Nicole Centeno: Founder & CEO of Splendid Spoon

Episode 262

Plant based businesses are all the rage and Nicole Centeno, Founder & CEO of Splendid Spoon, knows how to create great products that are good for you and taste great! Hear more about how this former research biologist, author AND French Culinary Institute-trained chef has created an incredible company out of a passion that has led to becoming a kitchen staple for many. So much great stuff on this episode. This show will give you the inspiration you need! 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 so so grateful to be able to have our next guest here. We have Nicole Centeno, who is the founder and CO CEO of an amazing, amazing company that started in 2013, called splendid spoon. And you may or may not be familiar with it, but you need to get familiar with it because this is one incredible company. So Nicole was a former research biologist and author, a mother of three and a French Culinary Institute trained chef. And she got the idea to develop this plant based business that has quickly as I said, become this amazing, amazing thing that just more than anything from her own busy life, her focus on ingredients, all of those things sound familiar, but more what she had been seeing was that sacrificing taste was something that she had to do in order to kind of get what she wanted from an ingredient profiles. So walleye, Nicole comes in and and figures this out. And she’ll share a little bit more about this. But as you all know, on the show, we’d love to hear about the founders journey, some of the hard stuff along the way. So I’m absolutely thrilled that she agreed to come on and chat with us. So welcome to call.

Nicole Centeno 2:10
Thank you so much for having me.

Kara Goldin 2:12
So great. Where are you coming in from today?

Nicole Centeno 2:14
I’m at the office in New York City and Soho.

Kara Goldin 2:17
Oh, awesome. Very, very fun. So I always like to start off when hearing like a little bit more about you not just about your work journey, but also who were you as a little girl, like who was Nicole, that she always know that she was going to be running a company creating, disrupting all of those things.

Nicole Centeno 2:39
I definitely did not know that I was going to be creating a company. I was always very curious. And I always wanted to know how things worked. I was definitely like the kid that took apart toys. My dad’s toolkit was one of my favorite activities to go in and find the right screwdriver to take apart my toys was something that I really enjoyed doing. And then I’ve also always been very motivated by food and flavor and where food comes from. So I also grew vegetables in my mom’s garden in the backyard. And we did all sorts of like joint family cooking experiences, picking strawberries and making jam. Helping my grandmother make Senegal which is a Filipino Su. You know, that’s always been a big part of who I am. So how things work, and how things taste. I think those are definitely two common character traits that have stayed with me.

Kara Goldin 3:45
You mentioned your grandmother. So do you think she had a big influence on you in terms of creating in terms of ultimately going vegan and 2013? I mean, how do you when you think back on some of those people that really inspired you to do what you do and who you are today? Maybe it’s your grandmother? Maybe it’s other people?

Nicole Centeno 4:08
Yeah, I mean, my grandmother had a very big influence on me. I would say, from a female leadership perspective, she had a really big influence on me. She was in the Philippines going to medical school when she met my grandfather. And he told her there could only be one doctor in the family is the rumor. So she became dedicated to leaving the household and had five kids and emigrated to the US with my dad and his four siblings. And she was the provider of the household and she led them in many, many ways. And so I often see what I do in sort of bridging provider at home with provider from a resource and business perspective, as a way of fulfilling Something that she maybe wasn’t able to do.

Kara Goldin 5:01
So interesting. So when did you go vegan,

Nicole Centeno 5:05
so I not a vegan. Oh, interesting, that is actually a big part of like the heart and soul of splendid soon is that we are a plant based business and our products are all plant based, because we believe plant based eating is one of the most impactful ways to change your health in the positive in a positive way and to impact your carbon footprint in a positive way. But we also think that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, you don’t have to be 100%, plant based 100% of the time, in order to see that impact on your health. For every serving of vegetables, it’s reduces your likelihood for heart disease by 4%. So more is more. But also start where you are is a big part of our message. And it was in 2013 when I became pregnant with my son Grover, that I started exploring plant based diets. But yeah, to this day, I am still very much flexitarian

