Loren Castle: Founder & CEO of Sweet Loren’s

Episode 504

In this episode, Kara Goldin interviews Loren Castle, the Founder and CEO of Sweet Loren's. Loren shares her personal health journey and how it inspired her to create a natural and healthier cookie dough brand. She discusses the challenges she faced in launching and growing her company, including the importance of profitability and focusing on building a sustainable business. Loren also talks about the development of new products, such as breakfast biscuits, and the decision to create a less sugar line. She offers advice for aspiring founders, emphasizing the need for passion, commitment, and a strong team. So much inspiration and wisdom in this episode. Now 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 we are here today with Loren Castle, who was the founder and CEO of Sweet Loren’s. And excuse my voice in advance, I had a little too much fun over the last week being with a bunch of girlfriends. So I’m, hopefully will not irritate anybody with this very, very husky voice that I’ve woken up with. But basically sweet Lorens is the number one natural cookie dough brand in the US and a first of its kind baked goods company made with gluten free, vegan, non GMO, nut free 100% Whole grain and kosher ingredients. I’ve been a fan of what they are doing for so many years. I know that we had met originally, I think at Expo West, which is the big food show along the way. But I’ve just been really incredibly impressed by everything that Loren is doing to grow the brand now available in over 25,000 retail stores nationwide, obviously online to put the inspiration for sweet Lorens came from her own health experience, which I’m going to let her talk about, I’m not even going to try and get very, very excited to have you here, Loren.

Loren Castle 2:03
Thank you for having me. I’ve been a fan of yours. And I feel like we’ve known each other for several years now. So really excited to be sitting down with you. So

Kara Goldin 2:11
you were talking a little bit about this before we started recording, but the but basically you started the company in New York, and then you moved out to LA right before the pandemic. So that’s, that’s really bold in many ways, but also just super. That’s so great that you’re you’re on the better Coast now.

Loren Castle 2:36
I know. I’m a I’m a born and raised New Yorker. So I love New York. And I’m really glad I was raised there and started my company there because you know, there’s a fast pace of New York, there’s a No BS of New York, there’s so much grit. I mean, it made me into a very strong, you know, person, but I kind of got burned out of it. And I just tired of living in an apartment and I went to college, I went to USC and LA for college. And so I got a taste of the West Coast, I always kind of loved it out here. And then of course, I fell in love with a guy who lived in San Francisco. So like that kind of, you know, sealed the deal. But like we you know, we both wanted to be on the West Coast, and I love San Francisco, we kind of compromised on that lay, where can be good from both of our careers. And we moved here two weeks before COVID hit and then COVID hit and it was like wow, the whole world has changed. And thank God we’re walking distance to the beach, walking distance to Erawan you know, like the super, you know, amazing natural supermarket here and just was very livable. And now we’re in a house with a backyard and we have two little girls and there’s just space and sunshine and nature and I’m really happy if you feel healthier than I ever have to be honest. That’s

Kara Goldin 4:00
amazing. So talk to me about the backstory of your brand sweet Loren’s How did this all come about? Where did the idea come from? And what is your why behind the brand? Yeah, I

