancements in the world again from the ground up, and particularly in the food space. The barriers are low. Anybody can come up with a healthier version of something in their own kitchen, and then take it Wheatsville. That’s a beautiful way to move through the world. And, there’s all kind of rewards out there for us. But, we’re making the world better. I really believe that.
Karin:I like that. And, I think there’s something to be said about making a business plan on a napkin. I feel like that’s a recurring thing. A lot of great businesses come from a napkin. So, maybe that’s the goal.
Jason:A good buddy of mine, he’s from Zimbabwe, but he’s been living in London, or outside of London, for most of his life. But, he gave me a book called, “The Beermat Entrepreneur”, and what they mean is like the little coaster that your pint sits on in the pub. But basically, exactly about that. And, I suppose I’ve taken advantage of some of the highest forms of business education, where I got to go to school and things.
Jason:And bottom line, none of it’s rocket science. There’s formulas and fancy methodologies and models and whatnot. But yeah, it doesn’t have to be super complicated. It certainly wasn’t for us at Vital. The main thing you got to do is put something out there where people are going to really go for it on its own merits. If you’re having to market too hard, y’all probably know this better than I do, to a degree, the product really needs to sell itself. Otherwise, it’s going to be pushing uphill pretty hard.
Jason:So anyway, it’s neat because we get to tinker around in that space in the food world, and it doesn’t take years or millions of dollars to come up with something great and differentiate it.
Jason:And drink more beer, by all means, you’ll be a better [inaudible 00:28:22] person.
Karin:I love the humble aspect. I remember one thing at Vital, where [inaudible 00:28:29] here. You guys were having interviews, and some guy came in suit, and it was immediately, he was like, no. He didn’t care-
Karin:…what the guy had to say, it was just like, no. So, true to the roots. True to the farming roots, I appreciate that.
Jason:Yeah, enough with the-
Alison:Know your audience.
Karin:Know your audience. That’s important. One take away from this, know your audience.
Jason:We thought that guy was going to be too high-maintenance for us.
Karin:We don’t even remember. [crosstalk 00:29:00]
Jason:I remember interviewing you. I actually do.
Alison:What was Karin wearing? Like, overalls? And, I don’t know [inaudible 00:29:07]
Karin:I had piece of wheat coming out of my mouth.
Alison:Like, spot on.
Jason:It wouldn’t have been a bad move. I can’t say I remember that. But, I just remember you leaving, and then, you remember who else was probably in the room. And, we just kind of had a pow-wow after we probably gave you, I don’t know, a dozen eggs and said, thanks for coming in.
Karin:So already, I can tell what you felt about me on that.
Jason:Times were tough. Maybe we were sold out. Look at it that way. But yeah, I just remember looking around, and everybody was like, she’s exactly what we need. And, of course, you were and helped really take our online presence and really the face of the brand, if you think about it, for probably most people anymore. I don’t know so much about eggs, just categories, certain ones are more, that’s probably a little less prone to D-to-C exploration, but anymore, really the front of your store is online. And, that’s the first exposure most people are going to get to whatever it is you’re offering. And yeah, you’re a big part of the reason we’ve been able to grow Vital and get to where it has.
Karin:Ay yay, Jason, this isn’t about me. That’s very nice though.
Jason:It’s certainly not about me.
Karin:Well, it is. I personally, we’re friends. And I don’t even know how you ended up in Exo. So can you talk a little more about your new venture?
Jason:Yeah so, I’m a sucker for something that really is disruptive, I suppose. So, really was neck-deep in Vital, kind of running the whole ball of wax for most of the early years of it. And then, we started bringing on people who were, just had a lot of potential to take the thing forward, probably in ways that I just couldn’t have. And certainly, I was also really tired and kind of worn out. It takes a lot out of you, especially when you don’t have a lot of equity money behind you to go have some of the things that are nice to have when you’re trying to scale quickly.