Kara Goldin 6:07
Oh, I love it. Well, that is a I mean, that’s great to hear, I totally agree with you about, you know, you can get so many incredible, you know, minerals, all these great nutrients coming from just plant based diet. So I’m on the same path that you are. So I just assumed I think a lot of people probably assume that because you’re focused on the plant based stuff. But I it totally makes sense. Being able to create something that is just, you know, super good for you. It’s, it’s fascinating to hear you say that, too, when I’m thinking back on when I founded hint, I was somewhat horrified by the fact that a lot of the drinks that were out there, the flavored waters that were out there with different flavorings and different food colorings had things that were non plant based. So they were using like cockroach wings and other different things for ingredients. And again, what I found so interesting is that, you know, there’s, there’s definitely bone marrow is another common ingredient in flavorings. And so what I thought was so interesting is and what we, you know, do at hand is that everything that we use is plant based. But, you know, we tell people like it’s more about what’s on the label, and that and allowing the consumer to actually know what’s inside of there versus actually putting a stake in the ground around a diet or something that is severely, you know, not really sharing the information that it should be. So anyway, just a little tidbit along the way. So yeah, getting back to you so many people have passions and interests, but what was it about, you know, kind of this discovery around healthy food, you were starting to make this in your kitchen? You know, talk to me a little bit about, I guess you started with a soup. What What was it that was, you know, kind of the, the, the big idea that made you think maybe I’m gonna go start a company around this?

Nicole Centeno 8:29
Well, you know, I think it’s always interesting, because there are these inflection points, these like aha moments, right? I had multiple. So I was working in media. I had been I had been studying diet therapies when I was in college. And then when I graduated, I did what lots of people do when they graduate. And I did nothing with my degree, and went into media. But I didn’t feel totally connected to what I was creating and what I was doing. It felt like it could have been anything. And I’m someone who seeks meaning in everything that I do. So I did a bit of soul searching and really felt like I needed to explore my creative experience with food. Like that was what I was spending all my free time. When I was planning vacations. Where was I going to eat? When I was planning my weekend time it was what was I going to make? It was who was I going to invite over for a dinner party. It was what was what new recipe was I going to explore. So I just pulled that thread and went to culinary school while I was still working full time. So I would say that was kind of like inflection point number one. And inflection point number two was when I graduated, I could not let go of it. I was like I’m not this is not a night school thing. This is something that is giving me energy even though I’m spending so much time on it. It’s all of my free time is now learning about how to make food Would and it feeds me, it gives me energy. So I need to follow that and honor that. And so I started doing pop ups, catering, cooking classes, all in my spare time. And I knew from a very personal perspective that that creative medium was important to me as a person and what I could create, to make the world a better place. The third inflection point was when I became pregnant, because that was the real connector between food as creative medium food as joy and food as function. Because when I became pregnant, I did start thinking, well, like, it’s not just what I’m eating because it tastes good. It’s what am I eating? Because it gives me energy and nourishment. And so that was really like, these layers of inflection points that added up to now I really have my why for starting a business. And yeah, that’s splendid spoon with Ben’s splendid spoon was born.

Kara Goldin 11:09
So did you start in New York City? I mean, is that kind of how you, you know, and what was the first steps? Like how did you get the word out about what you were doing? And what were the first actual products?

Nicole Centeno 11:21
Yeah, so when, at sort of like inflection point to when I was just like, doing pop ups and all of that, that that’s what I consider sort of like my earliest market research, and consumer research, because I have pop up at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, where I had a tent and I made two soups. Every weekend, one was a meat based stew, very, like classic French training, like a crock of n or like a rabbit stew. And then I made a vegan suit. And I noticed that my regulars were all coming for the vegan Zoo. So it seemed like a pattern we’re following. And that was, you know, when I became pregnant, it was okay. Yeah. Like, this is the thing that is going to generate an actual audience for me. And I mean, when you say how I’m like, I don’t even know where to begin. I am so not a planner. Like, I am very motivated by mission and conviction that I can get things done if I have real conviction around what it is I’m driving toward. So the first steps were honestly just like making the product, like how do I make the product? How do I make it at scale? And I think that has driven consistently even today was splendid spoon, a real prioritization of the quality and the taste of the product comes really like from that starting point. Well, the

Kara Goldin 12:58
products are absolutely delicious. So you’ve done. Yeah, you’ve done an incredible job. How did you get the word out? about it?

Nicole Centeno 13:06
Oh, yeah, that was that was your other question. How did we get the word out? We did a lot of press. I mean, I think from my media background, I did see that what people connect to is stories. People remember stories, people remember other human stories, people remember stories that remind them about who they are or what they’re aspiring to. And so I really leaned into that. And one of the initial stories that people were interested in was a soup plants because I was making these soups. I really, when I launched splendid spoon, I focused entirely on these plant based soups. And this was at a time when juicing was popular, but sort of like starting to lose its shine because most of the juices were so high in sugar and didn’t have fiber and people were very uncomfortable doing days and juice fasting. So I had a lot of customers who were asking for like a suit cleanse. And so I created one for those customers. And that was very interesting to the press. This alternative to like a phenomenon that had really taken over that potentially, this was something new. And that was that was definitely one of the big launching pads for us was a hook that the press was interested in.