Loren Castle 4:12
have a very personal big why I grew up in New York City and you know, around amazing food, you know, amazing high quality food all the time. And I went to college and right after I graduated, I got sick. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 22, which completely rocked my world and shocked me and after being depressed for a couple of months and not knowing if I would get if I would survive if I would even feel good again after treatment, if what my life would look like I decided to just really take my health into my own hands and I was going to do everything I could beyond the chemo treatment to figure out you know how I could live my best life and feeling my best and nourish myself. And food was just like, obvious, you know, to me just, we are what we eat like, like I, I still felt the difference. Every time I ate kind of packaged or refined or really processed ingredients. My energy level wasn’t great. I wasn’t positively thinking I just, it wasn’t good for me. So I started to study nutrition cut out anything process, and I took cooking classes on the days I didn’t have chemo treatments so that I could really just a keep busy, and be find ways to feel empowered to heal myself. And I was the only reason we all don’t eat super healthy is it’s hard, it’s hard to make things taste good. And we’re not taught that. So if I learn how to make food taste good, I can learn how to make anything healthier, tastes great. And so that really became, I became a good cook. But I have a huge sweet tooth. I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of person that like, lives off dark chocolate, like I need that to feel satisfied. It gives me like a superpower. It makes me happy. And I felt like there are super foods and in chocolate, you know, there are there are types of flour that are way healthier than like refined bleached white flour. And so I kind of just fell in love with this idea of Wow, there are more natural, tasty ways to bake and it doesn’t really exist. And so I love a warm chocolate chip cookie. I think you know, cookie dough is the most amazing thing in the world, and healthier version, which just didn’t exist out there. And so I started to make my own recipes and hundreds and hundreds of batches. I mean, I’ve literally tried every type of oil, flour sugar possible. I, you know, hit on something that I was like, this is the best cookie I’ve ever had. And it’s better for

Kara Goldin 6:41
you. And so did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur? Or Or were you? Like, were you a baker first? And then an entrepreneur? Or how did you think about that. So

Loren Castle 6:53
couple things. Both my parents were entrepreneurs. So I think I did grow up seeing that kind of model of like, you can do what you want. And you can be passionate about what you do. I mean, my parents were happy doing what they did, they were kind of lit up every day that they got to explore their own interests and make a difference in the world and have their own schedule and be in control of their future. So I think I definitely had that bug but at the same time, like my brother and sister aren’t entrepreneurs like me, you know. So we both were all were raised by the same parents. I think that I’m literally unemployable. I just think I’m not after going through that health scare at 22 I just didn’t take life lightly anymore. I realized how precious it was. How that how much I wanted to live a life without regrets. Like, I just wanted to find something that made me so happy made me appreciate life lit me up so that, you know, whenever, you know, I, you know, was my last day, hopefully at the age of 110. You know, I wouldn’t have regrets that like I did it. I did whatever my deepest desires were and I and also when I was going through treatment, I kind of made like a promise to myself, like I was like, you know, God, universe, whatever you are out there, you know, I’m, I’m not really a religious person. But I just was like, if I can get through this, I promise I will find a way to like give back to the world and like turn this into a positive. And, like I really kind of made that promise to myself and the universe. And when so when I you know, thankfully survived, you know, treatment and everything was cancer free. You know, my doctor was like, go get a job be normal now. And so I did. I mean, I tried, I tried to work for a PR company. I tried to work for a finance company. I tried to work for a restaurant, wine company. I jumped around for like a two years. And I was honestly miserable. I felt imprisoned. I didn’t feel like I had freedom. I didn’t feel like it mattered. I hated my bosses. Like it just wasn’t a life I wanted to live so I had been baking on the side and I didn’t realize this baking hoppy returned to a business. But I think when I saw the way that like, I wasn’t being a perfect fit with some company and I saw the way that people really reacted to these cookies. I was like, man, there’s there’s something here, you know, and, and after I won two baking contests, it gave me the confidence to jump in and do sweet Loren’s full time.

Kara Goldin 9:27
So how would you describe sweet Lawrence? I mean, you you launched with the cookies was a chocolate chip cookie the initial. So

