Naturally Los Angeles Pitch Slam winner Michelle Valdez-Wilton brings her better-for-you treats to Natural Products Expo East.

Dawn Reiss

August 29, 2023

6 Min Read
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Michelle Valdez-Wilton has always loved sugar.

"But the older I get, the less I feel great when I consume it," says Valdez-Wilton, founder and CEO of Date Better Snacks.

To get a healthier sugar fix, Valdez-Wilton, who has a pastry chef background, started blending medjool dates and organic chocolate in her kitchen at home. She began asking her friends to taste-test the concept.

"It was a pandemic project," says Valdez-Wilton, also the founder of Four Cafe and Penny Oven restaurants in Eagle Rock, California. "I was trying to develop a packaged food business because I own two restaurants that were shut down."

Originally, she was trying to create something in the frozen food category. "I realized the barrier to entry was really tricky," Valdez-Wilton says. "When everybody began raving about these dates, I decided to pivot."

Since launching in February 2022, Date Better Snacks is now sold in 700 stores and boutique hotels. Valdez-Wilton, who recently won Naturally LA's Pitch Slam, will compete on Sept. 20 for the grand prize at the Natural Products Expo East Pitch Slam competition in Philadelphia.

Here's what to know about this sweet, emerging brand.

Why did you focus on creating this natural product?

Michelle Valdez- Wilton: Health is very, very important to me. I look at every label of everything I put in my body. It's just part of my nature. I really wanted to be able to offer healthy, indulgent treat alternatives to replace a candy bar.

Related:Naturally Minnesota's AcreMade to pitch plant-based eggs at Expo East

What did you have in mind when you started Date Better Snacks?

Naturally Los Angeles Pitch Slam winner Michelle Valdez-Wilton brings her better-for-you treats to Natural Products Expo East

MVW: When you go to the grocery store and you're in the checkout line, you look at the candy bars because you want something sweet. But then you pick it up and you look at the list of ingredients. I wanted to create something that people could pick up and look at the label and say, "Oh, these are really clean ingredients." We don't have any emulsifiers in our chocolate. No soy. No palm oil. No seed oils at all. I just wanted to offer a healthier treat.

What products did you launch with?

MVW: We launched with Peanut Butter Crunch, Almond Java Crunch and Cashew Lime Crisp. And then we later brought on the hazelnut.

What has surprised you the most on this journey?

MVW: The community. I had no idea the CPG community was so welcoming. I thought there would be more competition. I just love how everybody is willing to help each other.

When you started selling, what channels did you launch into?

MVW: It was really grassroots. It was going around to my favorite stores in Los Angeles, and just bringing samples and a sell sheet and saying, "Hey, I launched this product. Would you consider carrying us?" It's grown into 700 stores now in a year and a half.

What did you do to get into these stores?

MVW: Opening the bag, saying, "Here, taste this." There are a lot of stores that are like, "Oh yeah, I want this color because it goes with my display over here." A lot of people love the packaging so much that they have bought the product for the packaging, and then they love the taste.

What else have you done to gain traction?

MVW: We also signed on [with wholesale site] Faire. So new stores will discover us through Faire on their wholesale marketplace. We are gaining about 50 new stores a month from being discovered there. It's a great platform to be discovered. They have great customer service and help with any type of customer service issue like if a package is delayed, lost or damaged in shipment.

What's something a lot of people don't know about you or your company?

MVW: We produce all of our products. Most CPG products are co-packed. Ours are handmade. We're literally making everything. I have a team of four employees. Right now, we're pitting the dates ourselves, filling them, putting them in the bag, sealing them ourselves and putting them in boxes.

Wow. That's a lot of work. How are you trying to scale and automate?

MVW: I just ordered my first really big piece of equipment. I'm super excited about it because now we will have to put all of the dates in a compostable bag. We got a flow wrapper. You'll put it on a conveyor belt and then the compostable packaging will go around it and seal it automatically.

I'm really lucky because my husband's dad is a master machinist. My husband built me an automated boss folding machine and automated partner. So, we're starting to automate a lot of things.

What has your growth trajectory been like?

MVW: We've been around 18 months. We're showing 200% growth for this year. We're in Lassens in Los Angeles. We're in Bi-Rite Market. We are in a lot of specialty, boutique grocers. We're also in a lot of hotels: Proper Hotel Santa Monica; in Napa Valley, the Solage Calistoga (an Auberge Resorts Collection property) and the Montage Healdsburg; and a couple of hotels in San Diego.

My growth strategy has been to build brand awareness by getting into smaller specialty grocers where we stand out and build recognition so that when we do get into the bigger retail stores, people recognize us.

What was it like to compete in the Naturally LA Pitch Slam?

MVW: It was great. I was so excited to share the product. Some of the judges asked this question, but I didn't know they were judges, so that might have been in my favor, because I wasn't nervous. I was just being myself.

What are your plans for Expo East?

MVW: I've been to Expo West to walk the floor. I've heard that Expo East is smaller, so I'm excited. We are in a lot of stores in New York, but the rest of the East Coast, not so much. I'm excited to meet buyers from other stores.

Natural Products Expo East

Natural Products Expo East Pitch Slam, in partnership with Naturally Network, is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. ET Sept. 20, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. In addition to education sessions and the trade show, New Hope's Innovation Experience debuts this year. Learn more about Expo East's agenda, exhibitors, retail buyers and registration.

About the Author(s)

Dawn Reiss

Dawn Reiss is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for TIME, The New York Times, The Atlantic, AFAR, Travel + Leisure, Civil Eats, Fortune.com, U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, among others. Find her at www.dawnreiss.com.

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