The story begins in the airline industry…
Julia has been driving innovation in the branded food industry for more than 12 years. A serial entrepreneur by background, her first foray into the food space came when she was brought into United Airlines as a dual entrepreneur-in-residence and venture capitalist in 2003, and tasked with developing new streams of revenue for the airline, at the time in the middle of a CH 11 bankruptcy restructuring.
United had stopped serving free food in Economy class in April 2003, and gave the concession to sell sandwiches and salads (christened: ‘buy-on-board’) to the airline caterers. Originally, this venture was positioned as a customer service and a revenue opportunity for the caterers; when they reached profitability, they would share the profits ratably with the airlines.
Unfortunately, it turned out that predicting take rates on food for sale was a lot different than foodservice under strict yield management. It was impossible to hit the mark with product that had effectively the length of two flights to sell through due to health codes on fresh food; the caterers would either over-provision and incur costly waste, or under-provision and sell out. A sell out actually added to complications – not only missed sales opportunities, but passengers were displeased, and so were the flight attendants who had to deal with hungry & unhappy passengers.
The Snackbox solution…
The solution Julia developed was a shelf-stable alternative meal, dubbed a ‘snackbox’, with every item individually wrapped and optimized to shelf-life and quality through superior packaging. This was the first buy-on-board snackbox meal ever offered on an airline. Today, the solution is commonplace – everyone who files with regularity has eaten a snackbox or seen them available for sale. But 12 years ago, this solution was truly revolutionary, especially in their implications for reengineering the airline food supply chain as it progressed from tray service to full buy-on-board.
The keys to making a program like this work, however, were myriad - including:
1) Menu – the menu has to make sense as a meal, and the components need to work together in a complimentary and satisfactory combination
2) Shelf life – each item needed to carry a reasonable shelf life (6 months+) so enough inventory could be provisioned and sell through the airlines’ complex supply chain
3) Size – the concept of a meal through single serving sizes meant that each individual item needed to be between 0.5 oz and 1.5 oz (typically), smaller than standard vending machine or convenience store sizes – really, more of a ‘deluxe sample size’
4) Taste – Taste is king. That law of the food world is inviolable. If taste didn’t beat expectations for shelf stable food, the concept would never work.
5) Quality – Clean ingredients. As close to unadulterated ‘fresh’ food analog as possible.
6) Operational stability – low air fill bags, easy & effective opening, easy consumption without mess, products that were resistant to temperature variations without impacting quality, production efficiency – all of these factors were critical in a product functioning effectively in a shelf-stable component-based meal program.
7) Price – repackaging individually packaged food is super expensive on a per ounce basis. And the meal needed to be put through an expensive and complex airline supply chain, where every caterer handling touch was an additional itemized cost. And yet the product had to be priced reasonably to make sense to passengers. Covering the airlines’ costs to make this not a money-loser was a challenge. But yet: there was no better captive audience
The best Brand marketing & sampling opportunity ever…
The beauty of these shelf-stable snack programs for brands, however, is the ability to market directly to customers in what is likely the best possible environment: a captive audience with “dwell time”, distraction-free, representing a high end demographic of purchasers or influencers, predominantly in the upper middle to high end income demographic. Rather than providing free product and paying for the distribution, brands get the benefits of the exposure and cover their costs/make some nice net margin points from the programs! It’s the kind of exposure you can’t pay for – and yet the airlines pay you. Success all around.
75% customized or developed from concept…
To develop the snackbox concept, Julia needed to develop the actual product to go into the meals. 75% of the items that she introduced into airline programs were customized in some way – flavor, recipe, size, packaging, or developed from scratch, specifically for that application. Items Julia pioneered in the airline space include shelf-stable hummus, sunflower seed butter, tuna, a individually sliced and shingled salami, and many other items.
To source products and manufacturers, she traveled to US and international food shows, more than 15 per year, and traveled every row, speaking with every manufacturer present to understand what was possible though shelf stable food, continually pushing the envelope. Often she would ask ten manufacturers of a similar product the same question regarding ‘what was possible’ with a food item, and receive nine ‘impossibles!’ until she found the one ‘yes, that can be done!’. Progressively, she honed item after item to introduce into the shelf stable programs, from salami to cheese to spreads to crackers and other delivery devices. Even some of the most ‘obvious’ items were a challenge when all of the factors were taken into account.
Taking custom snackboxes to other airlines…
Hitting all of the attributes above successfully is a complex feat. Once Julia developed United’s program, she saw other airlines copying – badly. Effectively dumping a vending machine into a box and calling it a meal. When those programs didn’t ‘fly’ with passengers, United’s competitors blamed the concept. The execution, however, was the true culprit. It wasn’t easy, as Julia had seen firsthand in developing United’s program. It was time to take the concept more broadly, given the proven success with United – after an initial trial run, the program had become the backbone of their domestic buy on board program. In 2006, Julia left United to launch GoPicnic, initially to provide this concept to other airlines; United Airlines and Alaska Airlines became customers in the first year, and many other carriers followed.
The airline industry shifts dramatically – it’s time to enter Retail…
Over the next 10 years, the airline landscape shifted dramatically – where once there had been 20 players, consolidation and bankruptcy eliminated half of the majors, and a number of low cost and regional carriers were absorbed or went belly up. When the dust settled, there were only about 12 independent airlines left in the US, most of which hadn’t existed in their current form or at all 10 years previously.