Loren Castle 9:34
hope was my first customer. And of course, they wanted to take more than one flavor so that you could take up enough room on a shelf that you really had brand presence. So I launched with four flavors and they’ve definitely changed over time. You know, something that’s interesting is my original recipes weren’t actually like gluten free plant based, not free. They were just non GMO better for you whole grain. But once I got into Kroger and Publix and all these mass supermarkets, I started to get hundreds of messages from people that were like, Hey, I’m not gluten free, but my husband is so like, can you create a gluten free line, you know, hey, my kid has a nut allergy, there’s nothing safe for him on the shelf, you know, oh, my sister is staying away from dairy or eggs or, and I just realize there’s so many people that have food allergies, or certain lifestyles or dietary restrictions, and there’s nothing for them in kind of math conventional products. So I slightly changed all the recipes to taste just as good, but also be allergen free. So really, like everyone could eat it, every home could have it, it was just kind of safe for everyone. And as I did that, I kind of refined the flavors I launched with to make sure that they were homeruns. And so chocolate chunk, as you said, is always the number one SKU, but then we also have a fudgy brownie that’s like really rich chocolate. And that’s you know, number two, we also have a less sugar chocolate flavor that’s become, you know, tied as well for like a number two SKU, and then we have an oatmeal cranberry. And we have a sugar cookie. And then we have amazing seasonal flavors, like pumpkin spice, and gingerbread and chocolate mint that launch, you know, around holiday time, so and new new flavors that are actually coming up in the next couple of months. So it’s exciting.

Kara Goldin 11:26
It’s so exciting to watch you grow. When did you actually start the company? What was the year?

Loren Castle 11:31
So I got into Whole Foods 2012. So more than a decade.

Kara Goldin 11:37
And so you were you’re now in over 25,000 stores, and you’re available online, my guests and stores came before online, I talked to different founders who, you know, one came before the other. But I’m so curious, like, how do you think about online today? Versus? versus just being in retailers? I would imagine retailers, you know, is is the bulk of your business, but

Loren Castle 12:06
definitely, definitely no, definitely the bulk of our business. I mean, we’re a refrigerated product, you find sweet orange cookie dough in the refrigerated and dairy section. So it’s expensive to ship, you know, you have to ship it with cold packs or dry ice in a shipper overnight or two day, you know, otherwise, you know, if you shipped it ground, you know, to Florida in the middle of the summer, you know, all the cookie dough would kind of melt. So that’s so so we only really did direct to consumer on our website for cookie dough, really, just to make sure that everyone could get any flavor they want anywhere. But it’s such a small percentage of our business because most people are buying, I mean, maybe they’re buying on Instacart or you know, on target.com or something like that online, but if they’re still doing pickup, you know, or delivery from the grocery store to their house. So yeah, grocery is our number one business because most people are still buying perishable goods in grocery stores, you know, and our cookie dough is right next to the eggs and the milk and the dairy and they’re grabbing those things as they’re, you know, doing their weekly shopping. It’s what’s exciting is we just launched after a lot of research, you know, and, and making sure that cookie dough was really like cemented in stores, okay, like, what can we move on to next and we just launched October Breakfast Biscuits, which are, which are delicious, and they’re, they this is the first time we’ve entered like the shelf stable cookie category. And so this is finally the first time that we can actually ship something on Amazon or direct to consumer, you know, much more cost effectively because, you know, it can go you know, doesn’t need all of the packaging to keep it cold. And so that’s exciting. And that’s a product that was exciting. But having DTC, you know, open now is just like the away from home opportunity, right. So like, now we have this like breakfast biscuit that’s prepackaged, and you could grab it and throw it in your bag, and you can throw it in your kid’s lunch and keep it in your car, you know, and it’s it has a very long shelf life. And it’s these crunchy biscuits that have four grams of protein and whole grains and good source of fiber and so they’re just a really good snack to kind of keep you full, either for breakfast or throughout the day. So I’m very excited about retail because I think the industry is changing so much like you know, it used to be the natural industry versus mass and now it’s like you know their natural food in all math supermarkets right like there’s such a need everywhere.

Kara Goldin 14:37
Yeah, so true. So tell me the backstory behind the name. Sweet Loren’s like, is that up because I kept thinking okay, Loren is sweet. But maybe it’s the sweetness of the cookies. Like what what is the backstory? How did you decide to settle on that name?

