This Single Mother and First-Time Entrepreneur Overcame Many Naysayers, Building a Vegan Snack Brand Sold Nationally

‘You just have to follow your gut and believe in yourself and your passion,’ says Beryl Stafford, founder of Bobo’s.

4 min read

In this ongoing column, The Digest, News Director Stephen J. Bronner speaks with food entrepreneurs and executives to see what it took to get their products into the mouths of customers.

Beryl Stafford says that during the early years of her vegan-snack company, Bobo’s, she encountered many naysayers, including her accountant and sister, who told her she was crazy and that her business would not be successful.

But after years of hard work and slow growth, Bobo’s now sells its vegan products — including bars, bites and toaster pastries — in 7,500 stores across the U.S. Some of her bigger accounts include Whole Foods, Wegmans and Kroger, and she says revenue increased by 65 percent in 2017, year over year.  

“You just have to follow your gut and believe in yourself and your passion,” says Stafford, a first-time entrepreneur with no prior sales or food experience. “I kept growing it organically; it took me 15 years to get here. I did it slowly and patiently.”

Related: This High-Ranking Executive Quit Her Job to Reinvent Animal Crackers

The Boulder, Colo.-resident started baking oat bars in 2003, when she became a single mom of two kids, ages 14 and 12. She and her daughter found a recipe in a cookbook, and the results were so tasty that kids at the teenager’s school kept asking for them.

“That’s when I had this idea,” Stafford says. “I needed to get a job. I didn’t want to go work at a bank, put on a pair of pantyhose and make $7 an hour.”

Image courtesy of Bobo’s

So she started wrapping the bars in Saran wrap with a homemade label, and sold them to local coffee shops. Stafford got repeat orders, giving her hope, so she kept at it part time over the next few years, not thinking the venture would turn into a career.

But that changed when Bobo’s landed on the shelves of her local Whole Foods. Stafford landed that deal with a bit of luck: the store’s buyer, who was already a fan of the bar, happened to be in the store when Stafford went in for an unscheduled pitch.

“It was the best response you can ever want,” she says. “I turned around and walked out and screamed.”

The Whole Foods regional office came calling, expanding Bobo’s to 20 stores. Stafford then set her sights on the Whole Foods southern California region, flying there and hand-delivering bars with price sheets. The strategy worked. Bobo’s retail partnerships then expanded thanks to the company landing a distributor.

Related: This Single Mom Turned Tech Entrepreneur Shares How She Rose Above Self-Doubt

What did Stafford learn from this experience?

“It’s not glamorous,” she says. “You have to be prepared to work long hours and be pretty much married to it. Yes, you work your own hours, but you work twice as hard as everyone else.”

One of Stafford’s earliest struggles was with packaging, as Saran wrap was both poor for shelf life and clearly not great for branding. She started to research, calling food packaging salespeople to learn more and attended classes. Bobo’s graduated from Saran wrap to a packaging machine. Its packaging now includes a see-through film, which Stafford insisted on even though it decreases shelf life.

Another thing Stafford was set on: Bobo’s still bakes its products by hand, with around 100 bakers and 7,000 pans. To retain its homemade feel, the bars are not cut to have even edges.

“I never wanted to go with a co-packer,” Stafford says. “I was so afraid to lose that homemade artisan look and control of the quality.”

Related: What Motivated Jennifer Garner to Become an Entrepreneur in the Food Space

Although Bobo’s grew slowly, Stafford says the only thing she would change is that she wouldn’t have doubted herself along the way.

“It’s hard at times because you question yourself so much — we all do in life,” she says. “But when you’re embarking on a business venture, you just have to be resolute. You’ve got to lead the way.”

This Bagel Shop Now Sells Products in 9,000 Stores Thanks to ‘Shark Tank’ and QVC

New York City’s Bantam Bagels was started by a husband and wife five years ago after a literal dream of a stuffed bagel.

5 min read

In this ongoing column, The Digest, News Director Stephen J. Bronner speaks with food entrepreneurs and executives to see what it took to get their products into the mouths of customers.

Husband and wife team Nick and Elyse Oleksak quit their Wall Street jobs after Nick had a dream about stuffed bagels. After hundreds of tests, that dream became a reality in 2013 with the opening of Bantam Bagels in New York City.

