But back in 2012, when Wildway co-founder and CEO Kelli Koehler was first pitching her grain-free granola made with dates, fruit, nuts, seeds and spices to retailers, it was still something of a novelty in a category she felt was “full of empty carbs and sugar.
“Buyers liked the fact we were bringing something new to the category, and even now, as the grain-free category gets more crowded, when you look at us compared to other brands, we’re quite different. We don’t add sugar, oil, honey or coconut oil and we’re not selling baked clusters. We’re soft and chewy and we’re also the most affordable Paleo granola on the shelf.”
Wildway could be a national brand
The big break came in 2013 when Kelli and her husband and co-founder Kyle (based in San Antonio, Texas) showed up at the Whole Foods HQ in Austin without an appointment. The buyer they hoped to target wasn’t there, but the Koehlers left some products on her desk and went home.
The next day, they got a call back and within weeks, Wildway granola was on shelves at Whole Foods in the southwest region, says Koehler, who wants to turn Wildway into a national brand and a “household name, something affordable and available to all Americans.”
Deals with Sprouts, Wegmans, Amazon, REI and outdoor pursuits retailers followed, says Koehler, who sees a convergence between the natural and conventional channels right now as the natural chains seek to emulate the efficiencies of the conventional players, and the conventional channel buyers seek to stock more natural and organic products and give more shelf space to smaller, sexier, brands.
“It’s like natural chains are trying to behave like the conventional channel and vice versa.”
We don’t want to box ourselves in as just a Paleo brand
So who’s buying Wildway products?
A broad cross section of people, driven by early adopters such as Paleo and cross fit enthusiasts, coupled with vegans, the gluten-free crowd and a broader set of health-conscious consumers looking for cereals without added sugar, she said.
While the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans actively encourage people to consume three to five servings of whole grains a day, and some nutritionists query the 'science' behind the Paleo trend, Koehler says Wildway is simply offering consumers choice, and says her focus is nutrient density.
“We actually started making the [grain-free] granola because we wanted something convenient to eat at breakfast without gluten or dairy or refined sugars and we didn't want to make bacon and eggs every morning. But we don’t want to box ourselves in as a 'Paleo brand;' I think we appeal to a wider audience than that.”
Earlier this year, the Koehlers – who manufacture their certified gluten-free products in-house - introduced their first line extension (Wildway grain-free hot cereal – made with nuts, ground flaxseed, coconut flour, dates and vanilla bean), delivering a texture closer to cream of wheat than oatmeal, which they hope will gain traction as the colder weather kicks in (“launching a new hot cereal in Texas in the height of summer probably wasn’t ideal,” she observes).
Sometimes things will slip through the cracks
So what have been the biggest challenges the Koehlers have faced over the past four years?
“We’ve had a lot of growing pains, like any new business,” said Koehler, who like many food entrepreneurs began by making food she wanted to eat herself, and realized she was onto something when her friends and family started to become regular consumers, and the product regularly sold out at a local farmer’s market.
“At the start it was just me and Kyle doing 18 people’s jobs, so you can get overloaded and you have to accept that sometimes things will slip through the cracks, but things are changing.
“We still do all the sales, and we haven’t taken on any outside investment yet, although we’re now at the point where we’re looking for the right partner, but we have brought in a very experienced production manager and we have a demo team that does instore demos now, so it’s not the case that we are doing everything ourselves anymore.”
But the buzz you get from running your own show and doing something you believe in makes everything else worthwhile, she said.
“Before we started, Kyle and I were both working in corporate America and we hated it. We wanted to do something that had meaning.”