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Many expectant moms plan to make homemade organic baby food for their little ones—until they give birth and discover they don’t have the time. The DIY approach has gotten even more challenging since the coronavirus pandemic arrived and many moms have been juggling caring for infants with online school for other children and working from home.
Jessica Sturzenegger, 31, has built a business around making their lives easier. Her San Francisco-based company, Amara, co-founded in 2016 with the chef Vicki Johnson, sells shelf-stable organic meals such as “potato kale mash” and “apple maqui berry” that are dehydrated in a proprietary process that preserves both their flavor and texture once consumers add water, breast milk or formula. Amara also sells a line of yogurt melts and a “Baby’s First Meal” box.
“We always say, ‘Home-made is best. Let’s give you the next best option,” says Sturzenegger.
Jessie Sturzenegger says many families have discovered her baby food brand Amara during the … [+] pandemic.
Amara is one of a number of natural and organic baby food businesses that have thrived during the pandemic, with more consumers eating at home more and ordering groceries on the web. In one sign of the trend, Neptune Wellness, which owns a portfolio of brands, announced the acquisition of Sprout Foods, a fast-growing organic plant-based baby food company, in February.
Meanwhile, consumers are becoming more vigilant about what goes into their babies’ food. The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy published a report in February noting that “commercial baby foods are tainted with significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.” Several baby food makers are now facing related lawsuits alleging they violated state consumer protection laws.
Sturzenegger, who once considered becoming a chef, has found the business to be an ideal fit for a foodie like herself. She was born in Switzerland—her mother is Swiss—before her family moved to Pennsylvania. Both of her parents loved to cook, and she grew up accustomed to eating freshly made meals. “Food was a big part of our house,” she says. “You had dinner at 8 p.m. and sat around the dinner table for two hours. Friends would come over. The dinner table was 10-people long.”
Sturzenegger started the business while consulting with women entrepreneurs at Startup-Chile, an accelerator in Santiago that was created by the Chilean government, through the Princeton fellowship program PiLA.
When Sturzenegger noticed a gap in the baby food marketplace, she applied to Startup-Chile herself and secured $40,000 to get started. Amara later raised additional funding from friends and family and closed a funding round of more than $2 million in March 2020. Today, Amara has three full-time employees.
Amara caught on, and with the brand now selling in 1,000 stores, as well as through its own website—the global dried baby food market is expected to see a compound annual growth rate of about 13.5% from 2021-2026, according to Global Market Estimates—investors are taking note. The company’s latest funding round in March 2020 attracted the ex-chairman of Hershey’s CPG group, the distributor Pharmapacks, and Moses Ventures, an investment fund.
“We’ve seen the average purchase value skyrocket,” says Sturzenegger. “A lot of people have discovered us online.”
Nonetheless, the organic baby food market isn’t an easy one to break into, with big players such as Gerber, Earth’s Best and Happy Baby well-established. Here’s how Sturzenegger and her ultra-lean team pulled it off.
Build a brain trust. When Sturzenegger launched Amara, she quickly realized how much she needed to learn about the industry. Using Facebook and LinkedIn to make contact, she reached out to experts—”I am the queen of cold calls,” she says—and also asked friends for introductions.
That is how she found pros such as a nutritionist and food engineers to guide her. “I’ve always been surrounded by experts and people who know way more than me,” she says. Although she couldn’t afford to hire full-time employees at first, she found that many of the pros she needed were available on a consulting basis.
Take the time to perfect your product. To offer dehydrated baby food that tasted great once it was rehydrated, Sturzenegger and her team had to develop the right methods—a painstaking process. “The technology behind it is very complex,” she says. “It’s nothing you can produce in your own kitchen.”
Complicating the challenge was her desire to make the meals affordable—under $3 a meal, as opposed to the $5-9 a meal that other startup brands were offering. “It has to be something accessible that people can use day in and day out,” she says.
Working with their nutritionist and food engineers, chemists and a pharmaceutical manufacturer, she and Johnson gradually developed a process for making it and now have a patent pending on it. “It was so important to find the believers early on that understood the vision and what I wanted to do with it,” she says.
Put the right systems in place. One of the team’s most important tasks was identifying 15 suppliers who could provide the high-quality organic ingredients Amara needed. Sturzenegger wanted the experience of eating the company’s packaged meals to be similar to eating the fresh version. “With our bananas, if you open them up, it smells like bananas,” she says. That took additional time spent networking and cold calling.
To protect the company’s intellectual property, Amara opted to spread out the manufacturing process among several partners. “It gives us far greater control but also makes it more complicated,” she says. A director of operations now works exclusively with the suppliers and helps the company navigate any ingredient shortages during the pandemic.
When all was said and done, it took about three years to develop Amara’s first products and get ready for the company’s first small production run, even with a chef involved in developing the recipes from day one. “Babies are such a sensitive category,” she says.
Be willing to do the legwork. As Sturzenegger reached out to stores and broke into Whole Foods and other markets, she made herself available to do product demos, instead of hiring someone to do this on-the-ground work.
She found it was a great way to get the brand established there and to take the pulse of the market. “There were months when I was doing three demos a day,” she recalls.
Stay open to unexpected opportunities. Although she needed funds to grow, Sturzenegger was hesitant to take on too much investment capital at first, worried that some investors would not share her commitment to quality. “I always tell the investors I will not cut corners on ingredients,” she says. So, in the early days, she focused mostly on stretching every dollar—the brand grew mostly by word of mouth—and making the most of freelance talent when she needed help.
Still, she remained open-minded about fundraising. She was willing to take a meeting when the CEO of Pharmapacks called after noticing that his wife—who’d made baby food for their first child—had switched to Amara for their second. “He said, ‘My wife is obsessed with your food. Can I come in?’ she recalls. Pharmapacks later became an investor.
Never forget who is buying your product. Amara originally launched on Amazon and in stores, but it now sells through its own website, which Sturzenegger coded herself. She’s found it to be another valuable conduit to the marketplace. “More than anything, it’s our chance to talk directly to moms, which has been incredible,” she says. “I feel like we know more about our moms and why they buy from us.”
Sturzenegger sets aside time every Friday to phone random customers from the company’s email list to get feedback. “Sometimes they’re excited to talk. Sometimes they ask, ‘Why are you calling me?’ she says.
This might seem like something the CEO of a fast-growing startup would delegate, but it’s one of her top priorities. She finds it helps her keep stay connected to her core customers.
“You can get so lost in the numbers you lose focus on whom you’re selling to,” says Sturzenegger. “Parents are really knowledgeable about what they want, what they need.”
When you want to make a difference in a very competitive industry, it’s important to stay one step ahead of that.