In our first-ever, Founders First series we are speaking with Meenesh Mistry who is the Founder of Wholey Moly, a healthy cookies brand based out of the UK. We learn from him why and how he jumped into creating this innovative food product in a space that was already getting a lot of attention – the healthy snacks category. While there are hundreds of products competing in this space already in the form of energy bars & shakes, we learn what makes Wholey Moly stand out, the journey of the founders so far & how they went about replacing sugar altogether from their products to make them a healthier afternoon snack alternative to donuts.
Hi Meenesh, thank you so much for taking the time today to do this chat with us today.
We’re a fan of the Wholey Moly oatmeal cookies and I hope that the food innovation journey that you’ll be sharing with us today will be something to watch out for as a source of inspiration hopefully for many other CPG brands and alternative food startups in this space.
Q: So a quick round of introduction for our subscribers who don’t know about you just yet. So, who are you and what is Wholey Moly all about?
A: Hey, thank you for inviting us on for this.
So as an introduction, I’m Meenesh and I’m the Co-Founder at Wholey Moly. Wholey Moly is a healthy cookies brand – that’s the simplest form of describing it.
We make cookies and they’re made from all-natural ingredients. No additives, no preservatives and no refined sugar either. But that often does not qualify as healthy. We’ve looked at quite a few criteria so it has additional nutritional value and has added flavors. Our cookies are made of oats and cacao and as a result you get some really nice flavors coming from the natural ingredients and that.
Q: Thank you for sharing that. And it also brings me to the story of how you stumbled on to the very idea of starting a healthy cookie brand because I’m guessing the market must already have been flooded with energy bars or health snack bars that were catering to working professionals who wanted to eat healthy, so my question to you is what challenges did you have to face to bring a new product to life and how did you go about shifting the pattern of eating healthy post-lunch work hours?
A: You hit the nail on the head really. We’re slightly different because we wanted to make cookies instead of snack bars. There are many of those out there. And as you said it’s for the afternoon 3 PM slump which is sort of the occasion we went for which is when you typically usually end up having a cake or doughnut or something like that and cookies that are not good for your health. That’s why we went after cookies. Of course, the market is saturated but there’s always plenty of room for more products because the market is still growing.
In terms of your question about creating a new product, it was quite challenging because we were also using all-natural ingredients. It took us nearly two years from idea to our first iteration of the product and onto the shelves. The first one was Selfridges actually and since then we’ve tried thousands of different iterations and I suppose when you’re not using artificial ingredients, you need to find something which is a binder instead of sugar which would help bind the product together. And that was the issue we faced first.
The first iterations of the products were crumbly and would chip away real fast. Since we’ve launched, we’ve had 3 different versions of the recipe. It’s now our 3rd recipe that we’re on and I’m happy to say we finally kinda found the right mix of the recipe which doesn’t break and is still natural, healthy, and tasty at the same time.
Q: I’m guessing so much would’ve just been experimentation and plenty feedback from the consumers to help you go through these iterations
A: So yeah in terms of that journey, there’s a couple of things. Yeah, we tried different recipes. We kept trying different methods and tactics to make it work. There wasn’t really a scientific method to it. It was really just a lean startup as your readers might know of the book too – it was written by Eric Ries and even though it’s tech focused, the principles can be applied to any business really, whereby you create a product and improve on the basis of the feedback. That’s when we got a little scientific in terms of our recipe development – where we had developed a recipe and then started making changes to it.
For e.g.: what happens if we increase the fat percentage by 1%. Or if we reduce a particular ingredient by certain proportions, how does it affect the final product. We were able to find out which ingredients were causing what effects and kept inviting user feedback. Initially it was just family and friends but I would not recommend you do that because you’ll get a little bit of a biased feedback. Going to strangers who absolutely don’t know about your product is better.
We went down to the farmer’s market and we trialled it there. And look at the acid test is people paying for it. So that was our next step and after having been to a few of them and seen a good response, we knew it was something people would buy. They like the idea of it, they liked the flavors we were doing and that’s when we decided to go ahead with it full time.
