Alison Cayne: Founder & CEO of Haven’s Kitchen

Episode 315

Listen to Founder & CEO Alison Cayne of Haven's Kitchen share how she created a cooking company on a mission to help home cooks feel like CHAMPIONS was the backdrop to creating Haven's Kitchen's delicious products today. Now available online and in over 2000 stores across the U.S., Alison is also an author of Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School, and she is the host of In the Sauce, a podcast for early-stage founders and operators about building consumer brands. I am super excited for you to hear more about how the company has evolved, what excites her about being a creator, and so much more! Such an amazing episode with lots of lessons, for sure! On this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be you just want to make sure you will get knocked down but just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone. It’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show and I am so excited to have our next founder and CEO here with us today. We have Ali Cayne, who is the founder and CEO of Haven’s kitchen. And I have to tell you I had not heard of Haven’s kitchen until I was introduced through a friend and the sauces that they have created are absolutely amazing. They’re in the greatest little squeezable bottles as well, squeezable packaging, I should say, not even bottles, Ali. We’ll get into that. But so so, so cool. And basically the company is on a mission to help home cooks feel like champions with easy, bold, healthy flavor shortcuts. And unlike many entrepreneurs, Ali actually did come from the food space. Since 2012. She’s been helping people cook she had opened an incredible cooking school in New York City called Haven’s kitchen, cooking school. And then she decided in 2018, that it was time to launch her first product into stores. She’s now national, with whole foods and available online and lots of other stores as well. Just an incredible, incredible product company, entrepreneur, and I cannot even wait to get more into the conversation. So welcome, Ali.

Alison Cayne 2:10
Thank you. That was such a nice introduction.

Kara Goldin 2:13
Absolutely. Let’s start with the company. So I’d love for you to share a little bit with the listeners. What is havens kitchen?

Alison Cayne 2:21
That’s a very good question. Because sometimes I it my elevator pitching isn’t so stellar. But I would say, you know, put simply Haven’s kitchen is a home cooking company. So we have products, the first of which is our Squeezy fresh sauces, we have education, you know, we have about 500 recipe videos and tips and tricks. But ultimately, we’re a company on a mission, like you said, to make home cooks feel like champions simply because there are more people cooking than ever, and they have a you know, a lot of things that make them sort of nervous, making healthy meals time management, I don’t know what to make. And so our approach is that if you have great products that help you get good flavor that are like good for you. And you know how those products are going to make your life easier, and we can make your life better, then we’ve got the solution to the problem.

Kara Goldin 3:15
I love it. And you had a cooking school before. And can you talk a little bit about that? Like, did you always cook? I mean, were you always this, you know, chef that was constantly making things? How did you decide to start that

Alison Cayne 3:30
I have been cooking since I was eight or nine, I was one of those 70s kids that you know, my mom was like I I’ve worked hard not to be in the kitchen. And I was like, Well, great. I get to make you know, salmon with mayonnaise and things like that. So I cooked my whole life. I actually started teaching cooking like as early as college. But I didn’t really think that was a career. I had a lot of kids pretty shortly after I graduated from college, and then I went back to get a degree in food systems food policy when my kids were young. So as part of that degree, I really learned about not only sort of the joy of cooking but the importance of cooking on personal health community, farm labor practices, the Environment, Food, policy, hunger, everything. And you know, they’re just not enough people learning how to cook and there weren’t enough people teaching people how to cook. There were culinary schools, there were these beautiful cookbooks, but you know, people just want to learn how to make a chicken and what to do with a carrot. So true. And in New York, there really wasn’t anything like it. So I opened havens kitchen in 2012. It was pretty much a success overnight, which was kind of amazing. Mostly because like we were saying earlier we did a lot of private events. People did showers, team building all sorts of things. We did weddings, you know closing down There’s book parties, all sorts of things. And the sauces really evolved out of the cooking school because the students, you know, said, thank you very much for teaching us how to make this. But can you just put it in a package for me? Because I don’t want to do this at home.

Kara Goldin 5:16
That’s so interesting. So the sauce was sort of the secret sauce, literally, that people were remembering from the school. Now, it’s so interesting, because I think so many people think, you know, it’s about the spices. Yeah, I think that there’s, you know, maybe that’s part of it. But I think, you know, now I got it flavor.