Kara Goldin 14:36
Well, I think PR has always been I mean, we launched hints 17 years ago and I still say to this day, I mean sharing the story and how people you know really tried us for the first time because they heard my founding story of founding it in my kitchen and trying to get off of you know these diet sweeteners and and when I shared my why in the press, that was way more More powerful than we couldn’t afford to do advertising, right? I mean, for us, it was like, you know, I always believed in frequency of, you know, ads to if we were going to do it, we would really couldn’t just do one. So. So that was we definitely had a PR strategy and a sampling strategy as well to get the word out about what we were doing and, and also word of mouth. I mean, it sounds like a lot of people told other people about what you were doing. And that was kind of the beginnings of it. So splendid spoon today offers a array of options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And you can expect in a couple of days, you’re shipping nationwide, right? Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, we ship all over the US. What’s been the most surprising thing that you’ve encountered and starting and growing your own business?

Nicole Centeno 15:52
Well, I mean, I do think kind of going back to kick common, but I hadn’t like I don’t, I’m not really like a planner. You know, I mean, I think that is, I am still shocked. What I’ve been able to do, like, I’m so deeply grateful that I get to do what I do every day, like, this is my dream, I get to nourish people, I get to play with food, I get to taste all sorts of flavors from across the spectrum of flavors that are available globally, and turn that into experiences that make people’s lives easier and healthier. Like that’s an amazing gig that I have. And it does still surprise me it feels a little bit like magic that like being very mission driven, being very focused on what it is that I think is important for my customers. That’s really like the most consistent thing. Like the plans always change, the team has evolved. And it is surprising to me, I’m hard on myself about like not always, often having things doing things wrong, like most of the experience is feeling like I’m doing things wrong. But what has been writing has been staying very focused on what my customer needs. And that is sort of radical and shocking to me that that is the North Star that keeps us going and has gotten us as far as it has.

Kara Goldin 17:21
When you were starting. Obviously, this was your first business that you were starting and you I can’t say that you didn’t have any experience because you had business experience. But this was your first company that you were starting, do you think you doubted yourself that you could actually do it,

Nicole Centeno 17:36
I didn’t really think that it would become what it has become. I kind of had like very near term goals of like, let’s just see if this works out. Like, let’s see if Sure. Like people seem to want our soups as part of like a reset experience versus having it as like a healthy lunch. So Okay, let’s listen to my customer. Let’s see if I merchandise it that way. If it works. And, um, you know, I think that that has always has actually helped quite a bit because instead of having this like huge lofty goal that I feel like I’m never quite achieving or attaining in a specific period of time, I’ve been able to focus on like, Okay, let’s see if this works. Like let’s see if this initiative catches up with our customers. And let’s let that inform what the next step is. Because, you know, when I think back about the earliest days, and even pitching like seed, and friends and family, the goal was really more to be a product on the shelves in grocery stores. Yeah. And if I had stayed laser focused on that, the business wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t been open to other signals from my market. When it’s been would not be here, we had to make a very big pivot into direct consumer, which is now what we’re here. So I think it’s, you know, that flexibility on the long term goal has actually been quite helpful for me.

Kara Goldin 19:17
So the last couple of years have been nuts for everyone. So how has your business changed? I always called D Day was or D month was March 2020. I think for many businesses. I mean, what how has your business changed?

Nicole Centeno 19:32
It was a very intense time for me professionally and personally. My daughter was born March 13 2020. Wow. Yeah, I know. So like, on March 12. My husband came in and he was like, so Tom Hanks has COVID Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the race. And the NBA has shut down.

Kara Goldin 19:52
Yeah, I mean, I remember I was in New York City on March 13. Then the bridges and tunnels were Yeah, you know, close to closing down. I mean, it was it was insane. Yeah,

Nicole Centeno 20:02
it was really, it was definitely like, out of body kind of experience, and especially having my daughter on 13 was like, wild. And we had been planning our series B at that time. So, for us, it was a really critical decision to pause that capital raise so that we could focus on operating, we have spent our series a timeframe, pushing the business into profitability. And so we made the decision to continue focusing on the foundational elements of the business and turn really inward, both from a team perspective and the support that we believed our team really needed. And a product perspective and the product that we believe that our customers really needed, instead of going external and saying, well, we need to be here in two years. So like, we need to bring in this resource. Like, I think that’s another example of saying, the long term or even medium term is shifting right now. So what can we focus on that is going to make an impact that is on brand and on mission for splendid spoon?

