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Mom's the word for marketing baby food

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Sweetpea Baby Food

Eryn Green, left, and Tamar Wagman are co-founders of Sweetpea Baby Food. (JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

What's the best way to get the word out about a new line of baby food? Through new moms, of course.

That's one tactic Eryn Green and Tamar Wagman use to spread the word about their line of frozen baby food, Sweetpea Baby Food.

But a startup with a staff of two doesn't have a lot of dollars to devote to marketing. To get around that, the Toronto entrepreneurs invented what they call their “ambassador program.”

Today, the partners have about 35 women working for them across the country. “They promote Sweetpea grassroots-style at their baby groups, yoga classes, trade shows and store demos,” Ms. Green said. In exchange, the moms get a supply of 100-per-cent organic Sweetpea baby food.

The women, who have been best friends since childhood (nursery school, in fact), launched their company in 2005 to bridge the gap between jarred and made-from-scratch baby food.

Because neither woman had a background in food preparation, they recruited Ms. Wagman's husband, chef Jordan Wagman, to develop their recipes. They also hired Dr. Joey Shulman, a Canadian authority on nutrition, to work with them as a consultant. Sweetpea outsources the making of its products to a company in Kitchener, Ont.

Initially, 60 retailers in Ontario carried Sweetpea's products, including Longo's, Whole Foods and Pusateri's. “We got into many stores,” Ms. Wagman said, “but the takeoff was a lot slower than we predicted because we were in smaller stores and they're not as high volume as the bigger stores.”

They knew they'd have to crack the larger chains in Ontario, such as Loblaws and Metro, to achieve that high volume. But in the meantime, they were eager to break into other regions across the country, specifically Western Canada, where they thought their product would be a perfect fit with the health-conscious West Coast consumer.

The duo decided the best way to access the western market was through a distributor. “In Ontario, we sell through a distributor and direct, but in the West, the volume of each order would not be high enough to make it economical to sell direct,” said Ms. Green, 34.

Unfortunately, just before the launch of Sweetpea Baby Food, a West Coast entrepreneur beat them to market, and had already snagged one of the only two natural-food distributors. “That meant our only option for a distributor was a company called SunOpta,” said Ms. Wagman, 35.

The partners began pursuing SunOpta Inc. before they even officially launched their products. “We called the buyer there a few times a week for a few months,” Ms. Green said. “We left messages, we sent e-mails.” They didn't get a single phone call back. But they weren't deterred.

“We just kept calling and leaving messages,” Ms. Wagman said. “Then one day over the Christmas holidays, he answered the phone.” The SunOpta buyer, Campbell Dick, had heard from Sweetpea Baby Food often enough that he knew exactly who Ms. Wagman was. “I stayed on the phone with him for a few minutes and he agreed to let me e-mail him our information again. Within 10 minutes, he said he would list it.”

Mr. Dick's silence, it turned out, wasn't because of a lack of interest at SunOpta. “They're just so busy,” Ms. Green said. “They get sent hundreds of things a week. It's all about timing and getting the person in the right frame of mind. You have to be persistent. You can't have an ego and you have to call over and over again if they don't call you back.”

In the weeks that followed, the partners flew out to Vancouver to meet with SunOpta's sales team. They say this was a pivotal part of the distribution deal because they would be counting on that sales staff to represent them in a way they didn't have to with their Ontario distributor. “In Ontario, we're able to do trade shows and marketing interviews. But out West, we wouldn't be there to help sell our product. If their sales team didn't get what our frozen baby food was, we might not get those sales,” Ms. Green said. And if SunOpta couldn't sell their product, the partners feared they'd have no alternatives because “the other distributor carried our competition.”

As it turned out, SunOpta had no problem representing Sweetpea's products. Today it distributes the baby foods to some 100 stores in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan (Sweetpea products are carried in about 350 stores nationally). These sales account for about 30 per cent of Sweetpea's revenue, which now exceeds $500,000 a year.

Striking the distribution deal with SunOpta made Sweetpea a national brand, which won it coverage in national media outlets. “PR has always been very important for us because we don't have an advertising budget,” Ms. Wagman said.

An unexpected benefit to come out of the deal has been Sweetpea's relationship with Mr. Dick. “He is a real mentor to us,” Ms. Wagman said. It was Mr. Dick who encouraged the partners to think outside of frozen food. “He loved the frozen baby food but he also said that the ‘dry aisle' is the place to be,” Ms. Green said. “He encouraged us to branch out and look at different ideas. We're coming out with cookies soon and he was the impetus to that.”

They see their diversification as evidence of business growth, but it also could help with their frozen baby food sales. “Creating brand awareness in two different areas of the grocery store is an important thing,” Ms. Green said. “Many people still don't know to look in the frozen section for baby food. This way they'll see us in the dry aisle and that will tip them off to look for us in the freezer section.” That's a good thing, she said, from both a buyer and a store perspective.

Connect with Eryn Green

Eryn Green joined us to talk about her company's breakthrough. Click here to read the discussion.

Expert Insight

"I think it's very interesting that the frozen baby food market was cracked open by entrepreneurs and not by one of these larger companies, who already had baby food lines and frozen food lines," says Dana McCauley, an international corporate food consultant. On Wednesday, Ms. McCauley talks about Sweetpea's effect on the food industry. Click here on Wednesday to read the full interview.

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