After years of R&D, Gabe Wolff has created a recipe and product that satisfies growing consumer demand for healthy and allergen-free foods. Here's the story of how he and his team are taking the frozen market by storm with Wink Frozen Desserts.
What was the inspiration for your business? What inspires you daily?
I was diagnosed with celiac disease and a dairy allergy at 17 just before heading off to college. While I attended McGill University in Canada I struggled to find a satisfying dairy free ice cream that didn’t do damage to my diet, so I started experimenting in my dorm kitchen. For years, I kept tweaking the recipe until it satisfied my sweet tooth and my checklist.
My inspiration comes from a variety of sources. My father (who has since passed away) had a sense of hard work, determination, and dedication to his family that are always present in my mind. This keeps me working hard 10-16 hours per day. Our customers are what keep me going even in the face of criticism—knowing that we’re helping a mom whose kids have food allergies, a family that’s plagued with diabetes, or even a fitness gurus who wants to indulge without ruining their macros—we’re helping people enjoy dessert without worry.
What’s been your road to success and critical success factors along the way?
Our team is young and agile. We’ve made our share of mistakes along the road, but we bounce back and adjust quickly. We each have our individual focuses, but we come together as a team. Sometimes I need extra hands for production, sometimes we all need to hop on the phone and make sales calls. We’re all in and willing to prioritize things for the benefit of the team and ultimately our company.
Describe a mistake you made with your business. How did you fix it?
Initially it seemed like a great idea to sell through the internet. No distributors or stores to deal with, just right to our customer. Now that we’ve made the connections and have product in store freezers we realize that getting into stores is more convenient and cost effective for our customer. Yes, our online store is still growing and some people prefer that route, but we didn’t really think about going to stores in the early stage of things.
What’s your best piece of advice for fellow entrepreneurs?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions from those that have come before you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help from your support system. I was nervous to tell people about my endeavor because I didn’t want them to think I was asking them for something. It turns out, when you do ask, 98 percent of the time your family and friends do want to help you.
Where are you going? What is the vision for your business?
In two years we’d like to be in as many major retailers in the U.S. as possible. This includes a product line expansion that we’re currently working on, as well as other allergy-friendly and healthy goods in the pipeline. In five years we’d like to expand a good amount of our product line outside the U.S., specifically to our Canadian customers. In 10 years, we hope to be a recognizable brand that people can trust throughout the world. We would like to work with other companies that are creating allergy and diet friendly foods, creating some really cool, innovative products. Oh, and I’d like to go on my honeymoon at some point in time - sorry Mrs. Wink!
How did you land your first retail account?
Our first retailer was Get Healthy America out on Long Island in New York. A customer was ordering through our website that loved to shop at Get Healthy America and asked the owner about carrying us. We delivered our first package to that store in a box on dry ice in our Prius. That’s how we delivered to our first handful of retail accounts in NYC. Since then, our distributors regularly deliver Wink in freezer trucks, giving our poor Prius some needed rest.
Has anything surprised you about working with independent retailers?
Independent retailers and determined customers have 100% fueled our growth. We’re watching it happen across the U.S. right now. One customer begs their favorite independent to pick us up. In a few weeks neighboring independents are carrying our products. Then a few weeks after that the bigger chains are emailing us when they didn’t want to even meet with us two months prior. Wink is so unique that when someone finds it they typically know a few friends who are looking for it. It’s a secret too good to keep, hence the name ;)
How do you position your products in mass, natural and online?
In mass markets, we’re seen as a “diet friendly” product since the whole pint is only 100 calories. The allergy-conscious community (the community I personally identify with) seeks out Wink for our unique ingredients as well- and the community is bigger than most mass chains realize. We also tap into the diabetic community on the mass scale. In the natural space, we’re the plant-based option that’s much lower in fat, sugar and calories than other vegan options. We find the dairy-free, sugar-sensitive individuals who want a sweet treat and focus a fair amount of our attention on them. Our online customer is a mixture of all of the above - the diabetics, the dairy-free, the allergy-conscious. It’s a great mixed bag of support, and that’s a position that we love to be in.
How do you develop relationships with retailers and educate them about your company’s story?
We’re typically introduced to retailers in one of two ways. The first way is when a customer requests our product at their favorite store, then either the store reaches out to us or the customer lets us know and we work with the retailer directly. The second way is being thirsty sharks—calling store managers, e-mailing category buyers, and just generally bugging the decision makers nonstop until they hear what we have to say. Our Sales Director, Kunal, and I fly to as many meetings as humanly possible, telling the decision makers about the value proposition we offer. So far, the mix has worked!
What most helped market your product in the beginning?
In the beginning, I would say two things helped our marketing tactics. The first would be word of mouth. I was literally giving pints to friends who were lactose intolerant and other friends of mine. The second was Jordan, our marketing director, reaching out to some influential members of food allergy communities and providing them with samples. The combination allowed us to establish a core base of customers which then expanded through shared values and interests with other individuals.
What’s a guilty pleasure of yours?
What's the inside "scoop" on yourself.
I need to eat about 5,000 calories per day, otherwise I become terribly hangry (angry with hunger)...Mrs. Wink doesn’t like when I’m hangry!