We recently connected with Laura Briscoe and have shared our conversation below.
Laura, looking forward to hearing all of your stories today. Crazy stuff happening is almost as certain as death and taxes – it’s technically “unexpected” but something unexpected happening is to be expected and so can you share a crazy story with our readers
When Laura’s Gourmet Granola was first introduced in 2004, it was with our first retailer, AJ’s Fine Foods. The original recipe was developed purely for my own enjoyment. If you like to bake, you know that you always have enough to share. I would share it with friends, neighbors, my trainer — even my daughters’ sports teams for halftime snacks. Over a few short months, people began to request baggies of it for gift baskets, or school snacks for themselves. My trainer at the time actually let me pay him for training with a few pounds. About this time, my best friend suggested I consider selling it as a retail product. Earning AJ’s as our retailer was above and beyond my expectations. Since I was still focused on growing my chef company, having AJ’s was all I desired. Over the next four years, I added a couple more flavors to the shelf plus one more retailer. I was happily busy growing Celebrated Cuisine and didn’t need anything else.
In 2008 I received a random phone call from the corporate executive chef for Fox Restaurant Concepts. He found and purchased our granola from AJ’s while on the hunt for a granola that could be used in a couple of their concepts for yogurt parfaits, among other things. He asked me simply, “Do you do foodservice?”
I was unfamiliar with that term, but basically he was asking me if were able to package in large boxes as opposed to individual bags so it could be purchased and used as a menu inclusion in a restaurant. Of course, I said yes, and this began our initial foray into offering a product in bulk quantities.
Each week I would arrive at the restaurants with a small Lexan (food-safe container) of Vanilla Almond Crunch and literally dump it into their Lexan, collect a check and be on my merry way – imagine a foodservice Red Riding Hood. This continued for about three months when we graduated to packing granola into its own bag and dropping it off. One restaurant became two, then three.
One day, about two years later, we received a call letting us know the same restaurant concepts would be opening at Sky Harbor Airport and they would be doing “grab and go” parfaits with Laura’s Gourmet Granola. This required new packaging, boxes, lot number tracking, extensive liability insurance and bigger production as we began supplying the airport for Terminal 4, not to mention a relationship with our first distributor.
As I began building this part of our business, I had no idea that it would grow into the leading revenue generator for Laura’s Gourmet Granola. One regional foodservice distributor became two, then we added a national distributor specifically for foodservice in 2012. Over the last 10 years we have seen our products become the standard for a variety of multi-unit restaurant concepts nationally, plus the go to granola for everything from healthcare to hospitality, education to professional and collegiate sports, corporate dining to travel and transportation.
All of this was exhilarating as we watched this growth, explosive by comparison to our retail distribution which we did not expand beyond our state until 2019. We were grateful to have kept a balance between these two very different types of distribution in March of 2020 when our foodservice sales went to near zero; the pandemic basically shut everything down that qualified as foodservice. No dining, travel, sports – no granola.
This quiet time enabled us to examine other ways we could leverage foodservice. This led to us developing custom blends that could be incorporated in other companies’ consumer packaged good products and a new line of revenue was born.
Nothing was scarier than 2020, except rolling into 2021, with much of the country still struggling to emerge. With nothing but determination and abject optimism, plus the full support of my much smaller team, we somehow emerged stronger, though leaner, with better ways to increase production without compromising quality.
At the end of the day, we know to never put all of our granola in one basket, but instead, see how many different types of baskets we can put our granola.
Awesome – so before we get into the rest of our questions, can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers.
A self described “high tech refugee”, I made the change from IT sales to culinary professional and gourmet chef. Leaving a a highly lucrative career in sales for well known tech companies after suffering from burnout, I had always found cooking to be a source of comfort and relaxation. In 2001, I trained to be a chef with Le Cordon Bleu North America, Scottsdale and invested my passion into creating high quality cuisine. My first company, Celebrated Cuisine, was known for high end, elegant events throughout Arizona’s Valley of the Sun. In addition, I offered culinary education in a variety of formats, including hands on, demonstration and through various media, including several locally broadcast TV shows.
A simple desire in 2003 to have a naturally delicious, authentic, and healthy granola without lots of fat or fillers led to the creation of Vanilla Almond Crunch; the first of what became nine distinctively different varieties of granola created under the banner of my second company, Laura’s Gourmet Granola. Each mouthwatering flavor of Laura’s Gourmet Granola uses only premium ingredients and is baked the artisan way – one batch at a time – making this elevated brand truly “gourmet granola”.