“We don’t have a culinary background,” Nick says. “We just made a product that tasted really good.”

Related: This Entrepreneur Almost Quit Multiple Times, But After Appearing on ‘Shark Tank’ He Now Has a $100 Million Business

The couple took their idea to Shark Tank in 2014 and scored a $275,000 investment from Lori Greiner, who remains active with the brand. After that exposure on the national stage, the Oleksaks started selling their bagels, as well as pancakes, across the country. Today, they are sold in 9,000 retailers.

According to the company, its everything and plain bagel packages are the third and fourth top selling frozen bagels in the nation, and both products have grown more than 160 percent in dollar sales and units sales year over year.

Entrepreneur recently visited the Bantam Bagels shop to learn more about the brand. You can watch that here:

And read on for an extended conversation with Elyse.

How did you land your first big distribution deal and what can entrepreneurs learn it?

Our first big deal was QVC. We were totally unprepared, had zero infrastructure, no experience baking in mass and virtually no time. But we did what we know how to do: We said “yes” and then figured it out. We began running the oven 24-hours straight. There was no stopping, there were no shifts. Our staff stepped up like nothing we had ever seen, exceeding all expectations.

We were on fire, tackled each hurdle — packaging, delivery, warehousing, compliance requirements — one at a time, learning along the way and solving each problem as it surfaced. Two weeks later, we went on TV and sold out in five minutes. It was a huge risk, but saying yes to a big order four years ago became the driving force that took us from one New York City storefront to a credible player on the national stage.

Related: Shark Tank Star Lori Greiner’s 4 Money Rules for New Entrepreneurs

Every industry has its own set of challenges, what is a big one in your industry? How did you overcome it?

One of the biggest challenges of our industry is how micromanaged the grocery retail world is. In each town, county and region of the country, different grocery chains operate in the market, garnering local loyalty and growth through unique regional connections. As a small brand attempting to find our space on the shelf in all of these retailers, we have faced the challenge of being relevant to both every buyer and every customer in every corner of the country. Part of our strategy has been to stay authentic to our roots and our origin. Wherever you are, people appreciate food that looks, feels and tastes genuinely authentic. Food is so personal, and we learned that by staying true to ourselves, we are able to forge true connections with people in every market of the country, no matter how far from New York City.

What marketing tactic has been the most effective for your brand?

Part of being authentic in our product also carries over to our marketing efforts. We work hard to stay organic in our marketing, whether that’s social, Shark Tank, press, the shop or street team giveaways. You won’t see us competing for billboards and TV ads, because we prefer more of the ground level marketing that feels directly connective with both a lifestyle and a person.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Bantam Bagels


What’s the most unusual thing about working in your niche?

The most unusual thing about bagels is how untouched it is from the sense of innovation. Few bagels exist in frozen retail, and any bagel-alternatives are virtually non-existent. While that seems like it would mean a slam dunk for Bantam, that actually came with its own set of unanticipated challenges. A few years ago, approaching buyers with a “new frozen bagel” was interpreted almost as a joke. We had to work incredibly hard to convince buyers — who had either cut back or eliminated their bagel set entirely — to revisit and even expand their frozen bagel offerings.

Related: Meet the American Entrepreneurs Who Are Brewing Japanese Sake in Brooklyn

Can you tell me something interesting about yourself that you think helped you launch and grow your business?

Nick and I are both Division I college athletes. We approach our business the way we were taught to as athletes: standing on the end line and sprinting until we puke — or win, whichever comes first!

This High-Ranking Executive Quit Her Job to Reinvent Animal Crackers

Erika Szychowski launched Good Zebra in 2016 to offer protein-packed cookies as an alternative to bars.

10 min read

Editor’s Note: In this ongoing column, The Digest, News Director Stephen J. Bronner speaks with food entrepreneurs and executives to see what it took to get their products into the mouths of customers.

Manufacturers kept denying Erika Szychowski’s idea for protein-packed cookies. Even worse, they actually liked the product, they just didn’t want to make them.

