Vanessa Phillips: Co-Founder & CEO of Feel Good Foods

Episode 511

In this episode, Kara Goldin interviews Vanessa Phillips, who is the Co-Founder and CEO of Feel Good Foods, a company that's all about shaking up the frozen food game with their lineup of gluten-free and all-natural snacks and meals. Inspired by her own experience with celiac disease, Vanessa set out to create gluten-free versions of her favorite foods. The company's flagship product, pot stickers, became a hit and led to the expansion of their snack and appetizer line. Vanessa discusses the challenges of launching a CPG brand and the importance of patience and discipline. She also highlights the value of consumer feedback, the development of new products and the importance of a strong team. Feel Good Foods is delicious and I can’t wait for you to listen to the 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 I’m so excited to have my next guest. Here we have Vanessa Phillips, who is the co founder and CEO of Feel Good Foods and Feel Good Foods, if you’re not familiar with it is shaking up the frozen food game with their lineup of gluten free and all natural snacks and meals. And her mission started from a very personal place dealing with celiac disease, and she wanted to whip up some tasty treats in order to be able to eat great food. And so she did it. And she did it super well. Teaming up with Chef Triq Seaver Sen. Vanessa has taken feelgood foods from a small startup to a big player in the natural foods space. And you definitely need to know about it for sure all the quality transparency and pushing the envelope. Everything that great entrepreneurs do is exhibited by Vanessa. So I’m thrilled that she agreed to come on the show. So Vanessa, welcome.

Vanessa Phillips 1:46
Thank you. I’m happy to chat.

Kara Goldin 1:49
Very excited. So talk to me a little bit about first of all, what inspired you to start Feel Good Foods, I gave everybody a tiny snippet, but I’d love to hear the story from you.

Vanessa Phillips 2:02
Yeah, of course. I grew up in New York City. And growing up my family owned restaurants throughout Manhattan. They owned bagel shops and Chinese restaurants. And from a very early age, I loved food and I ate at my dad’s restaurants a lot. So I ate a lot of bagels as a kid. I’m very New York of me, I a lot of Chinese food. My favorite was dumplings and egg rolls. And as I got older, I started developing just like a wide range of kind of like unexplained symptoms. It felt like everything I was eating was making me feel sick. And it wasn’t gastro issues. It was like a lot of really random, weird symptoms like tingling, and my hands and feet. Brain fog, just feeling tired all the time waking up after 10 hours of sleep, exhausted tons of burning and numbing sensations. So I you know, it was a really long journey. But when I was 20, I was finally diagnosed with celiac disease. And that was just that took me on a journey of refusing to give up the foods that I loved and that I had been eating throughout my life. And I started researching, obviously living a gluten free life and what that was going to look like for me. And then it turned into finding foods that I could eat again, and a gluten free version, and falling in love with food again, but in a much healthier way. And once I brought those foods back into my life, it would just my destiny was very clear. I had to bring those foods to everyone else. I wanted to like scream from the rooftops that I had figured out how to have these foods again and share it with other gluten free people.

Kara Goldin 3:57
Well, and you’ve done it super, super well. So what was the first SKU that you launched with?

Vanessa Phillips 4:05
potstickers so the gluten free potstickers were our flagship product. I so like I said, My dad owned all these Chinese restaurants and creating a gluten free potsticker and is no easy task. But when I went gluten free like that was that was the first order of business was to figure out how to be able to eat a potsticker again, and it was years and years and years of r&d. I mean we we would try it and then it didn’t work and then we’d have to go back to the drawing board and try it again. And it was really, really hard to do. And when we finally came up with a product that we thought was, you know, really like held its own against the plastic are made with wheat. I put them in a Ziploc bag. I had absolutely no experience around CPG or Manufacturing at the time, I was actually running my restaurant outside the Chelsea Market in Manhattan, and I kind of just had this crazy idea to send potstickers to Whole Foods thinking that I would never hear back. I remember going to FedEx and typing up how I would prepare them. I had like a mock up of what the packaging would look like if we were actually were to like launch and retail. And I sent it off to Whole Foods. And two weeks later, they emailed us and they said that it was great and tasted great. And they were going to launch us in 27 stores. And it was three skews. It was the vegetable, chicken and pork. And that was our start.

