Can you give our readers a little history lesson about Appleton’s Market’s? How did the idea for a healthy snack bite come to you?
Christina Appleton: It’s a moment that I think a lot of us have; before Appleton’s Market, I’d worked in the food industry my whole career. I probably pay attention to snacks more than the average bear does. Multiple times a week, I’d find myself sitting at my desk, jampacked with meetings, and I’d look down and think, “Okay, I’ve got 5 minutes in between these two calls. I haven’t actually had lunch yet and I’m really hungry.” It’s the point of hungry where I can’t even think about what I want to eat. I’ve moved past being rational about this. And there’s … not a lot of great choices.
I could order out. Wait an hour. Spend 30 bucks. Or I could grab a dry protein bar at my desk, which gets the job done. It’s nutrient-dense, and it’s a great product for some. But it really wasn’t ringing my bell. And there’s also a fair amount of sugar in those bars. So, maybe I’ll have a handful of almonds sitting there. But then, that’s just really sad.
You should be excited about what you’re eating. There has to be something that I can have in about a minute that has everything I like about a meal – it’s warm, it has protein, it has fiber, it has veggies. But it has to be something that isn’y going to take a long time to make. It’s something that shouldn’t be that is expensive. It has to be very easy.
So, I decided to head back to my own kitchen and make something that gave me things that I wanted – that gave me all those protein and the fiber from the food itself. And that’s how I came up with the concept for Appleton’s Market.
What do you think Appleton’s Market’s biggest strength is? What makes it standout?
I think the biggest strength of Appleton’s is really understanding the times. A lot of companies don’t really think, “Okay, are people actually clamoring for this thing? Is this actually serving a need that is unmet right now?” Appleton’s Market does.
I spent a lot of time working in co-working spaces, talking to other professionals, who are my target audience. I understand from close contact what they’re pining for, what they want, and I think I personally understand the challenges that people face from the meal-snacking standpoint during the day. When I think about the product and about the future products that we’re going to launch, it’s with that knowledge in mind. Appleton’s really bridges that gap in between meals that I don’t think other products can. And we do it in a very convenient, clean, healthy, and good-for-you way.
You went to business school and you come from a family of entrepreneurs. Did that help prepare you for the challenges of running a business during the pandemic?
I don’t think anything can! I think it’s actually funny. A lot of people who had small businesses, who had entrepreneurs as parents, are like, “This is what I want to do.” I kind of ran in the opposite direction.
Growing up with the small-business-owner parents, all I saw were the downsides. I heard complaints more than celebrations: dealing with payroll, the power going out, and having a tough time enjoying your vacation because you’re still worrying about your business.
I ended up working at General Mills, a Fortune 500 company, went to business school after that, and worked at another Fortune 500 company after that. It wasn’t until I was at Fox, traveling two to three cities a week, always on the road, that I came to the desperate realization that there had to be a better way. There had to be a way for me to forge a career where I mattered, where Christina Appleton mattered, not just employee number 35628.
And I started working at start-ups after that. Doing so gave me the confidence to start my own business. Because I saw other people doing it, and I realized it wasn’t as scary as I originally thought it was. And I’m also blessed with such a great support system. The entrepreneur community here in L.A. is just amazing. And I have a great life partner. And I’ve just been really fortunate that I can put myself in a position where I can take a leap and do something that’s pretty scary. Like, launching my business during a global pandemic (laughs). Which is something I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, but it is what it is. And we’re forging through.
Were there any specific challenges this year that really put you through it?
As I mentioned, when I was building the concept, I worked with a ton of working space creatives. We worked with all the big guys here in L.A, as well as the big startup offices. And that was originally my go-to market strategy. I was going to be selling to the company directly who would provide snacks to their employees, or I would be selling to employees directly. I would have a whole calendar set up and programming where I would come in and kind of coach the relationship between what you’re eating and what you’re putting in your body, and how that affects your performance at work and brain health. As you can imagine, 100% of that went away when I launched at the end of March.
How did you recover from that?