“I was visiting factories in lots of different cities and the response I got was, ‘great product, kind of surprised us, but we’re not going to make it,” she says. “‘This is a farmer’s market product, a local bakery product, a small-scale commercial kitchen product,’ and I thought, that’s just not me.”

Related: Before Halo Top Became One of America’s Fastest-Growing Ice Cream Brands, It Was on the Verge of Death

Szychowski, who had spent her entire career in branding and marketing, with her most recent stint at Nine West, had her heart set on a cookie that could serve as a replacement for bars, but to make it, she needed to pivot.

Five years ago, the vegetarian found herself eating two or three protein bars a day, especially when she was traveling for work to places that couldn’t accommodate her diet. But eating protein bar after protein bar got boring, and Szychowski didn’t like the sugar in them. So, she started baking her own bars and cookies, which she would share with her co-workers at the footwear division of Nine West. The home-baked goods proved so popular, she says, that she seriously started considering a career switch.

“I started to take data and the insights that I’ve been gathering for eight months while I was still in my role and really looking at consumer insights around food,” Szychowski says. After the rejections from the manufacturers, “I started looking at the food space in general to see if I could identify products that were ripe for reinvention.”

She settled on animal crackers, packed with protein.

“When you hear animal crackers, something happens for most people: it’s nostalgic,” she says. “And yet animal crackers are only in large format and not clean ingredients. There’s no nutritional value to them.”

Her company, Good Zebra, officially launched in March 2017 and features flavors like vanilla, chai and lemon — something both adults and kids can enjoy. Each bag of crackers has 12 grams of protein, equivalent to a typical protein bar. The crackers can be found in about 500 stores, including Peet’s Coffee & Tea nationally and at airports, as well as Amazon. The company says it grew 188 percent this past year and is on track to double again this year.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Good Zebra


Szychowski shared more insights with Entrepreneur about thinking liking a marketer and the big problem in the food industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you settle on the idea of protein-packed animal crackers?

I had to put my marketing hat on and create a product that consumers would know what to expect and immediately know what it’s supposed to be. Baked by Melissa did not invent the cupcake. They made it cool again with this little mini cupcake. In my lifetime popcorn was cooked on the stovetop. Then we had an air popper. Then we popped in the microwave. And now you get pre-popped in a bag. Every one of those evolutions, a new brand reinvented it. Somebody came in and said I could do this better.

The day I declared I was going to quit and start pursuing food, I had a group of my direct reports over and I had this big brainstorming session. I had six to eight hours with some incredibly insightful marketing minds. We created a list of about 25 products that I’ve either made or that could be under this umbrella of reinventing it as a better-for-you product. Animal crackers were on that list.

Related: How Two Sisters Turned a Textile Experiment Into a Bustling Global Enterprise

What were the challenges of bringing Good Zebra to market?

This isn’t something that you can make in a commercial kitchen. Everybody laughed at me and told me it’s not possible to remove refined sugar from a molded product. You can’t add protein; it adds moisture. Everything was “no,” “no,” “no.” Even the person that I now work with said “no” at first, and then called me back and said, “My mentor taught me better than this. You take on these projects that you don’t think you can do to see if you’re right.”

Were there any big breakthroughs that allowed it to happen?

Persistence was probably the biggest thing. A tremendous amount of trial and error. The first time we simulated the experience on the production line, it went perfectly. It was one of the best things you’ve ever tasted. They were beautiful. The next day, we could not replicate what we did. You have a lot of those moments. Then all of a sudden it starts to work, and then it just continues to improve.

You didn’t go directly to market once the product was ready, opting for a soft launch. Why?

What I decided to do was cobble together a litmus test on this product. What do people like? What don’t they like? Is the packaging working? Can people get it open? We ran about seven months that way. And basically it was a 100 percent pass-through business, meaning there was no money to be made.

We learned things around shelf life. We learned the packaging wasn’t as durable as it needed to be. When we had our official launch March of the following year we were in much better shape to be confident that people’s experience would be vastly improved from where we had been in the soft launch.

Were there dangers of taking on animal crackers?

There was a couple of things about making an animal cracker that I felt were critical. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into the kids section or lunchboxes; I wanted to create something that everyone could consume.

