If anyone can get a 6-year-old child excited about trading sugary cereal for a bowl of whole grains, it’s Maddy D’Amato. The co-founder of Love Grown Foods bounds into a classroom with bags of her signature granola and cartons of yogurt and positively banishes thoughts of doughnuts and soda with her enthusiastic accolades of healthy eating. Soon, a classroom full of first graders are gleefully talking about brown rice and avocados and what a nutritious, be-smart-all-day breakfast looks like. D’Amato is overflowing with excitement, and the energy in the room is palpable. Later that afternoon she’ll be sharing that same enthusiasm with a grocery store buyer; but, for now, her focus is fully on one of the many classrooms she’ll visit this month.
The classroom visits stemmed from a belief that she and her co-founder (and boyfriend) Alex Hasulak share that for-profit companies have a responsibility to make big change — the type of change we might more commonly associate with non-profits. Love Grown Foods’ passion is making healthy eating accessible to everyone, and they work toward that with their two core initiatives: creating healthy products at affordable, accessible price points and bringing healthy eating education programs into schools.
But doing good is also big business: Just four years after starting Love Grown Foods as college students, their lines of granola, oatmeal and on-the-go breakfasts are carried in almost 8,000 stores like Kroger, King Soopers, Safeway and Whole Foods. The company has become a multi-million dollar venture. We talked with D’Amato about why having a social mission is good for you and your business — and how any entrepreneur can creatively impact the world.
It’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum: Which comes first, the company or the cause?
Alex and I didn’t start Love Grown Foods with a particular social cause in mind. We knew we were going to tie something in, but we let the business shape what that would be.
We’re both big believers in healthy eating and living, and that translated into the Love Grown Foods mission. The three things we’re really passionate about are [making it] healthy, delicious, affordable. That last one is especially important — being affordable means being accessible. Everyone always talks about how eating healthy is expensive, and we believe in changing both the reality and perception. We’re first and foremost a for-profit company, but we also believe we have a responsibility to lead the change toward healthier eating — for everyone, everywhere. So we’re adamant about our price point. [Their products never go above $4.99, even when similar items on the shelf sell for $1 to $3 more.]
How does being a change-leader actually play out from a business perspective?
Our margins aren’t as high as you’d normally like — we’re constantly facing margin struggles. So instead of compromising on ingredients or price, we work really hard to create efficiencies in our operations and supply chains. For example, our first three products all were oat-based because when you buy oats in extreme bulk, you get better deals.
We also develop products and flavors that appeal to a mass market. We can’t make change unless we create a brand that speaks to everyone, and not just high-end or adventurous consumers.
There’s the conventional way of giving back (read: big check) and more unconventional ways. How did you get creative with Love Grown’s give-back strategy?
Our big passion is teaching kids about healthy eating, but the detailed vision didn’t come together until we launched Love Grown Foods nationally in Kroger stores. I started touring the country (with my mom), doing demos, events and sales meetings. We were traveling around in a branded bus, so we also had some downtime and long stretches between destinations. My mom was a special education teacher, and it dawned on me that we could visit classrooms and teach kids about healthy eating. We started off going into Teach for America classrooms and built it from there.
Classroom sessions are the best — it’s such a natural fit for our enthusiasm and passion. We go everywhere from kindergarten to high school. While we talk to the teachers beforehand to customize our lessons, we usually do a lesson about food groups — whole grains, good fats, lean protein — and talk about why breakfast is the most important meal of the day. We end with serving breakfast, a yogurt-granola parfait, that incorporates all the healthy eating guidelines we talked about.
The only hard thing is tracking ROI — to be honest, we don’t always know what the business impact is, and that can’t be why you do something like this. We gladly go to any and every school that requests a visit. My guess is that it depends on the demographic of the school that requests us. Some kids might go home, tell their parents about us, and that leads to a purchase, and in some places that might not happen. Our sole goal is to get kids educating their parents. There’s so much opportunity for kids (and parents!) to be eating more whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, and often that education goes from child to parent.
What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who want to make a social impact through business?
One, choose something you’re passionate about. Being in business, whether you’re creating social change or not, is super challenging. If you have an underlying passion, it makes it so much easier to overcome those moments and keep moving.
Two, make your social impact something that can scale. Tom’s shoes are such a great example — they have good margins because it’s a relatively high price point, so they have a built-in way to give more, the more they sell. Because of our commitment to an accessible price point, we can’t do something similar, but it’s an important thing to consider. For us, it’s a catch-22 … if we push forward in one area (higher margins and giving away product) we can’t do the other thing we care about (affordability). That’s where our classroom education program comes in.
Three, be patient. Since we have to be a sustainable business first and foremost, sometimes the vision of what we want to do right now is more than what we can support. But we think in concentric circles — the more we grow, the more we can do in schools, the more we can grow. I can’t wait to see the impact we have in two to three years. But in the meantime, patience!
Rachel Hofstetter is the author of “Cooking Up a Business” (Penguin, 2013) where you can also read more about Maddy’s story. Rachel was so inspired by the entrepreneurs she wrote about that she left her food editor career to launch guesterly, a software platform that enables anyone to create a playbill for life’s special events. Today, you can find her sharing guesterly with the world by day — and recipe testing at night!