As you can imagine, I spent a year working on one business strategy that’s completely scuttled now. And so what do I do? Fortunately, I’ve worked for startups before and I’ve always been bullish on e-commerce. I’ve had that kind of already in the works, so I was able to quickly pivot into saying that we’re going to primarily be an online company. We’re also testing out a few markets here in LA to see if brick-and-mortar is the way to go, which I still don’t think it is. But I’m all about testing right now. There’s this kind of freedom that launching in a suboptimal environment gives people; no one is really expecting that you’re really going to knock it out of the park right now. You should be testing things. You have to give yourself some grace to stumble along the way.
Is flexibility and openness an advice you would give other start-ups like yours right now?
Definitely. For me, for the businesses I help out with, the folks that I talk to, it’s all about how we create this new normal. If you think about something as simple as sampling, which is a cornerstone of every food company – you can’t do that now. There’s been a great pivot done by companies figure out how to digitally sample things and then sell directly to people. But I have a frozen product, and it doesn’t work for me. So, I’ve tried to get creative with that too. I’m working on launching a multi-brand sampler box that I’ve just cobbled together with some friends. Be open, I think that’s the biggest thing right now – be open to try new things. Not everything has to be structured perfectly. Be open to new ideas and different perspectives, because nobody really has any answers right now.
On the customer service end, what’s your strategy for keeping up with your patrons?
Customer service is a very salient topic when you’re launching during a pandemic, when UPS, Fedex and USPS have crappy shipping time and no guarantee, and, oh, it’s summer. And frankly it’s been just me getting in the melee. For Appleton’s Market, I use Shopify and I have plug-in for customer views. If I don’t catch anything personally, then I’m hoping the automated process will catch if something went wrong. There were a few people that I have sent out multiple orders to because UPS took five days to deliver to coastal California. It’s definitely a work in progress. It’s the trade-off for trying to stay safe during COVID. Customers have been mostly understanding about you being a start-up in this environment. If you do all that you can to make things right for them, people are more patient than they would have been a year ago.
Aside from the start-ups and co-working spaces, are there other people you’ve worked with who’ve enhanced the way you do things?
I’ve been really lucky enough to work with really brilliant people in my career. My friend Katherine DePaolo, who I worked with at Thrive when she was Creative Director, helped me out with the packaging and branding. and I have a friend who has a PhD in Food Science who helped with my ingredients. The consumer packaged goods community in California is really helpful.
I wanna give a shoutout to a new friend that I made. I think about a year and a half a go, I reached out to somebody over LinkedIn because she was a female founder who lived in LA. Hannah Hong has an ice cream company called Hakuna Banana. We’ve become great friends and I’m constantly bothering here with silly questions about things like insurance. I’d ping her and she would call me in two minutes, saying “Oh this is the one that we get. Up until you have this amount of sales or inventory, it’s totally fine. Don’t waste your time on anything else.” So, I’ve been very fortunate to have some great people who have just saved me a lot of time and headache and made this business kind of what it is today.
If you had a magic wand and you could give any aspect of your business a quick fix, what would it be?
I’d definitely use it for trying to crack getting people to sample the product. I’ve seen studies and I’ve worked on other businesses. The challenge with my product is it’s something totally different and totally new. I can’t just say, “Oh it’s a protein bar with ten grams of protein, because no it’s not.”
So, the explanation is a bit of a challenge. Being able to get more on the ground with people, have them sample it, talk to them, and explain things is really critical to scaling up the business. That right now is very challenging because Appleton’s Power Veggie Bites is not a shelf-stable item. One way I’m going around it is to partner with local groups and local franchises like mommy fitness groups and finding the right customers and the right people, and build a closer connection. It’s one way to get them to fully understand what the product is, what it tastes like, and generate understanding through direct experience.
Looking forward, where do you hope to see Appleton’s Market in a year’s time?
I think, potentially, a year from now we’ll have more different offerings. I’m trying to build more community support, reaching out to groups for different partnerships to develop the product. Right now, I’m taking one day at a time, figuring out how to find the people whose lives my product could really make better.
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