Simon Sacal: Founder & CEO of Solely

Episode 458

Simon Sacal, Founder and CEO of Solely, was determined to revolutionize the way we enjoy dried fruit snacks. The incredibly clean, high-quality dried fruit snacks are unique and delicious and we hear all about how Simon is disrupting this category successfully. We dig in to hear more about how he tackled creating the brand, how he has scaled it and all of the wisdom he has gained along the way. This interview is inspiring and I know that you will be glad you listened. Now on #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 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’m so excited to have my next guest. He is a foodie, and a yummy, yummy, yummy, savory snack food called solely we have Simon Sacal here, who is the founder and CEO of this incredible, incredible brand. He has an unwavering passion for delicious, high quality fruit snacks. And that is what ended up starting this incredible, incredible path that he has created. Actually, we’ll get into sort of that backstory, which actually started with a previous company at the ripe old age of 19 years old, I loved that part of his story. And he has really revolutionized this category and dried fruit snacks and just absolutely love what Simon is doing. And more than anything, his unwavering commitment to excellence paired with this innovative approach to flavor profiles, and sustainable sourcing is just incredible. And definitely is something that I think is what all food companies should be doing trying to figure out how they can do things just a little bit better and take that extra time to do that. And Simon has really proven that it is possible to do it and still create an incredible product that really tastes absolutely yummy. So I’m going to be quiet now. And let Simon do all the talking. So welcome, Simon.

Simon Sacal 2:20
Thank you. Thank you. It’s such an honor to be here. Thank you for this warm introduction. And I’m excited.

Kara Goldin 2:28
Very, very excited to have you here. So before we get into hearing about soli and your journey as an entrepreneur, Where did the name solely come from? Well, it

Simon Sacal 2:38
has a literal meaning. It means only it’s an adverb. So it’s solely and then the ingredients so so this is an idea of how to make really clean food indulgent and portable. So that’s how it all started. And the whole name of having solely an ingredient which was started with mangoes, so it was solely mango. So it’s solely made out of mangoes, so he made solely pineapple. So that’s what it means. People don’t use it out of context. So sometimes it’s more of a thing that people find out when you find out and if you know, you know, but but once you get it, it’s Oh, it means only, of course.

Kara Goldin 3:24
So I’d love to hear about you and your early years did you think that you would actually become an entrepreneur and a food entrepreneur and the fruit snack business doing everything that you’re doing around sustainable sourcing and and everything that is so awesome about your company?

Simon Sacal 3:44
We did, I did know that I was going to become an entrepreneur because I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years. And it’s always been my company and with my brothers and my family. And I knew that I wanted to do it. What I didn’t know is how long the path is. And there was a stage where I didn’t want to go with branded product or consumer products. But we’ve we’ve been in the food industry since we started more than 20 years ago and and we love the industry and we know that this is what we know how to do and this is what we love.

Kara Goldin 4:30
That’s terrific. So why is your brand so unique? How would you describe it to people who have never had weren’t familiar with was solely

Simon Sacal 4:41
so solely is a very unique approach to to making things different. So we we understand that food has to be very indulgent to be a big deal I we don’t believe In non indulgent, good for you products, we think, first of all it has to it has to taste amazing because it’s full, and in any snacks. So that’s number one. And second, we we believe that better for you could be a step in the way, but it’s still a bit deceiving because you can change one ingredient so from sugar to organic sugar or to a retro sola to and say it better which it could be better, but I think food should be good for you and go that means nutrient dense with ingredients that we’ve eaten as humans, for the whole history of human beings, and it has to be clean. So having those two together is is easier said than done. Because if you want to go to too sweet snacks, the only way you can do clean and indulgent is through fruit. Because in nature, the only way you find aside from honey, the only way that you find like true sweetness is through fruit. But working with fruit is very, very difficult. So we had to develop the whole in vertical supply chain, just in order to get to solely so that’s why we’ve been doing this for so long.

