Natural baking-mix company's not-so-simple successChicago Tribune — By Samantha Bomkamp Chicago Tribune
Jan. 06-- CHICAGO-After suffering from joint pain, Katlin Smith, now 28, took a hard look at her eating habits and opted for more whole, natural foods. She soon discovered a lack of options for prepared food-especially baked goods-without chemicals or additives.
In 2013, the Charlotte, N.C., native created Simple Mills, a natural baking-mix company that uses ingredients like almond flour and coconut sugar in place of common packaged-food ingredients including wheat and high-fructose corn syrup. All Simple Mills products are free of gluten, grains, soy and genetically modified ingredients.
When the company was still in its infancy, Smith attended University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, where the concept won funding and cachet through the school's New Venture Challenge. Simple Mills-which has grown to include crackers and frosting in addition to those baking mixes-is now based near downtown Chicago.
Earlier this month, Smith was named to Forbes magazine's "30 under 30" list and answered emailed questions for the Chicago Tribune about the company's progress. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How have you grown from the early days?
A: Less than four years ago, we were a brand-new company and had no retail distribution at all. I got my first placements by baking my muffin mixes and taking samples to each Whole Foods store in Atlanta, where I was living. Today, our products are sold in over 6,500 stores.
In terms of online business, we started selling on Amazon in 2013 with three products. Since then, we have expanded our Amazon offerings (and) grown sales on that site alone by 375 percent.
Q: You just launched frosting. How long was that in development? What's next for the company?
A: We've had our eye on frosting for a while because consumers can use it in conjunction with our cake and muffin mixes, providing a complete clean-ingredient baking solution. Actual product development took about six months.
As soon as we had perfected our frosting recipes, we started working on two new product lines that we are launching this February. I can't tell you what they are yet.
Q: What ingredient has been the most difficult to source?
A: Pumpkin powder. Initially, all of the sources we found for this product had an ingredient list that included maltodextrin-an additive that is typically made from corn. We rejected those options because corn is a digestive irritant for many consumers. We never use it. To solve the problem, we worked closely with one of our suppliers to create a product without maltodextrin. That product is now available in the market for us as well as other companies to use. This is one example of how a rising tide lifts all boats, which is exactly what we hope to do-be a positive impact for the way that food is made.
Q: What's the long-term goal as far as number of products?
A: We don't have a specific goal for number of products we'd like to develop. Instead we aim to fill holes in the market-products that consumers need or are asking for, or where there are particular pain points for consumers.
Q: What has surprised you most about your growth and success?
A: The explosive growth of the natural foods category we're in. The food industry was a high-barrier market with powerful gatekeepers for decades. Less than 10 years ago, it was virtually impossible to break into food business and see the success so many young companies have today-let alone to do so with natural and alternative ingredients as companies like Simple Mills use. We certainly expected the category to thrive, but the degree that high-growth food startups are changing the food supply and driving a new era in the industry is unprecedented.
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