In retrospect, I describe Laura’s Gourmet Granola as a “happy accident”, meaning a product that was never meant for anything more than my own enjoyment. Since that “accident”, Laura’s can now be found on retailer shelves in 23 states, plus used as a menu inclusion nationally for upscale hotels, multi-unit restaurants, healthcare, professional sports and education. Nearly 18 years later, I am adamant my brand remains true to its origins; a classic granola with premium ingredients, artisan crafted and batch baked using my chef driven recipes.
Has your business ever had a near-death moment? Would you mind sharing the story?
In 2019, Laura’s Gourmet Granola onboarded with a national retail distribution partner. This was the first opportunity to begin a serious expansion outside of Arizona specifically for retail shelves, which means being stocked in distribution centers by the distributor in other parts of the country.
Each time a supplier “onboards” with a distributor, a category manager or supplier relationship manager is assigned to the brand to help navigate the process of becoming a successful partner. Unfortunately for me, our assigned category manager made some bad calls that nearly shut down the business.
A distributor will bring on a new supplier for many different reasons, but at the top is the ability for the product line to be embraced and become successful with consumers. Under normal circumstances, a retailer will want to bring the product in and will request or demand the product is managed through their distributor of choice. If the retailer is large enough, meaning with many stores or significant in a particular market, they are known as an anchor account and the distributor will bring in the product line.
Laura’s Gourmet Granola was brought in by the aforementioned distributor at the suggestion of a retailer, although this retailer had not confirmed they would be placing products in their stores. Since onboarding can take anywhere from four to 12 weeks, the distributor continued through the process with the belief this retailer would have made a decision by then to place Laura’s Gourmet Granola. After I had completed the process, the retailer still had not made a decision. Regardless, the category manager decided to order multiple pallets of product; think thousands of pounds, for eight different distribution centers around the country to stock them with Laura’s Gourment Granola without retailers even knowing the brand existed. While distributors do have sales teams, they are more focused on working with named accounts to help manage the product assortments already in place, and to review new products their buyers may be interested in stocking. Either way, retail buyers use a calendar to determine when they are going to review and possibly revise a specific category of the products offered in stores and rarely make exception to that review process. In short, the category manager was placing orders that never should have gotten through the system, given there were no anchor accounts or other retailers looking for Laura’s Gourmet Granola. New to national distribution, I trusted the category manager was doing the right thing.
Laura’s Gourmet Granola sat in eight distribution centers with no buyers because no one had knowledge the product even existed. The distributor doesn’t pay the supplier until 80% of the inventory has moved through the warehouse to retailers and also doesn’t pay for at least the first 60 days due to being a new supplier. I had already paid for ingredients, packaging, and labor and was not getting paid for the product. Granted, the “fine print” of the supplier agreement clearly states the 60-day clause, but there was and is no reference to purchase orders only being submitted by retailer demand.
After six months of escalating this egregious action of the category manager, I was paid for the original orders. Before you get too excited, this “payment” now went against new invoices, meaning, as product was ordered for real customers, those invoice totals were deducted from the original payment. In total, it took another eight months of selling granola into two vetted distribution centers for Laura’s Gourmet to begin receiving actual payments I could deposit in our bank.
How’d you think through whether to sell directly on your own site or through a platform like Amazon, Etsy, Cratejoy, etc.
Laura’s Gourmet Granola is available in a variety of ways for online purchase, depending on the business model – how we choose platforms is driven by the type of buyer, recognition in the market, and need for brand awareness.
For smaller independents, Laura’s is available on Faire.com, a B2B site specifically for smaller retailers to have access to curated products from all over the country and drop-shipped to them. In response to sites like Faire, conventional distributors have begun implementing a similar virtual warehouse model to compete effectively. Faire has no cons – they vet the retailers, manage the payment process and the shipping and offer the opportunity for marketing campaigns and easy to use links to broaden their appeal as a shopping platform for B2B. They work on a flat commission structure so it is easy to manage all costs and have predictable margins.
Currently, Laura’s Gourmet Granola is available direct to consumer on laurasgourmet.com and on amazon.com. The pros of each is the easy access to our products whether or not they are stocked locally to the consumer. A major pro of Amazon is it is the “Google search” of shopping, so consumers unaware of our brand more easily discover it through their search word choices. A major con of Amazon are the fees charged for each unit shipped plus lack of visibility and access to the buyer if products are FBA, fulfilled by Amazon. The major reason fulfillment by Amazon is superior to fulfilled by merchant, FBM, is the cost of shipping one or two pounds across the country. As a new brand to Amazon and their shoppers, we rarely see initial purchases of greater than 1 pound. Repeat purchases are usually in greater quantities.
- Website: laurasgourmet.com
- Instagram: @laurasgourmetgranola
- Facebook: @laurasgourmetgranola
- Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/cheflaurabriscoe
- Twitter: @chefgg
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3cvW9KA2pmqeEAICBcqunQ