NBJ: Tell us what’s new with the company.
Neal Gottlieb: A bunch. Back in May, we were taken national by Whole Foods and UNFI. We had an exclusive with Whole Foods that went through July, so we’re just now beginning to see Three Twins get into much wider distribution in the eastern half of the United States. Distribution is the big news for us, but that was brought on by three new pint flavors that we released this year, including fair trade vanilla bean speck, which we are proud to say is the first and only organic, fair trade ice cream in America.
NG: It is. I didn’t think about it until we got that certification, and then I checked with TransFair and sure enough, there’s no other. There’s lots of organic ice cream and Ben & Jerry’s has a whole bunch of fair trade, but until this spring they were mutually exclusive. Not anymore. Our fair trade vanilla bean is really just the beginning of a full line of organic, fair trade ice cream that we plan to offer.
NBJ: You seem very engaged in cause-based marketing.
NG: We launched our land conservation initiative this past December called “Ice Cream for Acres.” When you buy our ice cream, we now tie in a giving model. We take enough money to buy six square feet of land with the purchase of each pint and give that to an environmental nonprofit that buys large tracts of land to protect critically endangered species. It’s a feel-good model. So far we’ve purchased more than 100 acres of land. I like that message, that these seemingly inconsequential differences of a penny here or a penny there really do add up to something profound and impactful and lasting.
NBJ: How do you view the trend toward local?
NG: All of our milk and cream comes from a series of eight different family farms, all within 17 miles of our factory. All of our cows are close enough that you could walk there in a day. I think that’s pretty good. This will almost certainly change as we outgrow the factory, but what’s most important is that the milk comes from great family farms, that it’s certified organic, and that it’s getting to our creamery in the same day it’s milked. That’s what matters—freshness and quality.
NBJ: Will you always be certified organic?
NG: Oh, absolutely. I started this as a scoop shop in August 2005 and actually got certified organic in April of 2006, which was an honor for a small shop. There’s no going back. For me, it’s really a promise about the integrity of the ingredients. They aren’t coming from animals pumped full of chemicals. No matter how fancy our science gets, no matter how many rovers we send to Mars, you still can’t trick your taste buds. They know when they are exposed to something not from nature. You can maybe get away with it for a little bit, but there’s nothing manufactured that comes even close to natural vanilla.
NBJ: Is organic lining up better on taste?
NG: Walk down the aisle at Whole Foods. How much of that food tastes great? How much of that food tastes greater to the average consumer than what you can get at Safeway or Vons?
I think we are still fighting an uphill battle on taste that started back in the ‘70s with this new natural food movement. So much of the stuff from back then was really not appetizing. It was more of a lifestyle choice. We are moving away from that, but imagine walking up and down the aisles of Expo West as a neophyte to natural products. What would you think of natural? I’d be a little scared.
There are so many claims that the food is going to do this or that, that it has some function. There are so many weird ingredients that people haven’t heard of or didn’t know you could eat. Take chia. All of a sudden it’s this hot ingredient. I know people have been eating chia for millennia, but it’s relatively new to the American market, except for that brief appearance as the Chia Pet in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I guess we didn’t know you could eat it then.
NBJ: Could you ever see putting functional ingredients in your ice cream?
NG: Probably not. The only function that we ever claim with our ice cream is that it’s delicious. Just keep it simple and keep the messaging concise and keep it appealing to a broad audience. Don’t start chipping away at the market by formulating for specific groups on all these dietary plans.
Functional foods and supplements are all about the claim. I think a lot of people make claims—like low-carb a few years ago, or gluten-free now—that a specific food class will make us all healthy and young and beautiful with washboard abs. It doesn’t happen. One of my favorite ones lately is popcorn. Suddenly popcorn is a low-calorie snack, as if it wasn’t before. Popcorn is mostly air. You can eat air all day and not gain weight. I think we already do that—it’s called breathing. Companies pop up all over the trade shows marketing popcorn with weight claims, and I think they are trying to trick the consumers into thinking this is innovation.
Even the naturally functional stuff like chia... who is evaluating these claims? Who is deciding that the average person will be healthier by incorporating this into their diet? Enough companies make a similar claim, and consumers start to believe in it. They stop questioning it, they believe what they read. It’s one thing to do the nutritional analysis on omega-3s or certain vitamins, but what does that mean when you incorporate them into the diet? What impact does it truly have on health?
NBJ: Sounds like that classic debate—nature versus science.
NG: Yes, but I’d say knowledge versus nature. I just don’t think that we have the knowledge yet.
NBJ: Who are the leaders of organic in the next generation?
NG: Every industry needs disruptors and they’re typically young because they haven’t had time to learn all of the bad habits. Brendan Synnott comes to mind, from starting with Kelly Flatley at Bear Naked to now working on Evol and Siggi’s. Synnott’s a fresh face who’s done really well and made a bunch of money, but then put the money back into continuing that change. I suspect he’s not just doing it for the money. I think he likes building brands, effecting change, giving people better products.
I also think of Freddy Schilling at Dagoba. I was probably still sitting in a cubicle at Gap when he saw that opportunity for organic chocolate.
NBJ: What about Ben & Jerry’s?
NG: They are definitely a role model, and not just because it’s ice cream. When I was in high school, that was really the first brand that I liked. I liked their product, but I also liked what they were shouting from their soap box.
NBJ: What about Ben & Jerry’s in the here and now?
NG: I love what’s happened to them. It makes room for guys like me. They had to remove their all-natural designation from their label, so yes, if they want to continue to muck up their brand, that’s great.
NBJ: What about the argument that organic is too expensive?
NG: I do think cost is something that gets overlooked in our industry. You have all these companies coming out with all these great new products, but then it’s $9 for a can of soup. Who can afford that?
In ice cream, I’ve seen pints on the shelf for $12 or $15 each. There’s a company called Jeni’s out of Ohio. They’re not organic, but they are small-batch, hand-crafted. It comes in this translucent plastic pint container where they write the name by hand. I believe they retail for about $10 in the Midwest, but at my grocery store out here, it’s $14.99 for a pint of ice cream. I refuse to buy it. I can get two six-packs of beer for $15.
NBJ: Organic has healthy sales growth of late. Is it poised to really explode?
NG: So much of the population would still rather eat conventional food made with pesticides because they think organic might be grown in horse shit. It’s just so backwards, and it’s endemic throughout our culture. We have isolated pockets of people who really understand organic, but even then they don’t necessarily incorporate all that much of it into their shopping.
I’ve never bothered to think about my diet and how much of it is organic, but I’ll bet it’s only 20% or so. I think the main obstacles to growth here are accessibility in price, in taste and in branding. You have to find the convergence of all of those in a way that makes the organic products as attractive, if not more attractive, than the conventional ones.