Kara Goldin 21:21
Yeah, what did you do then?

Nicole Centeno 21:22
So yeah, so we focused on the products that we thought our customers needed, both from like Merchandising, and digital perspective, as well as from a food perspective. So we launched some new products, we focused on creating stock up or bulk buying options for our customers, because at the time customers trying to go to the grocery store to stock up was no longer an option. And we were able to create digital and food products that now are really important to our customers, and, you know, complementing our subscription business with an on demand business, complementing our core food program with breakfast, lunch, and dinner with things like shots, and juices and functional beverages that could be helpful in between, and we’re focused on, you know, antioxidants and powering your immune system. So those ended up and those are important drivers for the brand and for for business growth now. So I mean, there was that period, and then we’re in the period now where the ad landscape has changed pretty significantly. And the way that we work to acquire our customers is like, completely differently. So it’s kind of the name of the game, I’ve not had a year where I’m like, Oh, this is exactly as I predicted it to be. And, ya

Kara Goldin 22:47
know, it’s it’s so it’s so true. And frankly, I think the beauty of luck, I think that the advantage of of being the the founder, and the person that has started the company and being able to kind of bend and weave and through this crazy trail, you just figure it out. Right? It’s not it’s not a, it’s not an option. And to not be able to figure it out, it might take you a little bit longer, but you have to figure out how to move forward more than anything else.

Nicole Centeno 23:19
Yes, definitely. Definitely. And being driven by a value system, you know, I mean, I think that’s a big part of it. It’s like our big goals are not like tangible things. It’s like, are we connecting to our customers with products that we’re proud of? That genuinely makes their life easier? And then all the rest of it is just rolling up your sleeves?

Kara Goldin 23:40
Yeah, no, absolutely. And being able to just get it done. What do you think is like the toughest business lessons you’ve learned?

Nicole Centeno 23:48
It’s always been challenging with giving things up. You know, you sort of hear that as a cliche. And you’re like, oh, no, I’m like, totally ready to give that up. I’m, like, totally ready to grow my team and relinquish responsibilities that were way too many hats. But the practical experience of it like how it actually manifests when you’re then like, rolling up your sleeves with new team members is that there is a muscle memory to just doing, like continuing to do the doing, and it does require a lot of discipline to step back.

Kara Goldin 24:30
Definitely. And do you feel like this consumer has changed significantly?

Nicole Centeno 24:35
I don’t think the consumer has changed significantly. I think more people have become this consumer. I think everyone really is sold that food is preventative care. I don’t think there are many people out there who don’t who really don’t believe that anymore. I think there’s just a lot of noise and confusion about how to do it. and how to do it in a way that tastes good and is really satisfying.

Kara Goldin 25:05
Yeah, it’s so true. And I think today, more than ever, I think people are, I would say that there are more of these consumers that are becoming your type of consumer because health has become such a focus for everyone. I mean, you know, a few years ago, and prior to COVID, I mean, I would talk to people about Hinton while people enjoyed our product tent, they would say, you know, I guess I like it too, because it’s healthy for me, but I really dislike it because it tastes great. And it keeps me you know, hydrated today, the word, it helps me stay healthy, comes up like it’s top of mind for everyone, right? And whether you believe in vaccines, or mass or anything, I think everyone wants to stay healthy. No one wants to get sick, and how do you get there? And I think more and more people are finding products like canned products like yours as well, that are, you know, definitely ways for people to kind of take control of it in an easy and simple way. So one of the things that I always ask guests is to share a story where you’ve had some kind of challenge along the way, some kind of failure, where you ultimately, hopefully, were able to get over the hump or we wouldn’t have you here today. But also, you know that you learned a lot of lessons maybe about yourself, maybe about, you know, business, and I’d love to hear a little more from you. Sure.