Alison Cayne 5:35
Like a, the challenge for home cooks is like the soup that they eat at home is not like the soup they have at the restaurant, the steak that they eat it, you know, so, and most of that is about time heat. And yes, you know, the seasoning, right? And how do you get to those like bold, really good savory seasonings, without stressing yourself out. And it’s more than ranch and marinara, you know, and those were the options when we started looking around. So our flavors are unique and different and globally inspired. And they’re not boiled. You know? So there’s, there’s a lot of a lot of new stuff for people to discover.

Kara Goldin 6:17
How did you come up with the name?

Alison Cayne 6:19
So you know, the name was the name of the cooking school? So this was back in 2010, when I was sort of thinking about, you know, what am I really trying to do, I’m trying to create a safe haven, I’m trying to create a place where people don’t feel on edge, that they’re going to like, overcook their chicken or make something that sticks to the pan that they’re going to have to scrub for three hours, you know, the kitchen for me was always this creative, happy place. And, you know, I mean, you know, as a founder, your company’s mission and your mission are basically the same, I have always been kind of confused as to why people don’t love cooking. And through teaching, for as long as I did, I started understanding why people don’t love cooking, they want to cook, they know, it’s good. You know, they want to feel that like, agency, but they’re scared. And they’re, and they’re these obstacles in their way. So I wanted to build a place that was a place where they could relax, learn the tips, and the tricks and the skills that they needed and feel good. And that was a haven. So

Kara Goldin 7:32
there are a lot of chefs out there, there’s probably less chef schools, or cooking schools, but there are probably more people that have not actually developed products and decided to take them into places like Whole Foods, and maybe are listening and kind of wondering, oh, that’s so interesting that she did that. Were you nervous to launch your own products?

Alison Cayne 8:01
Oh, yeah. I mean, I, you know, we got very, very lucky because I, you know, we went to the Fancy Food Show in 2017. And we got our little, you know, New Kids on the Block table, it’s like two feet wide. You know, we put our little pouches there. And I just, you know, basically said, you know, to my team who was helping me, like, if there isn’t a buyer for this, then we don’t have a thing, right? Like, we know that consumers are gonna like this. We know our students love the sauces. But if we don’t have grocery, I mean, this, I wasn’t ever thinking about, like, direct to consumer for this. And it wasn’t even, you know, that big of a thing in 2018, especially for a fresh product. So I was like, if there’s no, if there’s no store that’s like, Yay, I like this, then we’re, we’re not going to do it. You know, I wasn’t like, if I build it, they will come. I was like, they better come because if not, I’m not going to build it. So fortunately for us, John Lawson, who was the Northeast grocery buyer for Whole Foods came directly to our table and like, picked up the pouches and was like, what’s going on? He had heard of the cooking school, because Whole Foods had done a few events there, which was very helpful for us. And he really helped us get ready to go to market. So we launched in 14, New York City Whole Foods and on FreshDirect. The following March, so it took us about eight months.

Kara Goldin 9:28
Wow. That’s amazing. How many SKUs Did you launch with?

Alison Cayne 9:32
We launched with three? Oh, no, I think we launched with four and I got rid of one really quickly because it was like, bumming me out because it was like a like a kale pesto but the basil was getting like a little gray kind of color and I just couldn’t I freaked out and I was like we’re just continuing this like I had no data I didn’t know nothing. I just like ran around and took them all off the shelf and stopped making it which you know, is not no necessarily a way to do business with whole foods.

Kara Goldin 10:02
But it worked. So I rolled Yeah, definitely word when you talk about fresh, so just to give people an idea. So is this. So this isn’t chef’s shelf stable you that it actually needs refrigeration? Where does it live? And in the stores,