Jason:Anyway, I took a bit of a break. And thankfully, things aligned for me to be able to do that. I had missed an awful lot, kind of family stuff. We have three kids by now, and all of those came after Vital. And so anyway, was able to just kind of decompress a little bit and decided, yeah, I definitely don’t want to leave the food space. There was just too much good stuff going on, and my heart is here.
Jason:So, I would work with in an advisory, or consultative, or mentor capacity, bunch of brands across categories, really learned a ton, and I think, hopefully, had some nice impact along the way. I guess in that period, probably about four or five years ago, I got to know the founders of Aspire Food Group.
Jason:And, they are Canadian, but they had located the company here for the same reasons that many food companies want to be established here because of the network and other things. Anyhow, their purpose is to solve for all sorts of problems across the global stage. The idea about having access to great quality protein in turbulent times, whether it’s climate, or economics, or population, or whatever, they had won a million bucks in a business competition, that Bill Clinton handed them a check back in, I think 2013, to go explore, hey, can we help feed the world with great quality protein and really rounded nutrition offering through insects?
Jason:And, they had been hard at work ever since, working out the R&D, and all the manufacturing capability and production. This is new to the world in once sense, at least the way they’ve come across it, in kind of a modular, scalable, very economically efficient way, in a way that had never been done. Basically, they have achieved a great deal in a matter of 5 short years, they have done what probably took the poultry industry 50 to do, and that’s to bring the grow-out cycle, or the life-span, of a mature, in their case, cricket to maturity in basically 30 days, down from 60.
Jason:And so, they’ve made massive leaps forward from a technological standpoint. And, I knew them to be just amazing humans. That’s something that I, it really matters who you’re doing something with as much as what it is that you’re actually pushing on. The people are everything, and I just had loads of respect for them, just as humans, as well as what they were trying to accomplish in the world.
Jason:And anyway, about this time last year, I re-connected with Muhammad, one of the founding team, and basically was giving him some advice, how to approach the consumer space. And it just, long story short, sounded like a really interesting challenge that I wanted to put more time into, that involved into me coming onto the Aspire Food Group team as the chief growth officer to basically try to figure out, that really the sales piece, but the consumer piece. It’s one thing to produce all this stuff, and they’ve, we’re the leaders in the clubhouse globally in how to do that at scale with great economics that get it down to where it can compete with almost anything as a protein ingredient.
Jason:But, the question still remains, and it sounded like a fun one to me to try to figure out, well, how do you convince the Western consumer to go for this stuff? Because there’s obviously that stigma there. And the thing is, there’s tons of really amazing reasons why it does make sense, and I wanted to think about really the marketing puzzle that that presented.
Jason:And, that’s what I’ve been doing for 9 or 10 months now, with our Exo brand, and we’ve done a ton of very deep, primary consumer insights work that we now have in the hopper as well as our experience of selling the Exo line for years now. And, we’re kind of in this innovation and product development phase where, we’re not out here saying, this is going to be $100 million market in two years. I don’t think it’s there yet.
Jason:But, we’re trying to be thoughtful about how we can position and then present this in formats, and in a format and brand that maybe make the most sense and can maximize on what we understand the TAM to be, as well as selling it into the pet food market, where that’s not going to be nearly as much of a challenge, and we’ve already done a good job with that.
Jason:Yeah, it’s a fun one. And, I know it’s a little out there still for some, but we’re going to get you. You’re going to come around to it, just a matter of time.
Karin:I like them.
Alison:Tastes like a corn chip. [inaudible 00:35:56]
Karin:Yeah, for people who maybe don’t know what Exo Protein is, it’s cricket protein. I think y’all have crisps, you have flour, and bars, is that right? Now you’re in that food space?
Jason:Yeah, that is a good synopsis. We recently discontinued to crispy line, though, which was the actual whole cricket.
Karin:That’s the one we tried, yeah.