Kara Goldin 6:30
While 20 years speaking from from a nother entrepreneur over here, founder as well. Hint is is not too far off of you. So it’s it does always take longer than you ever thought, right in order to get traction, you also really developed a category within the fruit snack group too. So how would you describe it to people kind of what you’ve done. I mean, it’s it really is savory. For people, it’s not just the fruit and it sort of, in many ways I think kind of fools fools the brain a little bit, you want to think that you’re going to be having something sweet. But then when you add the salt to it. And spices and other thing, great things that you’ve done, I think it it’s a pleasurable experience for for the mind and for the palate.

Simon Sacal 7:24
So so we do have sweet and savory we have both and, and we the way we got here is that we started, we understood that the only way to have massive price on a fruit product is to go directly to the source. Because if you have so many intermediaries, especially on candling fruits and vegetables, that the product gets out of control, the cost cuts out of control. And that’s where you have to start adding a lot of sugar and things just to balance it out a bit. So and then we also understood that if you weren’t going to do a one ingredient or two ingredient product, or even three, you have to source the best fruit ever. So the only way to do those two things was going with farmers and starting working with them to understand what are their challenges, how can we source this perfect fruit every day? And how can we now we have a massive operation. But how can we start with a little bit and know that every mango that we’re processing or every pineapple that we’re processing, it’s The Sweetest, right best, most beautiful pineapple and the only way is to control the source. So first is working with the farmers and working with them, to turn them organic to to eliminate waste completely by buying 100% of the fruit and to get them to better yields. And that’s a big process that takes time. Second, Cara we developed and patented our own technologies because there’s a lot of technologies in the market to go from shelf stable products like flour and sugar and to finished product but but to go from fresh to package product. without adding anything else. We needed to invent technologies. And we developed all this. We have three different families of patents with different processes to process the fruits and vegetables to get to the product. We then build our own machinery. And then the other stepping stone is now you have to manufacture it because if you’re sourcing it and you have their own technology, we have two manufacturing so we have a three manufacturing facilities in Mexico and one in Costa Rica. And the reason they’re there is because we’re so sourcing all the tropical fruits. And that’s how that’s how we have something completely different in the market because we can offer someone that no one else does. Because we have the technology we have the sourcing and it’s a completely different solution. So in terms of the product we have, we have four different lines of products that are somewhat similar but but enough different to be completely in line. So we have like the fruit jerky or you know, you know, but we have the fruit jerky. So this for example is one whole organic mango. That’s the only ingredient here. And the interesting part is, you can see the mango you can see the bits of mango, you can smell the mango, and it’s very very indulgent. It’s very well priced to be an organic fruit that’s portable. And it tastes amazing. So you have that’s why we have one of the highest repeat rates in the category. That’s why we’re the highest growing organic fruit snack in the country. Because it it really solves a big a big deal for for young moms or for people who want to take care of themselves because they want to have something indulgent and sweet and that tastes good. But also extremely clean. So we put all those together and this is the free jerky and this is a product that you were referring to for example, this is more on the savory side. So it has three ingredients it has pineapple, and it has chili, dried chili and salt. So you have three ingredients. And you can see that chili and salt and it’s very, very portable. And it’s it’s very indulgent. And we have like nine skills we have full pineapple we have some drizzled with cacao, we have combinations like paper, pineapple and coconut. And this is a great solution and it was the way we launched almost four years ago with Sony and then we have the other line is our governments which is an amazing product. I don’t know if you’ve tried it if not, I’ll send you as many samples as you want. So this is a gummy made out of only organic fruit. This one has organic fruit and vitamin C it can be done without vitamin C as well. But you have the gummy texture and it comes in little baggies as any fruits amazing. And look you have a texture. So this is how it looks. And you have like the kami texture that bounce. But it’s only organic fruit. So a normal or conventional fruit snack. Most of them don’t even have fruit or they play with with ingredients to save for a dispersed ingredient but it’s juices and this is just made out of organic fruit. And it tastes amazing and it’s it’s a great product for children to take to school and it’s an amazing technology.