Alison Cayne 10:19
all very good questions which, you know, had I been perhaps a more experienced entrepreneur in the CPG space, I wouldn’t have necessarily started with fresh, although I will say now, as we, you know, are going into shelf stable products in the next couple of years, it is a really nice place to build a brand presence. And, you know, I’m sure you think your kids, I was thinking about my kids this way, but like your assets are your liabilities and your liabilities are your assets. And it’s the same with a product like fresh makes it really hard, fresh, you know, we have 160 days shelf life, because we do high pressure pasteurization, so it’s not terrible, but it’s not shelf stable. And to your question about where does it go in the store, kind of depends on where the buyers are thinking about innovation. So in some places, there is a refrigerated condiment set, like a whole foods in an Albertsons, we’re smack in the middle of produce, in some stores where the dairy buyer has sort of the like, what we call like the we don’t know where to put it set, which is like plant based meats, like the weird stuff, and the hippie food that like some people might want, you know, and then it’s kind of evolving. So, again, that’s a liability in in one way, because it’s not in the same place in every store. And you know, consumers aren’t necessarily looking around for us. But it’s an asset, because we tend to be next to things that we outperform from a velocity perspective. So it’s worked to our advantage in a lot of ways, because we have a nice premium price point and a high velocity. And we’re totally incremental. So there’s nothing like us, which can be a little bit hard to explain. But there’s also nothing like us. So we’re an incremental product

Kara Goldin 12:17
when you came into the space too. There really wasn’t anybody in the section. So you’re not only finding the space, but in many ways creating the whole space. Yeah. And shoving people, which is hard, which is totally hard, right? I mean, you’re, you’re up against planograms. But you’re also up against like, there’s no, what is it? Yeah, like, there’s,

Alison Cayne 12:39
there’s literally what is it?

Kara Goldin 12:41
No, what is it? Yeah, no, that’s so so interesting. So

Alison Cayne 12:45
it’s kind of why I like talking, you know, we I love healthy, right, I love perfect bar, those are great sort of category busting, you know, brands that created a new category. And it took them several years to figure out, where’s the consumer, the most likely to look for this, and it took buyers a long time to figure out, you know, why they needed it. But they did. So

Kara Goldin 13:15
it’s so interesting that you say that, because when we started hence 17 years ago, you know, we were up against planning grounds as well, where, you know, there was no unsweetened flavored water. I mean, we were we were it. And so we would try and get into the fruits and vegetable section because it was really much closer to what we were trying to communicate to consumers. But the challenge was at that time, and I think it’s still this way to some extent, but the fruit and vegetable buyers didn’t want something that they weren’t going to get credit for. So this there’s this whole world totally,

Alison Cayne 13:59
it’s much less cross functional from a merchandising perspective is I think, we would hope maybe from a consumer perspective, and also produce buyers are used to buying commodities. They’re not necessarily used to buying packaged goods, and maybe one little, you know, four foot set in that produce set is pushed in from grocery buyers doing salad dressings or dips. But for the most part, they’re, you know, really siloed

Kara Goldin 14:30
and what were you doing before you started cooking school? Like, how did you know how to do any of this?

Alison Cayne 14:37
I didn’t I you know, I? It’s funny. I, every year when my kids start school, we do this thing. I mean, now they’re older, so we don’t need to do it as much but my son just started law school and we kind of did the same thing. You know, you’re terrified. Like that’s what a learning curve is, you know, when you when you’re embarking on this new thing. First of all, you be silly to think that you knew what you were doing, if you’ve never done something before, right? But, you know, yet, a lot of us want to try new things and like, and we want to learn, and we’re curious, and we want to make ourselves better and bring cool things into the world. But you know, it’s it’s very scary, and you’re figuring everything out, and everyone has different opinions, and you’re trying to sort of synergize to categorically opposing things that investors are telling you or buyers are telling you or consumers are telling you. And then, you know, you start to, you start to learn, and then just around the time where you feel like, okay, I kind of know what I’m doing. It’s time for third grade, or law school, or, you know, going from natural to conventional, or whatever it is, you know, regional to national. And so, you know, it’s, it’s scary. I mean, I, I still don’t know, I, fortunately, I have a lot of people who I can ask, but I don’t even know what I don’t know. So sometimes you don’t even know what to ask, you know, yeah, say ask your investors for help. And I’m like, yeah, what should I ask? Yeah, just be patient with me is basically my big request. You know,

Kara Goldin 16:15
I feel too, though that, you know, and it’s not just about investors to I think it’s just having a network out there. Because sometimes you can even I felt like the best people who really sort of, they didn’t necessarily tell me all the answers, but they lead me in the right direction where people in another category, right, yeah, that they helped you to think about, oh, okay, maybe I can do it this way, especially when you’re breaking new ground to get new space? And, yeah, all of that. So that’s, that’s super, super interesting. So you, obviously were doing a successful company a cooking school? Would you say that this is extremely different? And and how is it similar in any way?

