What began as a simple need for a healthier, easier-to-make pancake mix evolved into the creation of the number one pancake and waffle mix brand in the natural channel and the fastest growing brand in the conventional channel.
So how did Matt LaCasse and his wife Lizzi Ackerman create the ultimate recipe for success? Read on to discover how they arrived at the perfect formula for a natural pancake mix; what they love most about building their brand; and who they look up to in the industry.
ForceBrands: Tell us a bit about your journey to starting Birch Benders. What are your backgrounds?
Matt LaCassee: It was 2011 and I woke up one morning craving pancakes, but was confronted with a rather empty fridge of just eggs, which led me to think: “What if you could crack an egg over the griddle, but instead of an egg, you’d get a gourmet pancake. What if making pancakes could be that easy?”
With this in mind, I started studying the pancake market, and noticed it was uncrowded with little-to-no innovation. Natural pancake mixes were essentially glorified flour and required other ingredients, while conventional pancake mixes were conveniently just-add-water, but full of unhealthy ingredients. It was then that I saw a white space, and seized it. In May 2011, I started Birch Benders and asked Lizzi — my girlfriend-now-wife — to join me as co-founder. I started mixing and Lizzi got to testing!
Lizzi Ackerman: At the time, I was finishing my pre-requisites for medical school and brought a data-focused approach to Birch Benders. When we were developing the recipes, I did double-blind taste tests on every variety of every ingredient we used. We tested over thirty varieties of organic flour, for instance, to determine the best one for pancakes. We ended up doing these double-blind taste tests on every ingredient we use, from flour to sugar to chocolate chips and beyond, and we still do it today. That’s how we ended up with the most delicious, just-add-water, better-for-you pancake and waffle mixes.
FB: Why pancakes? What inspired you to create this product in particular? And what’s in a name? Why Birch Benders
ML: We both love breakfast and believe that some of the best moments in life are spent around the breakfast table. Pancakes are nostalgic part of our childhoods. Our products speed up the cooking process so you can slow down, enjoy the moment, and reconnect with your inner child.
As a boy growing up in Maine, my summers were spent outside bending birches. Birch trees are slender yet supple and will bend down and return you to the ground when you climb them, like a fishing pole under the weight of a catch. I wanted to bring that same playful spirit to our brand. After all, as Robert Frost said in his poem “Birches”: “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
FB: Describe the aha-moment: When did you know that you were on to something big?
ML: For the first year and a half, Lizzi and I would demo our product at a handful of local grocery stores twice a day, every day. We learned a ton about our customers, product, pricing, packaging, and the industry during this time. Neither of us had prior experience in natural foods, so we had to jump head first into it and learn all we could. Customers were brutally honest about what they liked and disliked, and we took all their feedback into every iteration of our product.
LA: Eventually, when we felt it was time to partner with a creative agency on our packaging, we were able to incorporate all we learned into our product and price pack architecture. We then spent an additional 18 months working with the creative agency on nailing our branding and packaging. In 2014, at Expo West, we launched our rebranded products and things took off from there. When our products started flying off the shelf, without demo support, we knew were on to something and that this was a scalable business.
FB: Do you have any industry mentors who have helped you along the way?
ML: We have had so many amazing mentors along the way — from our board of directors, board of advisors, and other founders and friends we have made in the industry. The natural foods industry is unique in that it’s full of people who are willing to lend a helping hand and chat about their experiences to help guide you. We feel so lucky to be part of such an inclusive industry and now be able to provide guidance to budding entrepreneurs.
FB: Here at ForceBrands, our mission is to help elevate people and companies to fulfill their highest potential through great hires. What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about what it takes to build a great team?
ML: Lizzi and I always thought the best part of building a brand would be to see our products on the shelves, but as it turns out, the best part has been building a team full of amazing, passionate, driven people. At Birch Benders, everyone wears a million hats and we look for employees who are not only a great cultural fit, but also willing to roll up their sleeves and get the job done.
LA: Put simply, we look for employees who are rock stars — who are individually able to execute the work of many people in one.
FB: How do you describe the culture at Birch Benders, and how do you plan on sustaining that as you continue to grow?
ML: Culture is based on actions, not words. Like our brand, our culture is fun, creative, whimsical, warm, and inviting. We believe in working hard and creating an inclusive and fun-loving work environment. We feel so lucky to have a team that gets along professionally and personally — a team that can take on tough business problems one day, and hit the slopes or the mountains the next.
We foster this culture through company retreats, team lunches, and a culture based on open and honest communication.
FB: Are there any food brands you’ve admired for how they’ve built their brands?
LA: We really admire Justin’s as his story is a true founder story and very relatable. Justin Gold has been a huge influence on our brand and an amazing mentor. The growth and success of his company has been incredible to watch and is a brand story we hope to replicate.
FB: What excites you most about the future of Birch Benders?
ML: Building out our team, innovation, and expanding into new categories.
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