Jason:Yeah, it was not because people didn’t like it, actually. It was very problematic from a supply chain and production standpoint. And, this is one of those choices you make when you need to focus. And, we needed to focus on stuff we can just make with our powder, or flour, which is just kind of a roasted and ground up. It looks like flour or protein powder. And, we’re not really limited as to how that can get applied.
Jason:So yeah, we have the Exo line of bars. There’s protein and energy bars, and they’re relatively really high in protein. And, it’s a complete protein. It’s kind of the same protein profile in terms of the full amino stack, all nine of the essentials, as you get in beef or pork or chicken, other kind of livestock-based proteins. But, it’s much, much lighter on the environment and our resources, and so less that it requires as inputs to make a pound of that.
Jason:It’s also a lot less harmful gasses and things that are the result of the production. It’s kind of the environmental footprint of plants with the nutrition of animals. That’s one way to look at it. And, we’re just trying to figure out what really we should best go do with that in a way that navigates that stigma and addresses it and educates, and there’s going to be a lot, I think, that we learned on the Vital journey that will come to bear here.
Jason:But, no final answers, yet. But, just telling you, telling you right here, remember this. It’s coming. It will be a thing. It is a viable, very, it’s the most responsible form of protein we can take in. And, our job is to make that in the way we define pasture-raised and animal welfare and quality in that part of the store, this is a viable option that we need to take seriously for ourselves as well as the earth.
Alison:Yeah, and I’ll tell you, if you just go down to Waco’s Hollywood movie theater, outside there’s a ton of crickets. So, I’m sure.
Jason:Yeah, send me an address.
Jason:Did you go the Baylor? How do you even know that?
Alison:I’m from Waco.
Alison:Yeah. Yeah, well I mean-
Jason:If you got a pickup, we can head up there-
Alison:Oh, they would love you.
Alison:…y’all to swing by.
Jason:We’ll get our nets from the first Vital farm-
Alison:I know. There’re a lot of similarities, between Exo and Vital, it seems like. But yeah, I kind of just have one more question. You talked a little bit about the barrier, I’m sure there’s a big barrier to entry for consumers, especially Western consumers, I’m sure taking into the flour, maybe help. But, what other ways have you solved that challenge, for someone to go try a cricket?
Jason:Well, I guess one response is, we don’t think we fully have yet, but one thing that you know across food is that, it has to be delicious. So, taste is the table-stakes. And, we’ve been, we’ve had some formulas that we had inherited for the bar line, and we’ve been tinkering with those quite a bit, to improve the eating experience and the flavor as well as the nutritionals and the macros and things.
Jason:Our protein line is going to be 14 grams of protein and only 3 grams of sugar. So, you get into the space where that’s appealing to people on all sorts of low-carb diets.
Alison:What does the calorie look like for that? The calorie count?
Jason:It’s under 200. So, I’m telling you, it’s quite potent nutritional.
Alison:It’s not going to hurt your tummy, like whey protein in the end?
Alison:It’s a lot better, yeah.
Jason:Yeah, so cricket powder is prebiotic inherently. So, it’s actually really great for digestion and gut health. And the fiber content is something that’s kind of a bonus. We’re actually getting to be kind of deficient across the board as a nation, I think, with respect to fiber. A lot of people are anyway in the way similar to Vitamin D and some other things, due to the way we eat anymore.
Jason:So, there’s a fiber, a prebiotic content. There’s more iron than spinach, and great B12 and Omega 3s in all this stuff. It feels not dissimilar to the early Vital Farms days when we had all this crap to say, we need to distill it down in the most cogent way and that’s digestible.
Jason:But anyway, yeah, it has to taste great. It has to be in a format that is not off-putting. Also, the education obviously is going to be central to, why the hell should I do that? We kind of think of insects in a certain way. And, we’re actually kind of unique on the global stage, or compared to many other cultures across the globe for whom this is already just a very natural food source. If it’s on the planet here with us, and we don’t have to be naked and afraid to take advantage of some humble but very powerful protein here.