Seeing this coming, as well as the growing interest in shelf stable meals from consumers (‘I’d love these to eat at work! To send to school with my kids! For road trips!’), Julia incubated and launched a new line of retail-ready meals. This took years to hone – and as it turned out, when she turned to distribution at retail, she had effectively innovated a new product category: shelf-stable, ready-to-eat meals. The big question for retailers became: where do these go on the retail shelf?
Meeting customer expectations as America’s eating habits and expectations shift…
When Julia launched GoPicnic’s retail meals, even in test, from day 1 the policy was strict: no high fructose corn syrup, no trans fats, no added MSG, no artificial colors or flavors, and no artificial preservatives, except where unavoidable (principally meat, cheese). At the time, this was revolutionary – GoPicnic received letters from the “Corn Council”, asking the company to ‘cease and desist’ calling out its food as ‘free of HFCS’ on its website, since that might lead consumers to think there was something wrong with HFCS, and of course (as the enclosed studies would no doubt prove!), it’s ‘just corn!’.
From the beginning, Julia and her teams stayed abreast of all upcoming food and retail trends to selectively review and integrate into its food development. The challenge was to gauge what was a fad, what had staying power, what had mass marketing appeal, and what was too niche for prime time. Gluten-free was a trend with staying power that GoPicnic embraced early on; trendy fruit like goji and acai proved to be out of reach of the mainstream, although pomegranate went from a Greek myth to an everyday fruit option for Americans.
Developing these items meant studying all of the protein, chips, fruit, and other sectors, pushing the envelope of shelf-stable, and working with hundreds of companies to get there.
Developing a sense for what was available in the market and where the bleeding holes were in certain sectors evolved naturally, and GoPicnic’s needs helped to foster development and launch of key product areas. For instance, Julia started looking for single serving olives in 2004, encouraged dozens of manufacturers to explore this item and now there are more than 10 brands in that category, distributing widely, especially through foodservice and grab & go channels.
Taking GoPicnic to the masses…
In mid 2011, Julia spun off a separate company to house the retail offerings, GoPicnic Brands, Inc. That company had some shared investors from the original, but took in outside venture capital financing for growth.
As GoPicnic Brands evolved, the concept of the shelf-stable meal became more and more compelling, and the supply chain ever more complex. To manage the supply chain and cost structure on an ongoing basis, private label under GoPicnic-owned brands became the clear better strategy. Julia developed and launched 5 sub-brands, and created multiple SKU’s under each; more than 200 individual products, and 50 meals in all. 100% of the product and creative innovation and brand development and execution was done by Julia, and the creative execution was performed by her husband, former head global grocery buyer for Whole Foods Market and talented designer Todd Bamberg.
The Next Big Thing…
Julia left GoPicnic in 2014, having discovered that selecting one’s investor partners can be challenging, and sometimes that one decision can be dramatically impactful on the end result of a business – getting from ? to $.Absent her leadership, the company quickly cratered, ending up in Ch. 11 bankruptcy in Dec 2014. Julia partnered with an investor to buy the assets at auction in January 2015, but after stabilizing the business, ultimately decided to focus on new opportunities, separating finally in August 2015.
Today Julia focuses her business ventures, including AirlineMporium & Custom Snackbox through GP Concept Labs (now in their 11th year of operations), and on trend analysis and business advisory through the Next Big Thing Group. She is a consigliere to businesses from $0M to $50M, and is also doing extensive publishing and speaking to entrepreneurs on the real tactical advice – not the ‘here’s how I did it and leave out the gruesome parts’ fairytale outlook that pats entrepreneurs on the back for their accomplishments and leaves their audience with no tactical advice and skewed expectations. To put it as tritely as possible: the road of entrepreneurship is a triathlon, not a sprint. Iron Man-level, and type of triathlon where you’re not doing the three activities consecutively – somehow you’re pulling them all off at once.
AirlineMporium and Custom Snackbox, now in their eleventh year of operations, continue to grow.
More than 40 million folks fed - & counting!
Julia has worked with hundreds of manufacturers and brands to create myriad products, packaging formats, and recipes.
Over the past 12 years, Julia has created, developed and produced more than 40 million meals, and within and outside of those meals, distributed more than 250 million snacks.
Businesses founded include:
· 1999-2001 Worldspyder.com
· 2000-2001 Turn-about, Inc.
· 2011-2014 GoPicnic Brands (www.gopicnic.com) – now SSI GoPicnic (Feb 2015-August 2015)
· 2006-today - GP Concept Labs, Inc.
o (www.airlinemporium.com; www.customsnackbox.com; www.gpconceptlabs.com)
o Includes AirlineMporium transportation foodservice brokerage division and CustomSnackbox
· 2015 – today: The Next Big Thing Group
Brands partnered with & advised include:
· Buddig/Old Wisconsin
· 180 Snacks
· Late July Organic Snacks
· TH Foods
· Frontera Foods
· Byrd’s Cookies
· DiBella Biscotti
· St Michel Biscuits
· Contract Comestibles?
· Wild Garden
· Stacy’s Pita Chips
· Bear Naked
· Ozery’s Pita Break
Foodservice & Food industry clients (directly, and through Julia-founded companies):
Airlines (& Caterers, Distributors)
· United Airlines
· Delta Airlines
· Alaska Airlines
· Sun Country
· Michael Lewis Company
· Virgin America
· American Airlines
Foodservice & hospitality:
· Navy Gateway Inn & Suites
· Whole Foods Market
· Regal Movie theatres
· Hudson News
Brands created include:
· GoPicnic Garden
· Copper Cowbell
· Little Bread Hen
· Sweet Perry Orchards
· Professor Zim Zam’s Extraordinary Sweets