Our language and personality from a social-media perspective is super cheeky and can be borderline offensive and or aggressive depending on who you are. Even our animals themselves were designed by a tattoo artist, so they are not circus animals of the past, and they don’t look like cartoon characters. Again, [this was done] to elevate that experience and make it more acceptable on an adult level. Then lastly the flavor profiles. We do have a vanilla cookie, but the profiles of this product are certainly on the adult spectrum.

Who was your first big retail partner and how did you land that first deal?

Peet’s Coffee was our first national retail account. When we made the product we formulated it to pair with coffee. I did group discussions with consumers and found the vast majority of them aligned with coffee. Also, this idea that I don’t take coffee on an empty stomach; it makes my stomach hurt or makes me gassy in the afternoon. When we approached Peets that’s basically the story that we told them and it resonated.

What can entrepreneurs learn from your experience in selling to Peet’s and other retailers?

Being willing to pivot is very important. I’ve pivoted a half a dozen times if not more. And don’t say never. With every opportunity to discuss with a retailer what you believe your value proposition is, you’ll start to understand whether that value proposition resonates, and you have to remember that buyer is also a consumer. Then persistence and nothing is forever. Even when something does start, you still have to realize how to maintain that momentum. How am I going to stay at a profit? You don’t sell a product a retail and expect that everything’s great. You have a role to play in its success.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Good Zebra


What is the biggest challenge in the functional food space and how are you able to overcome it?

Hands down the answer is cash flow. The CPG space is actually quite depressing in regards to cash opportunities. I would also say that being female doesn’t make that any easier.

It’s going to be an ongoing battle to scale the business. You need to invest in it, and you can’t save your way to profitability. Slow and steady works great for a lot of products, but it doesn’t work for my product — primarily because of upfront costs of this type of a product. Not only the R&D cost and time, but the sheer volume you have to produce when you’re making a molded product is very different than if I was making cookies in the commercial kitchen. The good news is your margin can improve just as easily.

Related: This Former Apple Employee Finally Fulfilled a Lifelong Dream and Created an Organic Betty Crocker

What marketing tactic has been most effectively brand and why?

Word of mouth. It doesn’t have to be the big paid influencer network, but rather, people finding the product, having a positive experience and sharing. This is tenfold more valuable than pushing content at people. I have not paid for influencers or marketing, so it is rooted in authenticity. You have to be willing to give your product away. You have to be willing to figure out how to develop deep-rooted relationships. But once you do, it becomes a really valuable network. I also found that something that resonates is storytelling. Don’t just talk to people about your brand, product and yourself, but talk about other people and their responses or the whys.

What’s the most unusual thing about working in this space?

I have found it to be the least welcoming industry that I’ve ever stepped foot in. It is a good old boys club. It’s lacking innovation on a scale that is inconceivable with retail distribution.

Retailers and distributors both have to start thinking differently. Innovation is happening at an experience level. Food retail has had some innovation, but it’s an industry that makes its business on volume, not margin. So if you don’t have access to volume, how do you survive when there is no margin? The big retailers haven’t quite figured out how to deal with emerging brands, because they don’t drive the awareness. You don’t go walk into the national store that you grew up with and walk around looking for new products. You repeat purchase based on your own needs. You have a routine. To break that routine you actually have to create an innovation space.

But the big giant guys aren’t innovating; they do what they do really well. It doesn’t mean it’s what the consumer is looking for. The consumer quite probably will buy the discovery product. They’ll pay even more for it. They support small businesses. They like this story. They prefer the natural ingredients. But distributors and retailers are not getting to them in that channel.

These Entrepreneur Brothers Ditched Coffee for Matcha and Built a Multimillion-Dollar Drink Brand

MatchaBar has products in 1,000 stores across the country and Drake and Diplo as investors.

6 min read

Editor’s Note: In this ongoing column, The Digest, News Director Stephen J. Bronner speaks with food entrepreneurs and executives to see what it took to get their products into the mouths of customers.

Brothers Max and Graham Fortgang say they were caught in the “New York hustle,” drinking three espressos and an energy drink a day just to keep up.

“We found ourselves in a vicious cycle of ups and downs,” Graham says. “We felt like there was this fantasy about your morning cup — that simply wasn’t measuring up to the reality.”