Alison Cayne 17:02
You know, it’s, it’s similar in the sense that like, a condominium and, you know, family home, are similar in the sense that there is a foundation, that foundation is margin, that foundation is leadership, having a good product, having a safe product, like they’re some very strong sort of like important, almost physics to any business that probably don’t change all that much, you know, underground. And then everything above ground is kind of different. Yeah. So, you know, the biggest difference for me is that every day was insane in a physical location, brick and mortar cooking school in the middle of New York, and I had about 102 people on my payroll, you know, not everyone was full time, obviously. But there were just so many moving parts, and a lot of the people management and inevitably, on a day where we were hosting a wedding, the toilet would break, literally, just inevitably, and but all of those things. The big difference for me is those things were contained in a location that I felt, you know, I was always playing whack a mole, but I was playing whack a mole, like on a board. That was the size of the brick and mortar, yeah. Now, there’s trucks out there, and there’s a boat, and there’s a war in Ukraine, and that’s affecting my sunflower oil. And they’re, you know, buyers are changing desks and everything. There’s so much more. There are just so many more variables. Yeah, they’re

Kara Goldin 18:43
different variables, but they’re still there. Yeah,

Alison Cayne 18:45
yeah. And I mean, I think that’s when they talk about the scale and the potential, the scale of the variables is also more, you know, they’re just more things and sometimes it feels like they’re just so many balls in the air. That, you know, I’m, I just, you know, you you’re just terrified, you’re going to miss them or you’re not going to hire Well, if you’re going to under hire over hire under delegate over delegate.

Kara Goldin 19:18
Yeah, it’s constant. I have, there’s this consistent thread amongst entrepreneurs that I interview from all different industries. And it’s fascinating to me, because I think when you’re in a large company, and you know, maybe even your cooking school was like this, there was waves, right? It wasn’t like spikes, and I feel like started your company. There’s like, super high days. We got into Whole Foods and then all of a sudden, fire change. Yeah, right. And it’s just these spikes where you feel crazy, right on certain Daisy because and then you try and explain it like your girlfriend calls. calls you and says, Hey, Ali, what’s up? Like, how’s it going? You’re like, sunflower oil was like, non existent? You know? And it’s just, it’s true, right? Yeah. And it’s just cuckoo. And people can understand it unless you’re in the industry.

Alison Cayne 20:18
No. And it’s funny because I don’t have many friends at this point in history, you know, I’ve, I’ve between turning 50 And, you know, starting a business, and, you know, I just, I’ve shed, and the pandemic, probably, you know, my, my core is, is very core. And there, there are less people that I have to explain, like, what do I do? And, oh, that’s so cool. Have you ever made a bla bla sauce? You know. And I think in terms of the highs and the lows, it took me a little while, you know, I think the double whammy of the entrepreneur is that, in a way, we’re sort of addicted to those highs. Right. And we, we’ve sought them out to some extent, because that’s what, that’s what we do we build things that didn’t exist before. And that’s not going to be steady at all. But they’re really painful. And, you know, at the beginning of all of this, they really derailed me, you know, I, I just be sad for a few days, I still have them, I still definitely. You know, you’re you’re up against just constant. You know, you want your team to be engaged, you want investors to be engaged, you want buyers to be engaged, you want consumers to understand how you’re making their lives better. Like, it’s just you’re constantly seeking approval and validation for this thing that you’ve that you’ve made out of sheer imagination, you know, and when people aren’t picking up what you’re putting down, for whatever reason, or a truck breaks down, or you in a fire doesn’t pick up or you know, there’s a war. Right. You know, it’s just, it’s really hard.

Kara Goldin 22:07
All of those different pieces. Yeah, for sure. So you talked about fundraising. So how did you actually do the fundraising? Or did you raise money for your company?