The lesson we learned from that when you go from making 20-30 cookies in your kitchen to quite a few hundred batches of production, it changes the whole process and recipe. Initially, all our products would turn to crumbs. When you’re at home, you can manage to pack them and send them but when it comes to big batches of production, we had to try a few other variations to make sure that the cookies don’t crumble by the time they get delivered. So yeah, quite a few learnings from that one.
Q: With media outlets like Balance going on to say “the 3 PM slump never tasted so good” and organizations like the Guild of Fine Food giving you “The Great Taste Award” for 2020, Wholey Moly has already come a long way from being a home experiment that started in a flat inside London to all the way to becoming a go-to snack brand for afternoon munchies that’s both healthy and tasty, how has the adoption changed for your consumers ever since the pandemic, especially because eating habits, have changed.
A: In terms of adoption, there’s a slight change in the way people are buying these products. Instead of grabbing something on the way to work or home or something like that. A lot of people were working from home and they started working on their own home-made snacks but then soon people started to go back to their older habits of being able to make purchases online and that’s kind of the status quo here. We took that time as a brand to step back and rethink our product and pricing strategy as well. Making mix flavor boxes and other things that would help spike the sales.
For e.g.: We cut down the amount of sugar by almost 50% and learned that the product holds better. And we changed our product packaging as well. We feel that now our product is more aligned with the consumers. So yeah a lot of changes in the last year and it’s for the better.
Q: I just want to take a step back and learn more about the research process. How did you validate the idea of this opportunity?
A: I guess there’s a couple of different avenues. The customer feedback was most important for us so the friends and family were the first to help and the second bit was finding farmer’s markets and directly selling there. The next step was going to trade shows where we exhibited the products prior to even launching online. We had a simple logo and simple clear, plain packaging because we just wanted to get a feeler whether it’s of any interest among potential consumers.
We were definitely getting positive vibes from that and I guess that’s where the human validation of people and potential buyers came in. The other part was the market, right? Like the market size and its growth and where the demand was going in terms of not just snacking but trends in sub-categories of snacks. So we took our time to plot it out on a graph to make sure our products are in line with what people want.
For e.g.: people in the UK have stopped preferring sugar in their products and we’ve made an earnest effort to keep the cookies as healthy and as low on sugar as possible.
Q: I’m guessing the historical sales data for other similar products would have also come handy for you, right?
A: It would have been. But to get your hands on data like that can be quite expensive. We didn’t really do that. What we did was go to the stores and actually speak with store managers directly and ask them about the sales. That helped shape a bit of our business plan and gave us a little forecast for our production. Yeah no doubt though that sales data would’ve been helpful but it’s quite expensive to get a hold of.
Q: Everyone in Hollywood from Brad Pitt to Ellen Paige has remained vegan for years. And artists like Jay-Z investing their own money in developing vegan-friendly products, how far do you think veganism has come as a lifestyle for consumers in your target market?
A: It’s absolutely huge. We didn’t expect veganism to be such a motivator. It’s been 2.5-3 years since we launched our brand and it wasn’t a huge deal 3-4 years ago. Even though our products were vegan, we didn’t really jump in because of it. We jumped in because our cookies were healthy and we weren’t sure initially either whether we wanted to put up in the front that we’re vegan. But as time went on, we could see clearly it’s a growing area and as you said with celebrities endorsing that lifestyle, the interest is higher than ever before.
Q: Any last piece of advice for future food entrepreneurs?
A: A lot of times you think you have to be perfect. But what’s more important is to get started and get it out there. Gather a lot of feedback, improve on it and just get going. And don’t shy away from networking. You’d be surprised if you reached out to people on LinkedIn, how much they’d be willing to help you give you any advice. You can learn from these people and their mistakes. Connect with as many people as you can.
You can visit their online store to order and learn more about their products.
Ranjana works as the Lead Research Analyst for Spoonshot. Her past experience includes working with a major global market research company, specializing in food and drink trends. She has also worked with major publications as a writer and editor.