Elizabeth Stein started her company, Purely Elizabeth, shortly after the 2007/2008 economic recession. She has hope for today’s entrepreneurs going through the financial ups and downs of a volatile market.
In her first three years, the Purely Elizabeth brand, famous for their granola, had 230 to 260 percent year-on-year growth, she says. That too, offering what was considered a “premium” product in a category that had been filled with sugary granola, made with inexpensive ingredients. Experts, she says, speculated they would not be able to retain that fast growth. But from 2014 to 2018, the company continued to grow at a rate of 65 percent. In 2017, General Mill’s investment arm, 301 Inc., put $3 million into the business
“Surround yourself with people who are encouraging and supportive that let you jump off and dive into [the startup]. And don’t get hung up on having everything perfect before you launch. Many entrepreneurs get stuck in the planning process,” Stein advises.
Having self-funded the company, Stein had full control in the early years, she says. That led her to focus on ingredients: paying top-dollar for ingredients such as gluten-free organic oats and coconut sugar. “The price difference was significant: our gluten-free organic oats would go for $1.80 a pound whereas regular oats were going for $.25 a pound, at the time.”
Stein’s path to Purely Elizabeth came by accident: as a nutrition counselor, who actually wanted to build a business that would include one-on-one consultations and customized, integrated health programs for clients, Stein actually stumbled into an entrepreneurial career. She had made gluten-free muffins to hand out a triathlon in 2008 to promote her counseling business. The muffins were a hit and athletes at the event were asking how to make them. So, she transitioned to making muffin mixes almost overnight — a business that she had no background or experience in.
“In my nutrition education, we were looking at ingredients that are popular today — chia, coconut oil, millet flour, for example. In 2007, nothing in the gluten-free market was actually healthy,” she says.
That’s why the muffin mixes, albeit designed to be a marketing tool, served as a unique launchpad for Stein, in a niche gluten-free market at the time. She took her gluten-free muffin mix to a Fancy Food show where she sold $10,000 worth of product in a few hours. That was when she realized she had a business, though she ended up moving on from the mixes to honing in on granola. For years, Stein recreated the granola market with fellow food entrepreneurs who want to added more nutrient-dense ingredients to the category and move away from just sugar and carbs. Because their product didn’t look like what had preceded them, it required patience and explaining, she recalls. “One grocery store chain didn’t know where to even place us in the store: were we in the cereal aisle or a snack aisle— they went with snack at first.”
Now, Purely Elizabeth is adding more products to the lineup: granola with MCT oil, pancake mixes with unique flours like teff and tigernut, millet (harkening back to her roots as a gluten-free muffin entrepreneur), and even a body scrub inspired by the coconut sugar farmers in Indonesia that she sources from. Run by women, the coconut sugar supplier shared that the women use the sugar routinely to keep their skin smooth. “That put the idea in my head but I wanted to see how we could connect it back to the farmers producing the sugar.”
Hence, 5 percent of sales go back to the women-owned coconut sugar facility. But that’s just one small component of Stein’s desire to give back. As a B Corp, the company has continuously donated to a variety of non-profits: the Rodale Institute, Slow Food USA, Wellness in Schools, and more.
To help with relief efforts for the pandemic, they donated two pallets of granola, bars, and oatmeal to the Boulder Valley School District, where the company is located; 10 percent of online sales went to the Food Bank for New York City in April; and over 15,000 nut and seed bars to Baby2Baby, a nonprofit supporting low-income parents.
That generosity will continue, she says. Currently, the brand is putting 10 percent of their proceeds from new MCT Oil granola to Soul Fire Farm, an organization that’s addressing food deserts a community farm, especially for communities of color.