Alison Cayne 22:18
So I was fortunate, because like I said, the cooking school was profitable. So the first basically $750,000? You know, I’m, I think it was probably a little less, but I’ll just round it up, was directly from the cooking school. So that got me to, you know, well, where we left off with the 14 Whole Foods. We got a call from John Lawson, the three skews are really doing incredibly well. Let’s go to the region, can you come up with two new skews at that point? We did. I don’t think I raised money yet, when we did raise money was when we knew we were going global. Because I needed to move to a bigger, better co Packer. And I knew I needed a little bit of a war chest for what was going to be a national launch. Fortunately, our CO Packer invested in the company, which was great because they were essentially the lead and set the valuation which made my life a little bit easier. And I started with, you know, cooking school regulars and people who were loving what we were doing, and were excited about it. And I went to Rachael Ray, who had done a few events that havens kitchen, and she was excited about it and met the founders from our x bar, Peter and Jared, this was before they had a fund and they were excited about it. So I had really, really good, helpful, wonderful angels, and have had a few different rounds, mostly in notes. With angels,

Kara Goldin 23:59
do you think that you’re better off? If you’re starting a company? Do you think you’re better off getting a little bit of traction before you try and go and raise money?

Alison Cayne 24:10
You know, I flip flop a little bit on this, I think that the research is more, it’s easier to get money pre launch than it is with a little bit of data. Because, you know, you can always poke holes in the data, but a big idea is a big idea. That said, I’ve seen companies where they’ve kind of over raised or gotten sort of, you know, more institutional investors early on, and then the this, the expectations on the company and the pressure on the company sure, are really hard. So I do think it’s a good idea. It depends, again, you know, on your resources and how hard it will be for you to raise cash. If Do you do find yourself needing it? But I think it’s a good idea to have a group of invested people, not just with their money, but you know, who are rooting you on who maybe can offer some help those advisors that you talked about? I wouldn’t necessarily say like your uncle and your, you know, brother in law. But, yeah, I mean, I think especially these days, with the economy being what it is, we all need cash more than we thought we would. So sure yourself up.

Kara Goldin 25:33
Yeah. No, I think that that’s really, really smart. What do you wish you knew when you were starting? And you obviously had a network around you? That was helpful, but what do you Was there anything that nobody mentioned to you that you wish you would have known early on? I love the idea that you pulled a skew early on, because you just weren’t happy about it. Because I think a lot of times people are like, Oh, give it more time, and especially people in the industry where maybe they don’t have ownership of it. You know, I think that’s whether you’re hiring people, and they don’t, they’re not really working out or there’s a product or a SKU, I think it’s like the same lessons. Like you’ve got to trust your gut, and you’ve got to, you know, nip it in the bud, right? There are a few things that this is just not flying. And so I love that you did that it shows you’ve got it, and you know for sure that you can, you can do cash

Alison Cayne 26:32
running around to Whole Foods in cash buying up all of the one SKU that I didn’t want out there. You know, what I wish I knew was that, you know, there’s no silver bullet that this is not an overnight, you know, I think the media portrays entrepreneurship almost in a dangerous way. I think we read stories about valuations, which is nonsense. For me, you know, these guys raised a gazillion dollars, and they’re in 85 billion stores, and they’ve sold out at six times. And, you know, it’s, it’s, there’s, it starts to feel like if you’re not doing those things, then somehow you’re not building a good business. But there are so many different ways to build a good business. And, you know, I think like you said, You, you, you probably do have good instincts, or at least, you know, you can hone those instincts. I think what I, you know, the silver bullet is like, I think for the first couple of years, every time I would meet someone who I thought was like, the person, you know, this, this guy has done this, so he’ll be able to answer and this person will be able to, and people are just people and all they can share with you is their experience, they’ve had one experience, and they can share what they’ve learned. But no one can really tell you what to do. And no one’s going to know the best thing for your business. And you’re probably going to make a lot of mistakes. But those mistakes are really important because they will protect you from something along the line further, you know, if you listen to them,

Kara Goldin 28:15
I absolutely love that. Well, Ali, this has been such a pleasure. Everybody needs to go out and buy Haven’s kitchen, or you can actually order it online. We’ll have all the info in the show notes, as well. But as you all know, I love, love, love founder stories. And I love them even better when they have amazing products. So I’m always on the lookout for great products, great companies and great entrepreneurs, for people to really get to know. So thank you again, Ali. And thank you everybody for listening. So goodbye for now.

Alison Cayne 28:53
Thanks for having me, Kara.

Kara Goldin 28:55
Thanks all for listening to this episode. We hope you enjoyed it. And I want to thank all of our guests and our sponsors. And finally our listeners keep the great comments coming in. And one final plug if you have not read or listened to my book undaunted, please do so you will hear all about my journey, including founding, scaling and building the company that I founded hint we are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks everyone for listening and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the and achieve your dreams. For a limited time you’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight? Send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening