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Entrepreneur Profile: Maggie Jones Patton and Alex Buckley Voris, Co-Founders of Bitsy's Brainfood

Entrepreneur Profile: Maggie Jones Patton and Alex Buckley Voris, Co-Founders of Bitsy's Brainfood
Learn how Maggie Jones Patton and Alex Buckley Voris, Co-Founders of Bitsy's Brainfood, accelerated their business.

What was the inspiration for your business? What inspires you daily?

We’re moms, and while that may seem like the obvious starting point, the inspiration for Bitsy’s came long before we had kids.  We worked together for years in nonprofit and education, and shared a passion for inspiring kids about things that matter – like being healthy.

In 2005, we helped to create and run what was one of the first federally funded after-school programs to address childhood obesity in grades K-8. What set us apart was our belief that in order to effect change, healthy had to be FUN, and kids had to be empowered as agents of change.  And it worked.  Over 90% of the kids in our programs changed the way they were eating—and beyond that, they had a positive impact on the healthy of their families, their communities, and their schools.

So on a mission to make healthy fun for kids across America and to create products that are truly good for kids, not just “not bad for you,” we started Bitsy’s Brainfood. In late 2012, we launched our first line of alphabet-shaped Smart Cookies and this year, we launched a line of organic fruit and vegetable cereals, built around our core principles that healthy bodies and healthy minds are connected, and learning to “eat smart” should be fun.         

If you want to sum it all up – who we are and what we’re about as moms and as people - there is one simple phrase that we’ve used every day since we started working together over ten years ago:  “It’s ALL about the KIDS.”  Always.

What's been your road to success and critical success factors along the way?

We joke constantly that the text message chains between us would make a brilliant comedic novel. There have been so many moments and bumps along this road when one of us has earnestly asked... "IS THIS FOR REAL?" And as for the “metaphoric road to success” --it’s safe to say we’re still very much trying to navigate that road.   The truth is that so often, the best moments are linked with the worst – those times when we look at each other and all we can do is laugh. And so ultimately, we try not to get too overwrought by the highs or the lows. They’re both central to this journey, and it’s all about the big picture.  

When it comes to highlights, we’re grateful for the chance to work with an incredible team who share our passion for kids and making healthy fun. When you work with kind, smart people who you genuinely enjoy, it makes every day great.   Because let’s be honest, not matter what the situation – the people you work with can make it or break it.

Seeing our products go up on their first shelves at Wegmans –in a word – AWESOME.   And then shortly after getting into our first Whole Foods Market stores in Maggie’s hometown of Atlanta was incredibly meaningful.  Maggie was standing there in her hometown when the first box at Whole Foods on West Paces Ferry was bought by “Mary” a labor and delivery nurse.  It was one of those perfect moments.

Describe a mistake you made with your business. How did you fix it?

We've run headlong into so many hurdles, been surprised with so many curveballs, and just decided at every pass that it simply is not an option to fail.  And that’s the honest truth.

When we started Bitsy’s, were we totally in tune with the seasonality and availability for bulk purchasing US grown organic vegetables? Uh,no. So we learned early on that in order to meet our ingredient requirements, we had to get super buttoned up on our supply chain.  Of course, that took us the other way, in fear of shorting orders, we ordered a rather enormous surplus of high-quality delicious organic carrots, and we , well, over-forecasted.  I think we still have those  carrots… Any takers?  Ha, ha.

What’s your best piece of advice for your fellow entrepreneurs?

One of the most important things we’ve learned is to reach out and be unabashed about saying, “I’m new at this; I need help. Can we talk?” It’s deeply heartening how willing people have been to share their time and experience and while ultimately, our decisions have to come from our own learning and our own gut, it is such a enormous gift to connect with those who have gone before.

And, if at all possible, find a great partner.

Where are you going? What is the vision for your business in 2 years? 5 years? 10 years?

The big dream for Bitsy’s is that we’re on your breakfast table, in your kids’ lunchbox, and being enjoyed by families everywhere.  We hope Bitsy’s will be a game changer in the grocery aisle when it comes to innovation in great packaged foods for kids: making healthier options FUN.

We also hope our products will change the way kids define “yummy” by creating tastes rooted in the naturally delicious flavors of organic fruits and vegetables versus typical sugary, empty calorie snacks and cereals, and cocoa flavored everything.  We’ve  also got a pipeline of other great products that we’re excited to roll out. So to all the Brainfoodies out there who share our belief that healthy bodies and minds are connected, keep picking up your Bitsy’s Brainfood. We’ll keep working to make healthy fun.

What was the first retail account you landed?

Wegmans!  To this day every time we talk about Wegmans the two of us do a happy dance, and just can’t say enough about our love for this company.  We will forever be grateful to their team for believing in Bitsy’s and in our vision from the very first day.  We really love the people there, their stores, and their company philosophy.  It’s a special place.

Has anything surprised you about working with independent retailers?

Has anything surprised you about working with independent retailers? 

We think the biggest surprise has been the genuine excitement and passion on the part of so many retailers when it comes to discovering better food for kids.   From the category managers, grocery buyers, to the amazing grocery teams at the stores – it’s always the moment when you really connect with someone about your product that just feels so great and exciting! 

The biggest “surprise” moment Maggie had was walking into the front of a Whole Foods Market in Atlanta and seeing a double endcap  full of Bitsy’s Brainfood with an enormous amazing school bus built over the top of it also full of our products!  As passionate as we are about our products and our mission, you can’t help but have your socks knocked off in a moment like that when you realize how much other people care too about what you are trying to do.  It was really a special and amazing surprise!  There were tears, jumps of joy, and there quite a few bear hugs!

In terms of challenging surprises, there have been those as well.  Our goal has always been to create excellent, affordable food for families but at the end of the day, we’ve been surprised by how difficult it is to control the actual price of our products on the shelf.

How do you position your products in mass, natural and online?

Figuring out our channel strategy has been the biggest conundrum of all, by virtue of our backgrounds, working with children in communities with drastically disparate resources and limited access to healthy food.

We want to bring our products to ALL kids everywhere, especially those in under-resourced communities with little choice when it comes to healthy foods, and we’ve struggled with the notion that in order to build a viable natural brand and a company of real value, it at times seems critical to focus on selling healthy foods to healthy people. There’s been some real pressure to stay within the natural channel, rather than freedom simply to focus on bringing great food to all kids, everywhere. That’s the non-profit side of us, we guess, but it feels like all of us need to work together to address the health crisis in our country and to worry less about ‘exclusivity’ when it comes to building a category for kids.  Changing the way so many kids out there eat is just so important.  It’s kind of a crusade that we all need to be in on together.

How do you develop relationships with retailers and educate them about your company’s story? 

This takes so many different forms but we try to reach out, be ourselves, and share our story, our products, our vision for kids.

What most helped market your product in the beginning? 

Our friends and family have been tireless ambassadors and we’re so grateful to each of them for pushing product and spreading the word. Demos also have been extraordinarily important: we’ve found that when people taste our products, they get it—and they’re hooked.

What’s a guilty pleasure of yours? 

Staying up late reading or and watching TV—it feels so good, but we know we’ll pay the price!

Please share something that you’d consider to be inside scoop on yourself.

When we were working together in non-profit, an opportunity arose to start a school. We pondered it pretty seriously and some day, it’s something we think we might like to pursue. 

For now, we love donating our products to schools and youth organizations in need through our Giving A Bitsy Back initiative. 

The Giving A Bitsy Back initiative was born from our own experiences working in schools and nonprofits and our firsthand understanding that it's actually insanely hard to get delicious, healthy foods into the hands of a lot of kids when you are dealing with major budget constraints. So we try to make this simple. We're still small, but this is so central to who we are, and we'll continue to invest in kids, schools and communities in this way…. Until one day, maybe one day: Bitsy Elementary.

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