Their search for a better source of energy led them to matcha — the powdered form of green tea leaves — which not only helped them stay ahead, but inspired the opening of matcha-drink cafe MatchaBar in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2014, with matcha sourced directly from a family farm in Japan.

Related: This Beverage Entrepreneur Got His Start by Simply Asking a Big Company to Let Him Sell Their Products

The business has grown rapidly since. The brand now has two locations in New York City and another in Los Angeles and products — flavored matcha drinks in bottles and cans — in more than 1,000 stores across the country. MatchaBar has sold more than a million bottles and says it’s the seventh-best-selling tea at Whole Foods. The company anticipates growth of more than 300 percent from 2017 to 2018.

The brothers recently announced they closed an $8 million Series A funding round led by DJ and producer Diplo and NFL MVP Von Miller. (Drake took part in an earlier funding round.) MatchaBar recently launched a sparkling energy drink, Hustle, that the brothers expect to double their retail footprint.

Entrepreneur spoke with the brothers at one of their New York City locations in May. You can watch that interview here:

In a follow-up interview, Graham provided more insight on the company’s progress as well as shed light on what’s driving its success.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you land your first big distribution deal, and what can entrepreneurs learn from it?

It was a very passionate pitch to the CEO of a local distributor in New York. At the time, we had already planted our flag in the retail space as the first matcha cafe in the country and built a cultish following of matcha enthusiasts. The next step was to convince this distributor that the work we had done in the matcha space was significant enough to build a beverage brand.

Related: This Bakery Chain’s Incredible Story Began With a Brain Tumor and Nothing to Lose

My advice for entrepreneurs is twofold. First, sell the category, not just yourself/your brand. If you can sell them on the category, you can sell them on helping you lead it. Second, bring something to the table. Leverage your hustle! For us, it was a compelling social media following, positive press and a genuine story of two brothers traveling the country sharing their matcha where it mattered.

Every industry has its own set of challenges. What is a big one in your industry?

Education. For our category specifically, the biggest hurdle to clear has been putting the product on the cultural map. How do you create a matcha culture in this country where there once was none? Answering this question has been the biggest challenge. Fast-forward four years, matcha is now available at every Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee, you can find it in third-wave coffee chains like Intelligentsia, and it’s used as an ingredient in desserts, in smoothie shops and so much more. Matcha has broken through the cultural landscape and been accepted as a stable in the beverage world.

Image Credit: Courtesy of MatchaBar


What marketing tactic has been the most effective for your brand? What can entrepreneurs learn from your experience?

The most effective marketing tactic has been investing in growing a genuine community with partners that truly care about the brand and mission to bring matcha to the people. Over the past four years we have done that through building communities at our cafes, activations at music and tech conferences around the country and, of course, on the social landscape. Each partner, no matter how big or small, plays a pivotal role in representing your brand lifestyle.

One example of how we activate our community lies in our upcoming Gift the Hustle social campaign surrounding the launch of Hustle. We partnered with Diplo, Billie Eilish, Von Miller and Ansel Elgort and a host of influencers and what we call “local heroes” to empower our community to allow their following to share our new energy drink, Hustle, with their family and fans. With our Gift the Hustle campaign, our community is able to send their friends a free can of Hustle via Facebook Messenger redeemable at any Whole Foods Market nationwide.

By giving our influencers a currency, allowing them to offer tangible value to their followings, we have created a platform that encourages peer-to-peer recommendation founded on the belief of gifting. Without our community behind us, we are nothing.

Related: Meet the American Entrepreneurs Who Are Brewing Japanese Sake in Brooklyn

Can you tell me something interesting about yourself that you think helped you launch and grow your business?

Before MatchaBar I was working in the art world at museums and galleries, and Graham was in music doing event production. One would think our previous work experience would not apply to running a tea company, but that has not been our experience. The same community-building traits that served us well in our first occupations created the basis for this business as well — connecting people with real emotion, a big heart and a common belief. For us, that reads “Good things come to those who hustle.” The community, the MatchaFam, that we built in Brooklyn still sustains us today — and without it we would have never been able to launch and grow our business.