Kara Goldin 13:35
That’s awesome. That’s the newest product

Simon Sacal 13:37
in the fruit snack bite. Yes because the other part is we do some dried fruits we have dried fruit, normal dried fruit and some specialty dried fruit. So we have for example, we have this mango that is drizzled with 100% cacao dark chocolate. So you have two ingredients you have mango and sugar and cacao. But it’s extremely indulgent. Because you have the chocolate that then you can and we also do the we have the best quality in organic dried fruit in the country because we are the largest producer of organic tropical dried fruit are one of the largest in the world. So we have all these capacity and the best goes to solely and we have very good prices and product. And then the last line that we have is we have a pasture line, which is a bit of the spectrum and we did it just to do some tests with one of our biggest retailers and we have two products. This is a spaghetti squash that you cook in three minutes. It’s only spaghetti squash. And we have we have green banana pasta. The only ingredient here is organic green banana. And this has a texture of a regular pasta. It’s savory. It’s it’s an amazing, amazing solution because you We’re having pasta, but in reality, you’re eating a green banana, which is more like a vegetable. So both are very interesting. And the company is a lot more about fruit than anything else. So those two products are also fruits. But we’re stronger in the fruit side than in the past with the other three technologies.

Kara Goldin 15:28
That’s so interesting. So how do you come up with these innovations? I mean, you, you mentioned that one of your customers asked you to potentially come up with something in that category is that typical?

Simon Sacal 15:43
So it is it is because they, they, a lot of our retail partners know how deep we can go in innovation. And we have a very good relationship with relationships. And that’s, that’s part of it. So sometimes innovation comes from a retailer, or or our marketing side saying, we need this packaging, or we need this flavor or, or something sometimes one of my brothers, Gabrielle, he manages the whole Mexico operation, and also r&d. And he has an amazing r&d team. So he’s always innovating there. And he brings a lot of amazing things that we that we start working on. So it’s, it’s both sides, our r&d team develops ideas, marketing develops ideas, and we were very consumer centric. So either through the retailer or through market analysis, and that’s how we get to these innovations.

Kara Goldin 16:54
So I’d love to hear you had a previous company prior to the solely brand, I should say, can you talk a little bit about the evolution of kind of how you spoke briefly about your brothers and and being involved in the business too. But I’d love to kind of hear from the beginning. How did this start? And what were you focused on? How has that focused really changed?

Simon Sacal 17:18
Yeah, so I have two brothers. They’re my co founders. We, Gabriele manages all the Mexico while all the operation part, and part of the r&d, and Alejandro manages all the sourcing and works with the farmers and among other things, but he mainly does. And we work together as a team. And we’ve been doing this for a very, very long time. And the story begins more than 20 years ago, it’s a very, very long story. But just very fast. We we invented a technology to make fat free potato chips 20 years ago, when, as you may remember not but all that everything. The definition of healthy was the amount of fat in the product. I don’t ever remember the aisles everywhere that it was either low fat, reduced fat, nonfat, etc, etc. So any category from yogurt to chips to everything was around how much fatty CAD and, and this technology was sort of sort of the holy grail because it was a fat free potato chip without any chemicals. It was a physical process. And that’s how we started. The market ended up changing a lot in the 2010 fairly with Atkins coming in. And a lot of things happen there. We ended up spinning off part of the company to create solely a and we started solely Not, not with a branded I, as I told you at the beginning, I didn’t want to come back to branded from the experience with the with the staff, the snacks, which has beverage, as you know, is one of the hardest categories because DSD is huge. So I didn’t want to come back to that. So we the way we started working with fruits is because the Mexican government needed a solution to give fruit to children in lunchbox programs Cara because in Mexico, it’s a lot more difficult to distribute fresh fruits to schools because there are a lot of rural schools which don’t have a lot of access to roads or refrigeration or even running water. So the government needed a solution to give fruit without really giving fresh fruit. So we ended up developing a Technology is that we happen to make little bars out of apples without adding anything. And without losing nutrients, which is an amazing technology. And that’s how we started fruit x, then that’s the part that led many years later to slowly. And that’s how we started working with fruits and vegetables.

Kara Goldin 20:23
So interesting. So it’s solely actually as a brand, what year was that, that you guys actually started really growing that.