Loren Castle 14:56
Yeah, I think it’s a good story. A. So I tried to racking my brain to think of like what sweet Lorens was going to be named. And I can’t even tell you how embarrassing original names were. I mean, we were it was, it was absurd. But you know, I tried a bunch of things just on like family and friends. And my mom actually had a good friend who had a branding marketing agency. So she was like, Oh, come over and spend the afternoon with Loren, and just, you know, think through things with her. And it was really helpful, because I had like, smart cookie, I had, you know, all these kinds of, you know, and then just a bunch of names. And I tested them on people, what we, what we kind of wanted to create was something that rolled off your tongue and felt good, something that felt kind of familiar, something that could open it up so that I could launch the things beyond cookies one day, you know, and that kind of like, there’s a promise with the brand. And the brand promise is really that, like, we’re gonna take care of you. There’s like a sweet intention here. And so it wasn’t that I always wanted to be in the sweets category. It was more, there’s a sweet intention behind the brand. And you know, and it’s lauren story.

Kara Goldin 16:15
Now, it’s a great name for it for sure. So what were some of the biggest obstacles you faced, when launching or, or growing suite, Loren’s that you just didn’t never imagined it was, it was funny, my senior in college son is very interested in launching his own business. And he wants to do something in the CBD space. And so there’s a bunch of problems with shipping and, and he’s also looked at THC, which is even harder. And I’m like, Look when you launch a company, and you can actually see the problems. Like, that’s huge, right? But there is, like, most of the time you think, okay, I can do this. I can then yeah, I’ve got this, and there’s gonna be there still going to be problems. So how do you think about this? Oh, yeah,

Loren Castle 17:11
I mean, I think, you know, a couple of things like one I think that when I launched late Loren’s originally, I got immediate press, like on the today’s show, I got on Rachael Ray, Whole Foods loved it, like, there was a buzz from the very beginning, which I got so wrapped up in because it was so exciting. And I’m so passionate about it. And often I was like, oh my god, it’s my dream. And it’s coming to life, and everyone loves it. And, and, you know, from day one, I would get emails from people that were like, you’ve changed my life, I have such a sweet tooth. And I, it’s so hard for me to find something that makes me feel good after I eat it. And something that fits my lifestyle. And so, you know, I just got so wrapped up in all of like, the passion excitement. And, I mean, it sounds obvious now, but like, this is a business. You know, and I think I think a lot of first time entrepreneurs that, you know, haven’t done this before, you know, you just kind of are like, if I have a great product, everything else will work out. Yeah, you know, and that’s not always the case, it’s like, a lot of great restaurants and brands go out of business, you know, they don’t, for whatever reason, the financials don’t work out to sustain it. And so, I think after I started realizing how expensive it was, and how hard it was to get into supermarkets, and how patient you had to be, and if you messed up, you kind of only get one shot, you know, like how, you know how on it you need to be and you know, it just quickly realized, like, this needs to be such a healthy business, otherwise, my dream is going to die, you know, like this could go out of business. And so, you know, got really focused, when a lot of my friends in the CPG space, were raising a lot of money didn’t care about being profitable, I was just heads down, trying to be as profitable as possible. Trying to be as focused as possible. It’s been 10 years, I’ve only really launched cookie dough, I could have had 100 SKUs of different products by now. But I purposely focused you know, and, and done kind of the boring stuff, which is like, just build a healthy, sustainable business, you know, and so, that’s been a huge lesson for me, because now 10 years later, you know, I haven’t had to raise money, we’re a healthy business, I now have a platform, and I can now I can launch into new products and you know, it feel it’s all that kind of feels worth it. But also what I was saying before, like going all allergen free gluten free wasn’t my original plan. Like that was a surprise, you know, and I didn’t have money for research and data to understand allergens and kind of going staying away from dairy. We’re going to be on such you know, kind of the rise over the next years. So that was really a gut decision that was, you know, consumers emailing me and messaging me that like they, you know, wanted, you know, a product that was kind of free at the top 14 allergen just to, you know, feed all the different lifestyles and dietary restrictions that were happening. And so, again, that was very surprising. But I’m so glad I did that, because it’s really what differentiates sweet Lorens from the competition. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 20:13
definitely. And I think it’s, there’s an important lesson in there for sure. Because I think so many people are afraid to kind of shift in some way. And I think what you’ve shown too, is, you know, you didn’t just listen to one consumer, you were hearing it over and over again, so, but you didn’t compromise taste, you know, in doing so. So, which is amazing. Well,

