As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bobbi Giudicelli, and Michael Giudicelli , the mother and son Co-Founders of Read The Ingredients, a young company that produces delicious better-for-you baked goods that are nutritionally dense and a calorically complete meal, or an unbelievably healthy snack. Bobbi previously founded and successfully ran several other companies in different service and product industries over the span of her career. Michael had spent the first 8 years of his career in the corporate world when Bobbi suggested that he join her in a previous venture in the frozen yogurt business. Michael came on board and built out 2 frozen yogurt packing plants for wholesale and distribution to schools throughout Northern California. Both Bobbi and Michael have earned degrees in business with a focus on technology. They both believe that they feel more fulfilled and can make a bigger impact working for themselves than they can working for other companies. Michael is one of three sons that Bobbi raised, and she is a grandmother of 6. When she is not working, she can be found spending time with her horses, or with her husband battling it out on the Pickleball courts in the Foothills of Northern California. Michael and his wife have 2 young children, and they live on their family farm with their donkeys, chickens, dogs and cats. Michael stays very fit competing as a cyclist.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Bobbi: My childhood was not what I would call idyllic. I moved out of my family’s house and supported myself financially and emotionally from age 16. I learned at a young age that it was up to me to figure how to be successful, how to handle the stress of uncertainty, and basically how to survive. I also learned to embrace change, and I knew that change meant the opportunity to make things better. I developed the confidence to know that when things are not going well, I am resourceful enough to find solutions. Basically, I would say I was in training for entrepreneurship my whole life. There are few positive things that I can say about my childhood other than, I am very happy with the person I am today. Fortunately, I knew how to seek out positive role models, and I am eternally grateful to them still! My alienation from my family had left me with a strong desire to have my own family, and I always had very strong maternal instincts. No matter what else I have done or can do in my life, being a Mom was, by far, the most rewarding and the most important endeavor. I feel it is a real gift that my oldest son has become my business colleague for the past 9 years, and the best business partner I’ve ever had.
Michael: Because Bobbi had the childhood she just described; it is easy to see why she made sure I didn’t experience the same! I feel like my childhood was a pretty normal childhood. Both of my parents worked — and worked hard to provide for us. I have 2 brothers that I grew up with, and all three of us were involved in organized sports from a young age. Growing up, both of our parents were also involved in organized sports, which I think set a great example for us — not only did we see that we should be involved in healthy activities at the time, but it sort of planted a seed in us that as adults with children of our own, we haven’t outgrown sport. Bobbi had been running her own businesses for as long as I can remember, so the idea of starting a company was familiar from a very young age. This made the idea of not working for a larger company a lot easier because it wasn’t a mental hurdle from the start!
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Bobbi: There were actually several “ah-ha moments” for me. First, in the past 20 years I have lost so many dear friends and family members, including my sister, and mother to cancer. My father died at 91 years old, but he had dementia and limited mobility due to heart disease for the last 10 years of his life. When I found out how much diet plays a role in all of these diseases, the light bulb went on. I will probably live a long life, but that is only interesting to me if I live a vital life, I can still be active, and I have mental clarity. Thus, my journey to a healthier lifestyle in regard to nutrition was launched.
Secondly, I had always been active, involved in sports, and like so many women, I thought if I maintain my weight, then I am healthy. I really struggled with severe eating disorders from age 18–36. I had no idea what a healthy relationship with food looked like. Because anorexia and bulimia are very secretive disorders, I knew it would be up to me, and me alone, to educate myself about what it means to “be healthy”. Even years after I knew that the eating disorders were under control, I realized that I never felt great. I had constant fatigue, and sometimes could be pretty moody for reasons I could not explain. There were times that I still craved foods that I knew were not good for me. My weight would yo-yo within about a 10 lb range. Yes, I was on the diet roller coaster. About 10 years ago, and completely unrelated to diet, I ended up very sick and in and out of the hospital. Once I recovered, I decided it was time to commit to eating what I had learned was healthy. Immediately, gone was the sugar and sugar substitutes and gone was the gluten. Within 2 weeks, I realized that I already felt physically and emotionally so much better than I had in years. Another lifestyle change I made was to commit to eating breakfast. Now that I had eliminated gluten, and seriously reduced my sugar intake, my breakfast choices were limited. So, I created the recipes that are now our Loaves and Big Bites, and honestly that has been my breakfast every day for the past 4 years. I shared the products with others who had the same preferences, and when the requests for more kept coming . . . Voila, Read The Ingredients was born in 2018.
Michael: Both Bobbi and I lead very active lives. Bobbi has a morning routine of a workout, then feeding various animals, including horses, dogs, or cats, so she doesn’t have much time to prepare a healthy breakfast. I have the same responsibilities, while additionally making sure that my 2 young children are fed and out the door for school. Separately, we were trying to find the breakfast item that was convenient, healthy, but didn’t have certain ingredients, whether it was dates, or simply too much sugar. Bobbi created the recipes for the Loaves and Big Bites in her kitchen and we were amazed at how healthy the products were, but also how our energy was sustained for a lot longer than with other products we were sampling. We both loved the subtle natural sweetness of the products, and we shared them with family members. They couldn’t get enough and insisted Bobbi send them as much as she could, as often as she could. It was then we knew we were onto something!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Michael: Because we both have a pretty good sense of humor, at this point we have turned our mistakes into both a learning moment, and something to laugh about. It is hard to pick out one specific moment, but a lot of times when it would be easy to put our head in our hands and feel defeated, we turned the experience into a running joke. Don’t get me wrong, it stings when you make a mistake, but those are the best learning moments!
Bobbi: One mistake that comes to mind was a trip to Colorado, to do our first test batches of product with a new co-packer. We had long negotiations with him over the phone for several months leading up to this point. We knew it never felt right, but we could not find any other co-packer that was equipped for the requirements of our product. We had already tried one that was a disaster, so off to Colorado we went. The whole time I felt like the bride going to the alter knowing the marriage was going to fail. But wait, here’s the funny part. We were scheduled to be at the copacker’s facility at 3:00 for what he felt was a critical meeting before we start baking the next day. Our plane landed at about 1:00, and we rented a car. Once we were on the ground in Denver, we saw that it was snowing. It wasn’t bad, not blizzard conditions, and we both know how to drive in the snow, so no big deal. We decided to stop for lunch on the way. Both of us were feeling a sense of doom about this trip, so I’ll suggest Michael decided he needed to let off some steam. He drove into a shopping center parking lot to get food. Before we parked the car he decided to do a few donuts in the snow, and yep, spoiler alert, hit a curb and wrecked the whole front end of the car. So, what did we do . . . we parked the car, went in and grabbed lunch, got back in the car, and limped back onto the freeway to realize neither the steering nor brakes worked. Now that the snow was coming down harder, we figured we’d better get out of denial and into some rational thinking. We got off the next exit, called the rental car company and told them the car wasn’t working too well. They came and picked it up and we got a rideshare to the co-packer arriving promptly at 5:00. For the next couple of days, we worked with the team, and nothing went right!! On our flight home we realized that the car wreck was the least of the disasters, and we needed to figure our way out of this mistake. What we should have learned from this was to trust our instincts. We knew from our first conversations with this person that this was not going to go well. I say we “should have” learned because, yes, we did engage with a few other potential partners, with poor results. Never was it a surprise. Rather than finding the right partners and getting excited about working with them, we lowered our expectations, and paid too much for too little. BIG MISTAKES. We believe the real lesson is that we should trust our instincts — they will serve us well!
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Michael: The biggest mistake I see is creating a “me too” product. You are not filling a whitespace. You’re chasing success that somebody else is achieving. The good news is that a lot of education work has already been done by the existing brands. The trouble is, there isn’t a great differentiating factor that makes people want your product more than the established brands, or if there is, the burden of proof is on you, and that costs a lot of time and money. Additionally, there isn’t much market share to be had. Sure, there are disrupters, but that is not the norm. Because we faced, and are facing, a tremendous challenge with educating the market about what is special about our brand and product, and doing so in a category that is under-served, we understand this tact. The advice I would offer is to be mindful of what value you will be adding to the consumer, and what problem you are solving, and dive deep into that category!
Bobbi: To Michael’s point, we created products that do not exist, yet the consumer, and the first marketing agency we worked with insisted that our target market is the “bar” consumer. Our products do NOT belong in the “bar” market. First, when the consumer is looking for us in their local retail store, we will be in the freezer next to frozen breakfasts. We will be the healthiest single serving complete breakfast meal in that freezer door. Why are we in the freezer section and not with the “bars” . . . good question. It’s because we are made with 100% whole food ingredients, high fiber, no preservatives, no added sugar or sugar substitutes, and an overall low sugar content. We are nutritionally more well-rounded and complete than any “bar” out there.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Bobbi: Answer the “WHY”. As with any business, you must understand the problem you are solving. Investigate the market for existing products in the same space. How will your product be different? Once you can identify the “why”, explore the “how”. Is it feasible to get this product to market?
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
Michael: Step 1 is doing the research to make sure it is a good idea, and there is a market out there for your product or service. After having done the research, putting a plan in place is a great idea. The important thing to recognize here is the business plan is a framework for your next steps but is in no way the blueprint for success. It is very likely that your path will deviate from your business plan, and that is OK. Like Mike Tyson said, “everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth!” The last step is to get into action. There is no better way to start your business than to take action on things that need to get done. It is very easy to sit around and talk about what needs to happen, but until you start doing, you haven’t really made any progress.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
Michael: For me, the answer is based 100% on how well you know the industry you are bringing your idea to. In each industry, there are many nuanced ways to navigate your way to success. It is very difficult to quickly pickup on the industry knowledge through trial and error. Yes, there are stories of founders that “winged it” and found their way to success, but there is a much greater percentage of successful brands that had prior knowledge in their industry, or sought the help of industry experts to help them get to where they are today. We started on the trial and error track, and after a few great but expensive lessons, have found a strong foundation and clarity in our path to success in working with a “consultant” in our industry.
Bobbi: I would refer back to the previous question. The invention or idea is only the beginning. Each of us needs to ask ourselves the question, “OK, I have this idea. What do I want to do with it?” Making a business out of it isn’t always the answer. I’ve come up with patentable ideas from time to time. I have been very clear that these were not businesses that I had any interest in building. In one case I obtained a patent, and I hired someone to go out and either license the product or sell the patent/product outright.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Bobbi: I have bootstrapped each of my business ventures. Read The Ingredients is the first company that I have founded that I know at some point we will be looking for outside investors. When they were smaller businesses, I knew there was no need to bring in outside capital. I realize that when we do bring in investors, it impacts how the founders think and act. That’s not a bad thing, and there are some advantages to that change (besides the money), but founders need to be aware of that. For example, when there are co-founders, it is important that they know they are running the company with the same long-term goals in mind. When the founders include outside investors, they are essentially acknowledging that the founders and investors have common goals.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about [how to file a patent], how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
Michael: Oh boy! How much time do we have?!? I think there are two ways to go about this: the way we did it, and the easier way. We did most of our early relationship forming on our own in a “kiss many frogs to get to the prince” sort of way. This applies more so to our manufacturer than our ingredients suppliers. As Bobbi’s prior example demonstrates, we’ve had a few missteps with co-manufacturers early on that cost both time and money that we feel may have been avoided had we been working with folks who had the industry knowledge we lacked. The good news on the ingredients supplier side is that there are a lot of suppliers that offer similarly quality products, which then boils down to relationship (how easy they are to work with), cost, MOQ (minimum order quantities), and availability. I would certainly suggest that you do your due diligence on any potential partner, but especially on your manufacturing partners as this is a very important step in the process.
Bobbi: Lots, and lots, and lots of networking. There are so many people in the better for you CPG space, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. One of the mistakes we made early on was to not realize that this industry is about the most supportive of any industry I’ve been a part of. Coming from other industries we were conditioned to believe that we had to watch over our shoulder as everybody in that industry is potential competition. In this industry there is so much passion for the mission of better, healthier living that most vendors and potential partners are all excited for and supportive of each other.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Michael: My 5 things are: A Great Brand, A Great Product, Value for the Consumer, Agility and Humility.
A Great Brand — As humans, we have a tribe mentality. We want to be a part of a tribe or community that represents us. The car you drive, the sports team you root for, the clothes you wear all tell us about you. It used to be that brand and product were synonymous. Today, “Brands” are defined by personalities traits such as: fun, serious, honest, hopeful, etc., and similarly are judged by their values. Consumers will gravitate to the brands that align with their values, but also be drawn to brands that offer more than just a great product. At Read The Ingredients, our values are transparency, integrity, healthy living, and social consciousness, and it is our mission to offer the consumer valuable content as well as a valuable product!
A Great Product — Equally important is having a great product. And, that great product has to both fill a need, as well as well as represent the values of the brand. A good brand is very important, but if you don’t have a great product to back it up, you will essentially become a company that people want to align with for the perception, but not one they will be purchasing products from. Our customers can count on our products being extremely healthy, very clean and taste great. We do not and will not compromise on quality ever!
Value for the Consumer — This value is more than just what the product offers. As a brand, you have to constantly be thinking about “what value am I offering that is making the consumer want to repurchase.” For us, we feel we are offering a tremendously nutritious line of products that they cannot get anywhere else, but also, we offer reminders of why health is so important through blog posts and other channels. We are offering a premium product at a premium price point, and as such we need to offer a lot to make sure the consumer feels they are getting value.
Agility –As a smaller brand, things are going to be ever changing, and it is imperative that you are ready to change as well. We’ve discussed how several times as we’ve been building our company, things did not go exactly as expected. Most businesses in most industries will face this in their early years, and even as they become mature companies. There are so many internal and external factors that impact business success, and the leadership must recognize the fluidity of the business. If the business cannot adjust quickly, it may mean the difference of success or failure. Like many businesses, we faced an “agility” challenge in March of this year when COVID changed everything. We were about to place our products in many local specialty grocers. We didn’t lose the opportunity to do this, but we wanted to offer customer tastings at each location. With this current pandemic we knew that this plan was not executable, and we made the strategic decision not to go into those stores at this time. We ramped up our e-commerce sales and veered onto a new course strategically.
Humility — Both success and failure can be humbling for different reasons. You’re going to make mistakes. If you take the time to analyze these mistakes and learn from them rather than getting frustrated, it will help steer your brand towards success. It will also help you keep good relationships, which is key in any industry. Having a solid network in your industry is huge. In that same vein, humility in success will position you to be a brand that others look to for advice and want to align with. We like to keep in mind, for everything we have done well, there is someone out there that can do it better and is doing it better. This keeps us pretty well grounded! We also know that these relationships are a two-way street. We are always thrilled to help others in the industry whenever we can.
The Full Interview can be found here: https://thriveglobal.com/stories/bobbi-michael-giudicelli-everyone-has-a-plan-til-they-get-punched-in-the-mouth/