Simon Sacal 20:32
So it was, as you were saying, like, an overnight success is an oversight, nine success to many people, but it takes years and years. And so solely as a brand, the first time that we that we started looking at the technology to make this specifically this one, this pineapple, it was around 2014 that we were working with that technology 2014 2006 15. And then we we were in Mexico, I was living in Mexico at the time, and we started with Starbucks, we made a test in Mexico with that technology and a bar, it wasn’t a fruit jerky. It was a like a fruit bar. And packaged as a bar. And we launched that in Mexico in 2016. And that’s, that’s the first time that the soli brand was around. It was a very different product than this. And then they hired lunch. And then I moved at the end of 2018 to San Diego to focus the company on solely. And the hard launch was at the end of 2019. So it’s been four years, almost four years, that since we launched solely in the US.

Kara Goldin 22:00
How did you get the word out about solely in the early days? I mean, you had gone from you had lots of partnerships that sounds like with retailers, because you had been meeting with them, some of them you had worked with them. But how did you get the word out to consumers that you were doing what you were doing.

Simon Sacal 22:21
So I’m not sure that we have gotten the word out yet. I think it’s been a process and we have the the big thing, to me is having an amazing product that solves a very real problem to consumers. And that’s that was part number one. And then once a retailer, a national retailer recognizes that you have something like this, and this card launch was with whole foods in 2019 Then you start you start putting it on people’s mouths and that that is the important thing, people finding the product and trying it. So mainly what we’ve done is done some TPRS promotions not even very, very aggressive, but so people try the product. And we instead of doing boxes of this product, we started selling them by unit which lowers the bar in terms of how much do you have to spend to try the product. So by doing that, people have been trying the product for the last three to four years and and they come back and back because there is no substitution there’s there’s another there’s other food products in many ways and they’re very good products but there’s no one is doing this that starts from fresh without diluting with other fruit based without the from going from a fresh whole fruit and an organic cold fresh fruit and processing this way to have this aroma these days. So once people understand this exists, they come back and we’ve been seeing this a lot and I’m very thankful for that. And that is that is that is a reality and that is how we’ve been doing this

Kara Goldin 24:29
it’s such a great quality product to it’s you’ve done an amazing job So thinking back on you know the the early years maybe it’s even before slowly but where you felt like gosh this is so hard I don’t know why we’re in this business you know we were we need to just throw in the towel what was like the hardest thing that you’ve run into as you’ve been growing the business?

Simon Sacal 24:55
I still I still think about God sometimes even if you Even though they’re growing so much, and we’re, we’re being a lot, a lot more successful, but it still feels like that I think if an entrepreneur doesn’t feel that that is happening, they’re in a completely different stage. Of course, we know people love the product, we know that this is successful right now, which is great. But it still feels hard. We’ve had a lot of big things but and you’re asking me before, so live before solely, the first time Kira that we tried this fat free potato chips, for example, at a supermarket, it was at Walmart. And this was, like 15 years ago or so it was a long time ago. But we started having a lot of success. We were selling a lot of product, it was selling very fast. And then we we started finding that the product was out of the shelf completely. And we started understanding that there were DSD companies that are category captains and control the shelves. This was in Mexico and 15 years ago, but even if the product is successful, you needed a lot more muscle and strength to be at the at the shelf. So that realization, it was very difficult because it was not only about the product, or the or the marketing or the experience, it was about pushing the product through to the consumer. And that by that one of the days that I said it is completely out of our reach. And, and that’s why we didn’t want to come back to consumer branded products. And we started doing this lunchbox programs. First we had some private label with other products also, before going back to Brandon, because when the product market fit is so good. You have to go you have to do it. And I am very happy we decided to do that. But it was we’ve had so many moments where we’ve thought about this is so difficult.