Kara Goldin 5:48
That’s wild. I read that story. That’s such a crazy story. I read I love. I love these stories, how people get into their first store. It’s like such a it’s so awesome. So you didn’t even have your packaging completed. Now,

Vanessa Phillips 6:04
no, we didn’t. Now and it was like a crash course after that on like how to launch a CPG brands. I was like, Okay, we’ve got four months to learn everything. And it’s amazing how quickly you will learn when you’re under pressure.

Kara Goldin 6:20
Yeah, that is that is so true. So they launched you in the New York Region? Or how like, how many stores did you get?

Vanessa Phillips 6:27
It was 27 stores. It was at that time, the North Atlantic region, which is from Maine, and into parts of Connecticut, primarily Massachusetts. So what we did is we moved to Boston, and we decided to just dedicate ourselves full time to demoing at Whole Foods for about four months, we demoed twice a day, five days a week, we would just drive like throughout those 27 stores, we would just drive from one whole foods to the next. And I that was my marketing. That was my way to educate as many whole food shoppers as I possibly could around this, at the time was just so trumped up I mean, no gluten free pasta or did not exist. No one had ever had it. No one had ever heard of it. So I felt that it was really important that I get as many people as possible to try it. And it was, I think the most powerful thing I’ve ever done in my business till this day. Our sales were through the roof. When we met with the buyer. Four months later, he was like, wow, this is impressive. And then he took the egg rolls and we went national really quickly.

Kara Goldin 7:45
That’s That’s wild. I love hearing that story. So what were you doing? I know you grew up in the restaurant industry. But what were you doing personally, before starting this company?

Vanessa Phillips 7:58
I owned a restaurant that’s still around today. There’s actually 10 of them today, Friedman, so we opened freedmen’s prior to starting feelgood foods. And the idea around Friedman’s was to be like a quick service cafe that had a lot of gluten free options. And this was at a time where our gluten free was still really fringy. You know, there was people assume that if it was gluten free wasn’t going to taste as good. So we were like really redefining the gluten free dining experience in Manhattan. And the restaurant became really popular and also became a destination for people who are traveling to New York City. And they were searching for gluten free restaurants. So it was for me, it was sort of like the stepping stone to feel that foods because we would get people from all over the world that would say I wish I had a gluten free restaurant like this where I live in Minnesota or Iowa. And I was like, wow, like just like such a lightbulb moment. I was like, okay, so how do I reach more people? Without franchising a restaurant? How do I really get inside people’s homes and develop something that’s going to make their lives easier, but also like give them joy and being able to eat the foods that they so much mess? So we were running a restaurant for several years when we put the potstickers in a ziploc bag and sent it to Whole Foods. And that acceptance. I mean, that one yes. from Whole Foods is what gave me that career kind of you know, I pivoted, and I was like, okay, running this restaurants been really fun. But it’s time for me to go build a brand.

Kara Goldin 9:34
So you launched the partnership with your ex husband, Chef and at the time was married. Correct? Terrific. Yeah. And how is your combined expertise contributed to the brand’s success? I mean, obviously, you guys are still very much a part of it. The company didn’t break apart. You know, just talk to me about sort of is the essence of both of you guys doing it together still.