Nicole Centeno 26:41
I know like which one. I know, right? There is one that was particularly painful. I found I found the failures, early failures to feel more intense. Like we’ve got failures all day, every day, that’s kind of how we function is like failure is signal. But in the early days, it feels personal. And there was a account that I took on, during the time that I was raising my seed, my series seed, I was also pregnant with my second son at the time. And I really wanted to prove to my investors, I was pitching to growth. And so I took on a wholesale account that was not really aligned with where I wanted to bring the brand, but it meant a good amount of volume. And so it was a co branded sort of like soup product for a food delivery business in Philadelphia. And because I was raising and because I was pregnant, I had a very small team at the kitchen. And I chose to delegate this wholesale project to them. And everything had to be packed up, frozen, and then shipped out to Philadelphia. And when I got a call that it had arrived, and the beet soup had exploded in transit, not good. And, you know, my initial response was, I was so mad, the kitchen team, they hadn’t done it right. And then my next response was anger at myself, because I hadn’t given them the right process. And I had been really specific in my instructions on how to make sure to take temperature like at the center of the palette, before sending it out. And you know, just generally I was deeply, deeply saddened and like disappointed that this stretch goal that I had created to help me with this other project had then distracted me from my core project. And in the midst of my pregnancy, I went down to Philadelphia to try and correct the relationship and like make good on the portal. And I got a call that my lead investor that I thought I was going to close was not going to invest. So, you know, it was like a really, really hard lesson for me about a lot of different things. And I look at that as a time where I had a voice in me that was like this is too much. This is too much for you. These are signals that you should stop. And when I reflected on it, it was really not it’s too much for you. It was just too much period. Yeah. It was just choosing to say yes to too many things all at the same time. And that was what saved me, ultimately was the permission to say no. At a time when I thought that everything was life or death, I thought saying no men like potentially shutting off your Yeah, an opportunity. And that could mean sudden death for splendid spoon. And realizing it wasn’t too much for me, it was just like too much period helped me to really step back and say no, to more, it’s still, you know, and that was eight years ago, I still have to have that conversation with myself. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 30:57
yeah. Well, still

Nicole Centeno 30:58
on your mind.

Kara Goldin 31:00
Yeah, I mean, you think how great it would be to be this much bigger. And but you know, I think you touched on quality too, that if you can, if you’re going so fast, that you sort of lose track of, you know, the experience, the quality, whatever that is to, or if you end up, you know, losing money. I mean, in our case, I talk a lot about the challenge of, we’ve had a lot of challenges over the years, but one of the challenges was in 2008 2009, when, you know, the world was shutting down, and the financial markets were terrible. And we weren’t going to be able to raise money. And one of our major retailers said to us, the only way that they were going to stay alive was for us to give them free product. And so we had to, you know, make a decision as to whether or not we were going to stay in that, you know, major store that was probably 40% of our overall business, or say no, and we said now, you know, didn’t make sense for us. And we were just like, slow down. And everybody said, You’re crazy. We watched all of our, you know, colleagues, competitors, doing those deals, and you know, what those businesses aren’t around today. And in the end, we were out of that major store for a couple of weeks. And then they call this back and they said, Okay, we really want you guys back in. So hold your hold your grounds, right, and don’t do dumb things and stay with quality. All of those things, I think are our major things. But we learn lessons, right, we learn how brave we can be, we learn how, you know, when you take your eye off the ball. That’s the other thing that I got out of your story, too, that you can really, lots of things start to crumble. So anyway, amazing, amazing journey and lessons and experience. And so looking back on your journey thus far, what’s been your favorite part? You touched on this a little bit, but I mean, just the being able to get consumers healthy and know that you’re doing you’re on the right side of things where that anything? Yeah,

Nicole Centeno 33:15
I mean, hearing my customers stories, and hearing how we make a difference in their health and in accessing healthy food that they really enjoy. And that’s really easy. Like it never gets cold. Yeah, that is I agree. Really, really, really

Kara Goldin 33:33
special. Yeah, no, I totally, I totally hear you. And I bet your stories are keep those stories because it’s important, you know, to be able to have those and maybe one day you’ll write those stories down into a book like I did, because it’s definitely is it keeps you going especially when you have hard things that happen along the way. And definitely those the consumer stories are everything so so well. This is so great in a call. So where do people find splendid spoon? Can you just share it?

Nicole Centeno 34:05
Of course so splendid spoon is direct to consumer so you can find us splendid We’re also splendid up spoon on Instagram. And like you mentioned, we have all of the meals throughout the day breakfast smoothies, green bowls, Noodle Bowls, soups, juices, shots, and everything is totally ready to eat. So zero prep ready for you to go. As soon as it arrives at your doorstep.

Kara Goldin 34:34
You have a great Instagram account too. So it’s lots of fun things. Very, very cool. Well, thank you again, Nicole, and thanks everyone for listening. We are here every Monday Wednesday and soon adding Friday as well. Don’t forget to subscribe so you hear from incredible founders and CEOs like Nicole and give this episode of five star rating to it really does help the algorithm and And if you have not tried splendid spoon yet, please do so. And also grab some hands while you’re at it too. And if you haven’t had a chance to pick up a copy of my book, I hope you’ll do that as well. It’s called undaunted, overcoming doubts and doubters. And thank you, Nicole. Again, thank you, everybody for listening and have a great week. Thank you so much. 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 eye 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