What was the inspiration for your business? What inspires you daily?
Solving a protein problem for our little “animal loving” girls. They enjoyed the smell and flavor of meat but didn’t want to eat animals anymore. My wife has favored a vegetarian diet for years, and I was the lone hold-out until a routine physical in 2011 yielded a total cholesterol count of over 300. My grandfather died of a heart attack at age 40, so I had a family history of heart disease. My doctor encouraged me to cut down on red meat…so we were all driven to go meatless for different reasons. All the mock-meats on the market seemed to be full of chemicals, so my wife developed something we could all enjoy.
What inspires me daily is connecting with people and making a difference in their lives; even if it’s simply making them feel better about what they’re eating. Neat has sixty percent less saturated fat than ground beef and tastes great. It’s not hard to “sell” something you’re passionate about. After going beef-free myself, my cholesterol dropped by over 100 points, I lost 30 pounds and I felt great.
What’s been your road to success and critical success factors along the way?
There were several key factors early-on that led to our success:
- An authentic, compelling, all-American, middle class story.
- Our product solved a problem.
- The category was peaking at the right time.
- A strong brand name (trademark synonymous with product).
- The product form made it easy to present and sell (shelf stability).
- A socially responsible mission. We partnered with a co-packer that employed a blind and visually impaired workforce.
Describe a mistake you made with your business. How did you fix it?
We had white beans in our product initially and found out that this ingredient irritated the stomachs of a very small subset of our customer base. We calmly analyzed the issue at hand and removed white beans from our product immediately.
What’s your best piece of advice for fellow entrepreneurs?
Don’t be a “me too.” Do something unique. Be a disruptor.
Where are you going? What is the vision for your business in 2 years? 5 years?
We want to create a platform of shelf-stable proteins. We recently came out with a shelf-stable replacement for eggs called “the neat egg.”
In 2 years we’d like to be in all natural foods regions across the country.
It’s very hard to ponder what neat will look like in 5 years, but if we execute our plan over the next couple years to increase awareness among consumers, I would only hope it would grow outside of the United States. I would love to ship neat to Africa, for example. If villages have running water and a source of heat (fire), they would have a clean source of protein. The neat carbon footprint is a fraction of beef's footprint, which means it creates a win/win long-term solution for a sustainable planet.
What was the first retail account you landed?
Amazon.com, but the first “brick and mortar” store was Lemon Street Market in our hometown of Lancaster, PA. They are a boutique natural store that still carries our product today. Lancaster has been a big supporter of neat – we knew if we could sell in the mecca of the “meat and potatoes” farming capital of the country, we could probably sell our product anywhere.
Has anything surprised you about working with independent retailers?
Independent retailers seem entrepreneurially focused, which has been a breath of fresh air.
How do you position your products in mass, natural and online?
Mass: Most mass retailers have placed our products with either canned meat or rice and beans.
Natural: Our product is positioned with shelf-stable meals, mixes and entrees. There are two shelf-stable meat replacements on the market, but both contain soy, which has fallen out of favor with many consumers over the last several years.
Online: We're positioned similarly to above. Our product's shelf stability helps with online sales.
How do you develop relationships with retailers and educate them about your company’s story?
We have had the best broker/partner in the natural foods industry, and what we consider to be the gold standard, in Presence Marketing. They had many of the relationships to begin with; we simply joined them. We also have an active social media and online presence with compelling stories and videos.
What most helped market your product in the beginning?
Probably the “neat story," which was a video we did after about six months of sales. There’s a romance and brand following thanks to that video.
What’s a guilty pleasure of yours?
Dark chocolate. I have a small piece of dark chocolate every day after breakfast and lunch. My favorite brand is Justin’s.
What's the inside scoop on yourself?
My dad was born Amish and we grew up very conservative. I worked for Auntie Anne’s pretzels and helped guide them into retail sales. My diet and lifestyle growing up was no indication of what I’m doing today. I’m now a health nut that loves an active lifestyle and clean eating. I compete at the half marathon level nationally and have run in nearly 20 states…a far cry from a Mennonite upbringing in Lancaster County, PA!