When we last sat down with Roman Jewell, CEO and Founder of nut butter powerhouse Fix & Fogg, the company was five years young.
The company was focusing primarily on peanut butters, having just launched their almond butter, and were dipping their toes into the biggest nut butter market in the world, the US of A, focusing on Amazon as their channel to market.
I asked Roman to give us an update on how Fix & Fogg has grown in the last two years.
“In the last two years, we doubled year on year which makes us one of the fastest growing food brands in New Zealand. It gets harder to sustain 100% growth the bigger you get, because there’s less room to expand. So we’ve managed our growth by taking more of the mainstream peanut butter category, but also expanding the category of nut butters. In the past two years, we’ve introduced our Everything Butter, Cashew Butter and Almond, Cashew and Maple, along with a number of other limited edition flavours,” says Roman.
“Our Everything Butter has been a phenomenal product and won best in class at the Outstanding Food Producer Awards here in NZ last year and a gold award from the Sofi Specialty Food Awards, which are like the Oscars of American food awards.
“We’ve also achieved B Corp certification. It’s a big process that took about 12 months to get and we were the first New Zealand owned food manufacturer to do so.”
But the biggest development for Fix & Fogg in the past two years has been the exponential growth of their US business.
Says Roman, “A couple of years ago, we were selling on Amazon - really trialling and testing and seeing if we could make their e-commerce channel profitable. It's quite hard to make a whole business out of Amazon, because it's quite an expensive platform to work with - it's a pay-to-play site, you have to advertise on it. That takes a lot of cash, and it’s really difficult to talk directly to your customers.
“So we made the call in 2019 that we would move from being online to onshelf, and start with getting a small foothold in a physical store or supermarket. We spent 2019 really trying to understand that environment in America, and we did that by traveling - I did about four trips and Sarah Sherriff, our head of export, did a similar amount.
“And it was just a learning process, literally walking the beat - going into stores, looking at the shelf to see what was available and leveraging our relationship with NZTE and friends of friends, to help us learn and plot a path. We started building our team on the ground, and it started with Blake Lupton, our GM of US operations, who we were lucky enough to meet through someone at Coffee Supreme.
“There is now a team of four F&F people based in Houston, we have a manufacturer there - we’re about to join a new manufacturer to keep up with demand. We have a national broker team of about 80 plus, we have a back office provider out of Pittsburgh that helps their forecasting and invoicing and registration of a company. We’ve built a whole scalable business in America still being run out in New Zealand by myself, Sarah and Blake.
“We were lucky enough to get an order from Central Market, a chain of premium supermarkets in Texas. They’re really lovely stores, similar to a Moore Wilsons or Farro Fresh. We went in store in July last year - it was obviously quite tricky because our normal method would be offering in store tastings, but Covid made that impossible. So we put a lot of effort into leveraging social media and personal relationships to build brand awareness and strong connections with store managers and buyers.
“And our success in Central Market stores has really helped us to get on the shelves with the second largest and the largest specialty grocery stores in the US - Sprouts and Wholefoods.
“We started at Sprouts about three months ago - that’s 363 stores across 36 states. To put that in perspective, we’re in about 350 stores here in New Zealand.
“And the biggest thing that has happened to Fix & Fogg to date is Wholefoods has put us in all of their stores across the US. Usually they might give you one region as a bit of a test but they’ve put us in all 509 stores across 50 states.
“I can't think of another foreign nut butter company on those shelves at the moment - we're going into the thick of American brands, and what could be more quintessential than peanut butter and nut butter in America. So it’s a pretty special humbling opportunity and that's kind of our defining moment in the States because Wholefoods is synonymous with American grocery. Americans know and love to shop there and the brand recognition will help us to exponentially grow this business.”
I asked Roman why they decided to tackle the United States.
“I think it always starts with having a big dream. Why not go for the largest market in the world? The arguments against it will be because it’s the most competitive and therefore probably the most expensive market to compete in - but I love that challenge.
“We sat here in New Zealand looking at our product and thinking ‘we make best in class products - if they’re that good, let’s give them a go in the world’s biggest market. Now we’ve won a Sofi award, and we’re picking up other accolades and awards in America. It's been proof of concept for me that our products are good enough to play in this market.
“The other reason for us is probably more of a technical export one. It takes a couple of years to get traction in an export market, regardless of how easy you think it might be - so why spend two years chasing somewhere like Australia when we could spend the same amount of time taking on a market like the US. That was really Sarah’s mindset as our lead architect for the US rollout.
“It was also key getting someone like Blake on the ground for us. He’s someone I really like personally, trust implicitly, shares the same dream and hustle for the brand and that people element can change things.
“Just to give you the other side of the coin, while we're looking at numbers like 1000+ supermarkets, we’ve also invested over $1.2 million in the US this year. So it’s a huge financial risk.
“I think the Amazon component was key for us because it allowed us to gain feedback, learn what resonated and what didn’t, gave us time to figure out the retail environment in America, what supermarkets were a good brand fit etc. The laser focus on Houston enabled us to be an inch wide and a mile deep - trying to own one area and build out from there to reach customers. That got us to the point of pitching to Central Market. If we had got in and it hadn’t worked out, it would’ve been 10 stores. I never want to fail but it would’ve enabled us to fail small, rather than tackling Wholefoods off the bat. Covid threw us a curveball and I haven’t yet seen our products on the shelf which is sad because we’ve done all the legwork to get to this point.”
I asked what tips Roman would give to someone wanting to take their brand to the US.
“Firstly, find a way to test your product. For us that was Amazon and it enabled us to make mistakes and learn from them. Secondly, have a targeted approach. Don’t take on the States as a whole - people say 50 states, but think of it as closer to 50 countries.
“One thing I liked about Texas - and particularly Houston - was that it wasn't particularly expensive for us to set up and we could find retail space the rent was affordable, and a good market of 8 million people. You don’t have to get distracted by Los Angeles or New York - there are other great cities all over America that will give you the large customer base you need.
“I’d also say, tap into your friend and friend-of-friends network, the business community, and reach out to businesses for help. NZTE has been a great resource for us. Don't underestimate the large expat community of Kiwis that live in America, they love seeing New Zealand brands do great things in America, and they will come out and force and help you.
“Finally, establish your own path with something that offers the customer something new and exciting. For us, setting up a small retail window in America was really a lovely extension from what we have going here in Wellington with a window. It was also unique and it excited supermarket buyers to see that we were a company from New Zealand, but that we were now physically present in America. It was something which cost us more money but the end result was we got more attention and traction in America because of it.”
Finally, I asked what advice Roman would give to someone starting out, now he’s a few more years down the road in his business journey.
“I think the comments from last time definitely still apply. But maybe because I'm a little bit older and wiser I would also add - look after yourself. There's two journeys you’re on as an owner: the business journey and the founder journey. They're intertwined but they are different.
“I've seen a lot of founders burn out and have personal relationships take a bit of a beating because the business requires so much from you, so just be mindful of that and give yourself space to practice mindfulness and look after yourself.”
“As a final comment, I love the idea that it’s achievable to start any business and put it on the world stage. If there is a legacy of Fix & Fogg, it’s to show that if you have an idea and you commit to it that you can do great things with it, no matter what your background or financial situation or experience. We started in a community lawn bowls club seven years ago, and we've now scaled it into nearly 1000 supermarkets in America - and that’s pretty special.”
Read part 1 here: https://www.knooknz.com/post/knook-2-fix-fogg