Kara Goldin 27:25
Yeah, no. And it is it’s it’s way more difficult than then I think most consumers or people that are not in this industry even realized, I think that there’s there’s many, many moments, I always love to ask this question. When I talk to entrepreneurs, when you look at your company, and all you’ve done over the last 20 years. Maybe you close your eyes and thinking about the brand that you’ve built, what are you most proud of? Like when you think when somebody says, Simon, like you’ve really done it. And I always think like maybe there’s something that you just haven’t even had a chance to really talk about it. Like, for example, I’ll give you an example with him. Years ago, when we were trying to find somebody to produce our product. Everybody told us that you have to use preservatives and the product, and you can’t use real fruit and put it into a bottle and have it be shelf stable without using preservatives. And I kept I came from tech and didn’t wasn’t in the food industry. And I just said why? And no one could answer. And I always learned like if people can’t answer your question, they there’s a pretty good shot that they don’t know. Right? They just you know, they kept avoiding the answer. And so I kept asking why. And I kept and I couldn’t hear it. And so finally we found one co packer who said, I don’t know. And I said, Well, what about if we try heat? And we like you’re a juice manufacturer? So is there any way we can run a water and he said, I’ve never run a water on the bottling plant before I always do juice and I said well, can you and he said probably I’ve just never done it. And so I said can we try if I bring some water in and try and see if we can do it. And so that actually changed for the entire industry. How shelf stable water products using fruit are produced. And it’s not part of our brand. It’s something that we did as it as part of the industry but I’m very proud of it.

Simon Sacal 29:46
I can relate a lot to that. We we that that’s the way we develop all this technologies and processes and asking why and trying and trying a Again, and again, I deeply relate to that. And I’m very proud of a few things. One is how, how much we’re changing the planet and the environment. And the fire farmers lives by buying 100% of every crop, because that means that there is no waste. Usually, there’s 20 to 30% waste, just at harvest, and then another 25 to 30 Watt distribution logistics. So that means that we’re using exactly the same resources to manufacture more than twice as much calories on the with the same water with the same labor with the same everything. And that really, at scale, changes the world. And we do now have some scale, we manufacture more than 200 metric tons, we process more than 200 metric tons of fresh fruit every day. So it’s a lot of product. And that, that idea, we started with a novice well, because the whole industry set up so you buy from the guys who buy from all the small ones, and just deliver. So no one wants to touch this dirty part. And a lot of companies talk about it, and they say they do. But in reality going to the farm and doing it is, is very hard. And it it’s a relationship with people, and it’s you have to have their trust, and they have to trust you and and it’s it’s a symbiotic thing, that it really changes the world. Because all these instead of having waste, you’re having an organic fruit consumed, consumed by children. So it’s a huge, huge deal. And where I’m also very proud of giving this solution to moms specifically because I have three small kids, three young kids and I have everyone is pushing moms and dads as well, but everyone is pushing to give them cleaner things. Everything healthier. And there’s not no really very good alternatives. You have to close a knife to most of the alternatives. There are in the market either. It’s not very indulgent, and you have to push kids to eat it and, and you can do it so far. You cannot do it every day in the car going to the ballet lesson. You need something extremely indulgent so people, children ask for it. And then on the other side, they there’s so much deceiving Michael marketing and cleaners and ingredients. And that going so simple. It’s so difficult that they solely promise of not adding sugar, not adding preservatives not adding anything but that whole fresh organic fruit is so difficult. And but when you have those two together paired with a with a fair price, it really solves a big problem for us as parents and for for everyone that needs something like that, because everyone says that they want healthier things like all these. I think that all these market research data is just ridiculous because everyone says of course they want healthier, but they but they don’t have the full story when you ask them. And if it’s not paired with the other two, if it’s not, first of all healthy in reality, it’s not just an idea of saying this is cleaner, but you turn it around and it’s not or whatever happens or it’s extremely expensive or it’s not indulgent, then you’re not giving the right solution. And to do that we needed to build all the sourcing all these technologies, all this manufacturing facilities, and then build the brand. So I’m very proud of that as well to really bring that solution. without compromise without trying to say yes, but it has a little bit, but it’s uncompromised. No, it’s

Kara Goldin 35:09
absolutely terrific. Well, Simon, I wish we had more time. You are absolutely terrific. And everyone needs to definitely try soli. If they haven’t, we’ll have all the information in the show notes as well. But Simon McCall founder and CEO of soli, thank you so much. And it was such a pleasure to finally meet you and also learn from you and you’re doing amazing, terrific things. So thank you.

Simon Sacal 35:37
Thank you. Thank you so much. It was amazing. It was great to meet you.

Kara Goldin 35:42
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. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen. Or pick up a copy of my book on daunted which I share my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And thanks everyone for listening. Have a great rest of the week, and 2023 and good bye 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 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