Vanessa Phillips 10:07
Yeah, so trigger i, we met when we are at war, I was actually about to say we met when we were kids, which is just something that you say as you’re getting older because we were not kids when I was 22. But I felt like a kid we met. It was very soon after I had been diagnosed with celiac. And we were working at a restaurant together. And he was the chef. And the relationship between triggered I started with me just telling him all the foods that I missed, and the less the list was long, and he was still is very, very talented chef. So he was really inspired and challenged by all the foods that I couldn’t have any more. So he started cooking for me. And the more he cooked for me, and the more I ate his food, the more I knew I needed to share his food with other people. So that was when we opened freedmen’s together. And, you know, coming from the restaurant industry, I obviously had a very different perspective, I was more front of the house, he was back in the house. We ran freedmen’s together, the menu eventually evolved, where everything on the menu could be prepared gluten free. And, you know, together, we did a lot of research and a lot of recipe development. And we at first did not think that we were going to go into CPG I mean, our bat, both of us our background was restaurants. I mean, that was really like what we knew, we, you know, we kind of like stumbled into this industry. And you know, together, it really was a perfect combination, because for me, it was all about like delivering on a promise that I was going to be able to continue to eat the foods I loved it was coming from like a very personal place. I was super connected to our consumer and you know, people who had food challenges and intolerances. And just living from that place of deprivation. And for him, it was about creating, you know, having that challenge and living in that space of like I’m a chef and I’m a creator, and I love food science. And I’m I’m up for this challenge. And I am going to create foods that have never existed before and a gluten free form. So it was a really powerful partnership and combination. And it is really what has set us apart and frozen food, of being able to create foods that no one has ever done before. Like we are not like a me to write like everything that we want. We’re all about being the first to do it.

Kara Goldin 12:43
So launching products inside of a restaurant where people are going to consume them right away versus actually launching a CPG brand. I mean, you’re making it sound so easy. But there’s there’s some steps that definitely go in there. We’ve had many people on the show talking about, you know, the mistakes that they made along the way in trying to figure that out. But especially when you don’t have somebody else, you know who’s done this, right, you guys are figuring it out, you’re talented in terms of figuring out the right products and the recipes. But what were some of the biggest challenges and really figuring out how to get this to a point where you could actually package it up.

Vanessa Phillips 13:30
It’s funny when you compare it to a restaurant, because we talked about that a lot that the transaction time is so much longer. And CPG than a restaurant, like a restaurant, you sell it to, you know, you sell a product to them, they eat it that day, and it’s over. Right. Whereas with CPG I mean that transaction time could be months, months later. So I mean, it is a very, it’s a very different business model. And there were so many challenges throughout the way. I mean, there’s there’s still, there still are every day, you know, I always say that, that being an entrepreneur in general is a very manic depressive lifestyle, like you could have in a period of one day, you could literally win the lottery and then come home and find out that your house is on fire and you’ve lost all of your belongings. It is just so many highs and so many lows and, and we had to learn a lot really, really quickly, right? I mean, frozen is logistically super challenging. You have to learn all of the ins and outs of distribution and how to work with retailers. And it’s a very, very complex business. I think that for me, just the kind of person I am, is I’ve had to really learn a lot of discipline and the art of patience. I can be very impulsive. I want everything to happen today. Yesterday, you know within five minutes, right? So it just doesn’t work that way. You know, and then you have to be really, really patient. And that is something that like, I still have to work on every single day that I’m not going to get the answer I want or the distribution that I want right away. So just really focusing on being patient is, I would say been the biggest challenge for me.

Kara Goldin 15:22
So how many skews do you have now in the brand 2525 skews? That’s incredible, and how

Vanessa Phillips 15:31
knacks an app so we, you know, we’ve got like the potstickers. And then we’ve really expanded and evolved the sock and appetizer line. And then Breakfast has been like our newest innovation category. And that is we’ve got pancake bites and stuffed fables. And then we just launched a couple months ago, which is part of the snack and app category. But we launched handheld burritos. Yeah.

Kara Goldin 15:57
And those are terrific. They’re so great. So I’d love to hear. Are there any changes in terms of your market strategy from the beginning? Like you started with potstickers? Now you’ve got 25 skews? How do you view the company overall? You mentioned launching breakfast? But is there any thing that you think about when you were first starting this that has really shifted as you’ve kind of grown? I don’t know that you’ve actually grown up, but you’ve grown? Right? You’re, you’re not done at all?