Loren Castle 20:40
that was the number one thing is that when I created this, you know, kind of allergen free gluten free recipe, first of all, then had to find a factory that was allergen free, that can make cookie dough. It’s not that easy. Found it just tested it. You know, I’d heard from, as you said, more than one consumer like, and by the way, a lot of like close friends that were had successful businesses. When I told them I was doing this, they thought it was a bad idea. I mean, they were like, This sounds Nish, Loren, if I saw something that said gluten free on it, I’m not gluten free. I’m not gonna buy it. But the you couldn’t argue with the data. So I made a chocolate chip, you know, gluten free allergen free version launched in all Publix and Kroger’s. And then within one year, you couldn’t argue with the data, it was our number one SKU. And it was because of exactly what you’re saying, families gave it a try. And they were like, Oh, my God, this was delicious. I can’t even tell it’s gluten free or vegan, I feel better eating it, my whole family can now just eat the same product, I don’t need to buy a different thing for him and her and you know, and, you know, and it really what, what made sweet Loren’s powerful is that we’re very incremental to the category we weren’t really competing with, you know, the, the big conventional brands on the market, we were all of a sudden growing cookie dough category and bringing in a whole new, better for your consumer or someone that does have food allergies, or is really staying away, you know, strict about their sugar levels, or whatever it is really cares about simple ingredients. And that became really powerful. Because, you know, we started growing the category where everyone else was either flat or declining.

Kara Goldin 22:13
Yeah, that’s incredible. So whenever you’re developing as a founder, you’re developing certain skews there. There has there’s always one that is harder than the rest of them. And you’re trying and you’re trying and you’re keep reiterating in some way. Is there any stories out there where it was like, Oh my God, finally we’ve done it, you know, we’ve been able to get it. For us. It was our lemon water, which sounds crazy. But it was, but it just kept tasting like turpentine or like a cleaner. It was really difficult to do it. So any stories that you have