Jason:And yeah, don’t have all the answers yet, but that’s kind of the core of the job. And then, we’re also standing up all of the other stuff you need just as a company to go do things well in the CPG space, both grocery and D-to-C. We’re primarily D-to-C now, but the bars have been in HEB for almost a year and a half now. About a third of the HEBs out there are going to have our protein bars and energy as of this month now.
Karin:Congratulations. That’s awesome.
Jason:Yeah, HEB. There’s a Texas connection there, but they deserve a lot of credit. They’re kind of a mainstream grocer, but they’re way better. They’re progressive and very forward thinking, and we just had an amazing call that was so helpful with our buyer just yesterday. We were having some real talk. Like, hey, it would be great if your economics were a little bit better, about the purpose, but you need to provide us the dollars and cents.
Jason:And so, it’s a good thing we’ve been working to go improve our supply chain and how we manufacture and our cost structure, so that we can have great answers to those questions when they come, because you can be real special, but a slot on a grocery shelf is kind of priceless for that retailer. So really, this comes full circle if you think of a stake-holder model or a consciously, capitalistic way of moving through all this.
Jason:It has to be good for everybody, whether it’s a farmer, an animal, the consumer. Your HEB buyer. He needs to look good, or she, just in our case it’s a he, but they need to, you got to be careful today. It has to benefit everyone to be viable, or v-buyable. Think about that.
Alison:I’m mean, we’re huge HEB fans.
Alison:And stakeholder model fans. Well, thanks Jason, for joining us.
Karin:It was fun.
Alison:It was so nice to hear expertise. Do you want to tell everybody where you can find Exo? Besides HEB.
Jason:Well, we’re primarily D-to-C, but all your usual online channels, be they our website or Amazon. And, we’re in about 30 HEBs today. We’re in every Cost Plus World Market that there is. They’ve been a great partner as well. It’s actually a really great account that is non-typical, but it’s a really great one.
Jason:Yeah, a lot of other mom’s and pop’s and stuff, but we’re looking to drive our grocery presence and get that door count up. And, we’ve been doing a lot of work in the online space too to better target folks, and be able to cut everybody good deals for trying what we’ve got. So, hope everybody does.
Alison:Yep, and they are delicious. So, don’t let the crickets scare you.
Jason:Yeah, get over it. It’s just food.
Alison:Get over it already, shoot.
Jason:That’s probably not a good tag line.
Alison:Get over it already?
Karin:Yeah, you don’t need to pay us for that. That’s free advice.
Jason:Congratulations on Umai, and I know for a fact from just being out there in the space that y’all are kicking tail out there, and it’s so cool to see. You can stand up food brands, you can also stand up companies like what you’ve done. And, you’re to be commended for that. You’re providing a great value, and it’s doing well by y’all as well. It’s a great space, but congratulations on your success there at Umai, and keep doing what you’re doing. It’s going to be fun to see how y’all track as well.
Alison:Yeah, thank you.
Karin:I mean, hey, you get a lot of credit for starting this.
Alison:Yeah, I know. All those lunches. We owe you lunch again too, probably, once this is all over.
Jason:Could we get arrested for going to a restaurant?
Karin:I know. We’re sitting very close to each other right now.
Jason:Yeah, I may call the authorities.
Karin:Be safe. Stay safe out there.
Alison:Yeah, we disinfected it though, so we’re clean.
Jason:Thank you all for having me. I sure appreciate it.
Jason:Yeah, enjoyed it, and congrats.
Karin:Thanks, Jason, we’ll talk to you soon.
Alison (Recorded):Umai Social Circle is a CPG, agency-driven podcast based out of Austin, Texas. We’re excited to share more behind the scene insights, chats with industry leaders, and whatever else we learn along the way. Follow us on Instagram at Umai Marketing, or check out our website, umaimarketing.com.
Alison (Recorded):Catch you back here soon.
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