Vanessa Phillips 16:34
No, I think that the the market size has expanded tremendously since I first launched, you know, when I started the company, I was very laser focused on just feeding celiacs, or those with gluten intolerance. And obviously, that is still, you know, a very, very important consumer. For me, I feel that I mirror them every single day, I’m living that life. But where Tregs expertise has been so valuable is that, you know, he’s not gluten free. So the innovation that he was creating was not just to feed celiacs, but to feed people who were looking for convenience, and who were looking for delicious foods that were made with simple ingredients. So our you know, our consumer pool has expanded a lot, because I really underestimated early on how that group of people needed a solution to I was so laser focused on the celiacs. And then, you know, when we when our as our brand started to evolve and grow, we’re like, you know what, these foods are so delicious. They’re not just for celiacs. They’re not just for people who even have any dietary restrictions. It’s, it’s a brand that is for everyone, and it offers a solution for everyone. And that market size is so much bigger than I ever expected when I launched and it’s been, it’s been overwhelming to see how Feel Good Foods is able to go into so many different types of homes.

Kara Goldin 18:07
Yeah, definitely. And I think typically, when you have more than one person in the home, and especially one person that has some sort of dietary restriction, you’re gonna find people with different dietary issues that they’re dealing with. So I think really trying to figure out who else is in the home to is is super, super smart, so that you don’t pigeonhole your brand into just being one thing for sure. So funny, mistakes are always the best when entrepreneurs are talking about along the way that they never really thought that there was a SKU that they would develop where it actually turned out to be great. But or maybe there was one that you thought was going to work, but it just wasn’t gonna work. Can you share any stories like that?

Vanessa Phillips 19:00
Oh, well, we’ve had a lot of really funny mistakes. So I could start with that first when we first launched, like our very first packaging run. So the the potstickers are made the wrappers made from rice. So just like if you’re making rice, you prepare them in a nonstick pan with water, a little bit of oil, and you cover the pan with a lid. And it’s absolutely essential that you keep the pan cover with the lid because once all the water evaporates, that’s when they’re ready. So our first packaging run ever. We noticed that after it printed, we forgot to include that very crucial line which is Cover pan with LED. And we had all of this packaging and actually product that we have already packaged, going out to distribution without that crucial cooking instruction step. So trig and his parents, we had a step I’ve made that head Cover pan with led this like really hideous, bright red stamp. And we had to manually stamp 27,000 cartons with Cover pan with led to the point where if a consumer bought it, they probably thought we were yelling at them. I mean, they turned over the back. And there were like these, like neatly typed uniform instructions, and then this big red stamp, that’s a cover Pan with Lid. So that was that was probably the most like unfortunate mishap. And that’s happened within three days of launching. So, you know, I think that is like, always the biggest mistakes are the ones like really early on. So that’s one that really stands out. In terms of like product launches, you know, it’s, it’s always interesting, because you will launch products, and sometimes you are surprised there are skews that I thought, you know, we’re going to be more of a home run than others. But you know, for the most part, I think that like, typically, we do so much consumer work, we ask our consumers a ton of questions. We’re constantly going on social media, and we’re like, What do you miss? You know, we are shopping, the the aisles of grocery stores, we’re seeing what’s out there. And we’re really trying to bring something that is unique and different. So I haven’t had too many shocks around products not being well received.

Kara Goldin 21:29
So when you think about the different skews that you have, and and maybe there’s one that’s kind of your favorite, or maybe there’s one that is really the runaway best seller, and that’s because it’s your favorite, but what would that be? Is there of the 25 items? Is there one that has sort of emerged? I think that it’s always interesting. You know, when you look at skews, I know with our company, hence, there’s definitely it’s the Blackberry. And part of the reason why it’s the BlackBerry is that that’s what the buyers have chosen to put in every single set. But I think also it’s one that pretty much every consumer enjoys when they try it.

