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MegaFood CEO Robert Craven on the whole food supplement trend

MegaFood CEO Robert Craven on the whole food supplement trend
In his first year as CEO, Robert Craven is bringing new energy to MegaFood—and riding a wave of growing consumer demand for supplements that act more like food. What are the biggest challenges in the category?

Whole food supplements are gaining popularity and MegaFood is at the forefront of the trend. CEO Robert Craven shares the story of the 40-year-old, Derry, N.H.-based supplement company, and how MegaFood is working with retailers and practitioners to educate consumers about its supplements.

newhope360: What do you think is driving consumers' increased interest in whole food supplements?

Robert Craven: I think there are a number of different trends out there that are contributing to the conversation. One is that there has been a lot of negative press on megadoses [often related to studies of isolated, synthetic nutrients]. You’ve also got Dr. Oz out there talking a lot about nutrition especially as it relates to the diet.

The success for MegaFood really hinges on the natural retailer. The natural retailer really understands this topic, so when a consumer comes in, he can help guide her through the different forms of supplementation. A big focus for MegaFood is to tell our story in a deeper way and make sure the natural retailer understands how we are different.

newhope360: What's the MegaFood story?

RC: We’ve been making our product in New Hampshire since 1973…  and it’s been a whole foods supplement since day one. We're the only company I know of that starts with fresh, local food coming in the back door; we actually bring in crates of fruits and vegetables, often sourced locally.

The other major point is we have been perfecting our own Slo-Food process. It’s about crafting wholesome nutrition, not just vitamins. For us it’s really about delivering what the body needs in nutrition and getting as close to the form of food as possible.

We developed the process from scratch with the University of New Hampshire. We craft almost 30 food state nutrients in our dryer, which is very unique, a slow and gentle process… When the food goes on the dryer you can smell it and see the vibrancy of the color—and you can still see it and smell it and taste it when it comes off the other end of the dryer.

Unlike our competitors, where you might put all the ingredients together and ferment it and make a stew and then dry it, we create nutrients individually. We like that approach because of the control over the outcome. So we have our own ISO 9001-certified lab in-house where we test every raw material coming in. We test it frequently in the process, for moisture and phytonutrients—you name it. We test throughout the process to make sure what we get is what we want to get.

At its simplest form we are creating a food-based ingredient, so cranberries go in one end… and we use that cranberry powder in a number of different things that we do. In other cases we go deeper, adding different elements. For example, we want to produce vitamin C with all the other elements that are delivered around the C. So it’s not just the sugar and alcohol that create ascorbic acid: When we are delivering our C we want it to be as close to natural food as possible.

newhope360: How does MegaFood differ from other whole-food supplement companies?

RC: Our process is very different than most in the whole food category. When I first took over and asked the retailer about MegaFood, we were lumped in with our competitors pretty easily. We have some work to do there. We’re the only company that I know that’s completely vertically integrated: We bring product in from the farm and then going out the back door is a bottle of tablets going directly to the retailer.

newhope360: Do you think consumers value that transparency?

RC: Absolutely. We are intent on producing materials that allow for transparency and getting our factory to a place where we can go very deep. We’re spending a significant amount of dollars to expand our capacity from a 17,000 square foot facility into a 40,000 square foot facility, which should be done by the third or fourth quarter. Right now, we do two or three tours a month; we anticipate doing 15 or 20 tours a month.

newhope360: What are you doing to help the retailer educate?

RC: Education is really central. I’ve been in the industry for a long time now and I’m really convinced that the natural retailer has the key for proactively helping health and wellness in a broad way. Right now consumers walk into a health foods store and they are looking for answers and they spend a lot of time dialoging with the retailer. I see the manufacturer’s job as helping to facilitate that conversation. So for us it’s not only about producing a fantastic product the retailers can feel good about offering to a consumer, but it’s also about really doing everything we can to educate not only on our product, but also broaden the conversation to help educate on broader health and wellness issues.

newhope360: What about MegaFood’s new relationship with Andrew Weil, MD?

RC: We are starting a really deep and meaningful partnership with Dr. Andrew Weil, as a way to bring his content to the retailer in such a way that makes it easy for the retailer to have that conversation with the consumer, to recommend great information based on over 30 years of experience and studies.

At the same time it’s not about putting his picture on our product. For us that’s less credible. We want him to be credible, MegaFood to be credible and the retailer to be credible. And if all of that occurs than the consumer will trust what they are hearing and taking and ultimately we are affecting positively health and wellness.

newhope360: What was the genesis of the new Vegan line?