Loren Castle 22:53
totally and I can totally imagine how like something as simple as it sounds as lemon, it’s actually so hard to do, because we had that we launched our Breakfast Biscuits. And cinnamon sugar is our number one flavor. I can’t tell you how many cinnamons we went through cinnamon can be spicy. Cinnamon can be you know, like red, hot, spicy. We wanted sweet we wanted warm but not too candy tasting. Uh, we went through so bitter, sometimes cinnamon can be bitter. I mean, it was a whole gamut. And so it was really, um, I kind of hate love that because, you know, who else is gonna go through the dozens of cinnamons that we went through to figure out how to create a proprietary blend. And so, you know, I like hate love it because it takes so much longer than you think and how many samples do we need to go through but at the same time, now we have something that I think is very special. And you know, it’s it’s and you know, it took that hard work to get there. Also, we have our we have a less sugar line. So again, based on consumer feedback, we launched you know, we had our our sweet learns original cookie dough on the market has 10 grams of sugar per cookie, which is still like most dieticians would say, you know, that’s a normal amount, you know, for a delicious, you know, Cookie don’t go higher than that. But, you know, if it’s that I are lower, I think that’s a really, you know, solid sugar intake. And we had a lot of requests from people that were like, I am sensitive to sugar, I don’t want things to be too sweet or I’m counting my sugar grams or I’m diabetic or pre diabetic or whatever it was. And so, we were like, Okay, there’s enough research here to show that like, people really want they don’t want no sugar. They want something that is lower sugar as possible. So still tastes like a cookie feels like a cookie bakes like a cookie. But if you know doesn’t have you know, as many grams of sugar so we were like, What a fun thing to do. Like let’s try to pull as much cane sugar as possible. We don’t use your sugar substitute So we’re not going to use monkfruit, or CD or anything like that. And we use the same exact recipe as original sweet Loren, same ingredients, but just try to pull as much sugar as possible. And again, if you don’t know Baking, baking is chemistry. I mean, I don’t know if you bake a lot, but it seems cute. It’s like baking is so cute. It’s like men and you try to bake in your kitchen, something from scratch, something, you know, that hasn’t been done before, it’s really hard. And so, you know, sugar doesn’t just make things sweet. It keeps, you know, it gives it a crunch, it gets a rise, it gives a melt that holds cookies together. I mean, there’s so much chemistry happening. So when you pull out sugar, something is going to change. So anyways, we went through so many additions to pull out about 40% of the sugar to be able to create our less sugar lines, so that there is really an option of a delicious cookie on the shawl that just happens to be 40% less than like the big guys. And with that, you know, just a lot of texture issues, you know, cookies were crumbling. And so I just always recommend with our left sugar line, bake the cookies, don’t touch them, I know you want to but don’t touch them for like 510 minutes, and then they will be perfect. You know, but if you grab them when they’re hot oven will crumble because we don’t have binders and weird stuff in the cookie, you know, taking out all the sugar. And so, you know, work with us?

Kara Goldin 26:21
Yeah, no, definitely. And I think that’s great advice. So because they are so terrific there, but leave them out for like five minutes. And then and then you can talk to him for sure. So best advice for any founder, someone’s thinking about starting their own company, what would you say you back in the good old days of thinking, I’m going to go and do this? Like, what would you say today? To somebody who’s really thinking about

Loren Castle 26:49
it? Well, first of all, I would try to scare them out of the idea of see how much they really want it, you know, like, like, how much do you really want this to happen? Is this like life or death? You know, are you just so excited, so devoted to this, that you’re willing to wake up every day and fight for it? Or is it just kind of a fun idea for you and you have other options, you know, because if you do have other options and have other kind of businesses going on, you won’t give it 100% And then it won’t be successful. So I think like, I would try to scare someone out of it to really understand how, you know how much they’re willing to give how much you know, because I think at the end of the day, like that’s what it comes down to. I’m not the smartest person out there. I’m the most committed, I’m not gonna give up, you know, and I care the most. And I think like, that’s that grit and that tenacity is like the recipe for success. And, you know, thankfully, I’m not, you know, out of passion for it, you know, because that’s what keeps me going. But, you know, if someone said, I really want to start something, I’m 100% committed, I would say, you know, it’s so important to surround yourself with a team, make sure that you hire, opposites of you that are you’re kind of cultured or kind of people. So if you enjoy working with the people that you hire, and they’re opposites, and really experienced in the industry, and really talented, like, you know, even with a beat quality product, I think you can create such success. And I would say, you know, just be nerdy and have tenacity and have passion and just, you know, keep pumping those things. Because that’s at the end of day what, you know, you know, makes you think outside the box to help you win against bigger companies. It’s

Kara Goldin 28:37
so true. So Loren Castle, founder and CEO of Sweet Loren’s so great. And such a delicious product, so proud of you for building this company. I mean, I know how hard it is. And the frozen case in particular is just absolutely so hard. And you’ve been able to, you know, get it into the refrigerated section and, and it’s really, really great. So thank you again,

Loren Castle 29:06
thank you so much for having me in the support. I really, really appreciate it.

Kara Goldin 29:10
Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review and feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. I would love to hear from you too, so feel free to DM me. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my Wall Street Journal, best selling book undaunted, where I share more about my journey including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks for listening and goodbye for now.