Vanessa Phillips 22:15
Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely no question the potstickers they are just untouchable for us in terms of distribution and velocity and consumer loyalty. And it’s the product that i That’s where it all began. It’s the product that I personally still eat on a regular basis. It so it’s so interesting, because when I was when I was a kid potstickers that was my comfort food, you know, like it was like my chicken soup, right? Like I would be sick or sad or what have you. And I would just immediately say, Oh, I’m gonna order some dumplings from my dad’s Chinese restaurant. And that is still true today is that whenever I need that little left, I go right for our chicken potstickers and it just hits the spot every time it like instantly puts a smile on my face. It is like totally my comfort food. So So yeah, that is definitely my favorite product and based on sales, and then I would say that that is that is consumers favorite product to the mozzarella sticks are also they’re newer, and they’re really, really popular. And I would say it’s a very close second to the, to the potstickers. And the mozzarella sticks. You know, it’s just like everyone’s favorite like bar food or bowling alley food. And I just have such memories of being a kid after school, we would go to this restaurant Jackson Hole in the city. And I would go with my friends and I would eat mozzarella sticks and I loved them and I had not had a realistic sense Feel Good Foods. So for me like it’s still such a treat when I buy Feel Good Foods, because I’m like not over that hump yet. I’m like, wow, like, this is still something that I had not had and you know, 17 years.

Kara Goldin 24:08
I would imagine that word of mouth is so huge for you guys for getting the word out. But are there other things that really work? I get this question all the time from entrepreneurs like how do I know I don’t have any money to spend on you know, Facebook ads or marketing? I mean, how else do you think people can get the word out about their brand if they’re launching something new?

Vanessa Phillips 24:33
Yeah, I mean, it’s really important to especially early on, I mean, just always to promote because you know, people it’s just when you’re shopping the frozen aisle, especially I mean, that’s obviously the category no bass when you’re shopping I mean your eye is always going to be drawn to a shelf tag, right? So anytime you’re on sale and you get that shelf tag up there like right away your eye goes to it and you’re gonna get the most trial. Yeah, When you’re when you’re promoting when you’re on sale, and that’s when people typically are going to be more apt to be like, Oh, all right, I’ll give this a try. Why not? It’s on sale. Obviously, though, the product has to taste really good, because that’s where the repeat comes. So, you know, going on sale is great for that trial. But if the product doesn’t taste good, then it’s it’s a one and done. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 25:21
that’s, that’s so true. So consumer feedback. So critical. I always say that, that consumer feedback is often the, the energy the the gas that founders need, right, that you know that you’re doing something right. And especially during those manic days, where you’ve got the highs and the lows, you get one of those consumer emails that say, you know, thank you, and which I’m sure that you have gotten, but what is one of the best ones that you’ve received that really made your day?

Vanessa Phillips 25:56
Oh, my gosh, I have so many I, you know, and I read them all, and I’m still like, so surprised. I mean, I’ve been invited to people’s wedding. Baby shower. Here. I mean, it’s yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s pretty wild. Um, yeah, I mean, definitely the the personal invites that I get to people, you know, to asking me to join them on, you know, the most personal day of their life is, you know, because I, and by I mean, you know, we Feel Good Foods, and has made such an amazing impact for them in their lives. That, like always, really touches me, because I think about, you know, the day when, you know, whether it was my wedding, or when I had my child or preparing for my child. I mean, these are such personal days, right? So, whenever I get invited to something like that, it definitely like takes my breath away.

Kara Goldin 26:53
Yeah, definitely. So best advice for founders or someone thinking about starting their own company, knowing what you know, today? Yeah,

Vanessa Phillips 27:02
I think about this a lot, because it is so, so challenging. And I remember asking for a lot of advice when I was starting out. And the one advice that I never got, that I would give to someone today is to make sure that you are so obsessed. And so in love with your idea, because there’s going to be so much that’s going to get taken from you throughout the process, you’re going to get a lot of nose, you are going to feel sometimes so low, at the end of the day, you’re going to lose a lot of distribution, you’re going to have meetings where you’re going to go home and say, Gosh, that just like was not my best work, you’re going to feel very rejected. But the one thing that no one can ever take from you is the connection and the love that you will have with your company, with your product with your brand with your passion. And if you don’t start from a place of being so in love with your idea, then none of it will be worth it.

Kara Goldin 28:11
I love that. So Vanessa, thank you so much for coming on Vanessa Phillips, co founder and CEO of Feel Good Foods. We’ll have all the info in the show notes. But thank you again. And thank you for developing an incredible range of products, but also company and really, really yummy.

Vanessa Phillips 28:31
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Kara Goldin 28:34
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 good bye for now.