RC: Our product has always been vegetarian. We started getting calls from retailers saying, "We are looking for vegan products, certified vegan would be great." We also noticed in the marketplace a significant trend in the vegan sector. Whether you are a vegan or not, I think there are a lot of folks starting to live a semi-vegan lifestyle and doing everything they can to be vegan and making daily choices. We saw the opportunity to create a line of supplements to balance out the diet and fill the gaps that a vegan diet has specifically. So far it is our best product launch ever and it just starting shipping.

newhope360: What are your best-selling products?

RC: Our multis are consistently at the top of our top 10. I think that’s because most people find it easier to see the differences when looking at the supplements panel. We are in the process of doing a label change and trying to really call out the ingredients that we manufacture, and be more consistent in telling our story around the FoodState nutrients. We started with our vegan line and then we will slowly roll out the new label on the rest of our products through the summer.

And we get consistent feedback on our Blood Builder; it’s just a fantastic iron supplement that works without side effects [that the synthetic form can have]. We think it tells the story better than a lot of our products in terms of serving up something in a food form that your body can recognize and assimilate. This is the first year we’ve really had significant dollars to put towards R&D. Our first study is on Blood Builder—not only to show the effects, but also the fact that it works without the side effects because it’s in a food form.

newhope360: Tell us about Innate Response, your practitioner line.

RC: It’s small and growing. I’m very excited about that line now. They are actually going in a significantly different direction than MegaFood and that’s happening almost immediately. The practitioner market is expecting a different type of potency. They are expecting a different type of pill size and they prefer capsules a lot of times, so our goal is to continue to support Innate with FoodState nutrients, but to allow them to go deeper to develop products that that market wants.

We’re big believers that the natural retailer and manufacturers can get into trouble if you talk too much about the claims and push the envelope on structure/function. We would prefer to allow our Innate brand to allow practitioners to work one-on-one with a patient to go deeper and use a more therapeutic dose. Megafood will… go deeper with proactive health and wellness foundational products. So it’s a nice one-two punch for us.

newhope360: How can retailers benefit from working more closely with practitioners?

RC: I would like nothing more than to see retailers really start to see the value of practitioners and vice versa. I’ve seen some retailers have great practitioner relationships, where the practitioner recognizes that the patient needs to go buy food and filters and vitamins at the retailer, and the retailer recognizes that some consumers need to go a little deeper with health and wellness, so they should be recommending a great practitioner that’s trained.

We see it as a funnel, where at the top of the funnel you have the everyday consumer who is looking for proactive health and wellness solutions; whereas if you have somebody who’s sick or needs more specialized attention, they should go to a practitioner.

Challenges facing whole food supplements

newhope360: What are your biggest challenges?

RC: We are a fast-growing company and as a result we have to put a lot of work and effort into our operational infrastructure to support that growth… We have another dryer going in over the summer, so we basically just doubled our capacity. We’re putting in a 2,000 square foot R&D facility as a part of a 40,000 square foot project. Another 2,000 square foot will be a small mini dryer and bioreactor so we can start testing more fruits and vegetables and herbs. Going forward we want to be doing more nutrients, not less.

One on the sales side, it’s all about making it easy for the retailer and telling our story. So those are the two drums that we are beating: making sure everyone knows that we are different and why we are different.

newhope360: There's a lot of talk about "pill fatigue." How can you address that with whole food supplements, which can require more pills per dose?

RC: We think powders are really going to be a big growth area as a way to deliver nutrition. FoodState nutrients smell and taste like food. When Dr. Weil was at our facility, he went back to the end of the dryer three times to peel it off like fruit rollup and eat it. Because we make great powders, it just makes sense that we will start to do more.

newhope360: What do you think is missing from most nutrition education?

RC: You’re going to see a lot more from us on this. We want really want to take an outside-in view and talk about diet and lifestyle and exercise. If you travel a lot it’s very hard to eat well. My wife is a fantastic cook and my family eats very well, but when I’m traveling that doesn’t happen, so how does that shift in lifestyle affect your supplementation and how should you be thinking about it? What should your supplement regiment look like if you eat fantastic?

newhope360: What are your ultimate goals for MegaFood?

RC: Our goal overall is to positively affect people’s lives. We really want people to feel like we are supporting their health and wellness in a deep way. We have a big effort in house to really treat our retailers and consumers in a way that blows them away; we want them to be ecstatic.

We are really one of the smaller companies in the industry, so we have to do things in a different way. We don’t have a million dollar advertising budget; we’re pouring more money into growing the category with education and service and doing it in a different way. We don’t put our bottles in [paper] boxes for a reason. We are trying to be a good example and a good corporate citizen. We’re small and growing, we’re figuring it out as we go.

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