Ethan Hirshberg hasn't known a world without organic in his life after being born to a father whose contributions to the space are synonymous with the widely popular food.
His father, Gary Hirshberg, is the co-founder of Stonyfield, an organic yogurt, milk and snack maker. From a young age, Ethan was learning about the business. His first job was working in the company’s factory and he went on to work at most corners of Stonyfield, from quality control in the lab to marketing in the office.
"I grew up in the natural products industry. I’d go to trade shows with my dad when I was a kid," he told Food Dive. "So I always had an interest in it and that eventually developed into a passion."
Those experiences helped him when he chose to go out on his own and launch a business in organic two years ago. He decided that he wanted to create a product with the benefits of apple cider vinegar without the bitter taste, prompting him to create Ethan's — an organic, functional drink business selling shots of apple cider vinegar. Revenue at Ethan's, which recently landed a nationwide partnership with Whole Foods, is expected to double to $4 million this year.
Despite his upbringing, his father insists he never pushed him to go into the industry.
"From a young age, he was always a nonconformist rascal who chafed when rules or restrictions were set and anytime he could figure out a work-around or his own path, he did," Gary told Food Dive in an email. "Just like his dad."
Even with the experience and family connection, starting a food company can be a difficult, especially in the increasingly competitive better-for-you and organic spaces.
The Organic Trade Association reported in May that sales of organic food in the U.S. last year hit a record $47.9 billion — 5.9% higher than in 2017. Although that's slower than the 6.4% growth rate two years ago, organic food sales outpaced the broader food market as a whole.
"From a young age, he was always a nonconformist rascal who chafed when rules or restrictions were set and anytime he could figure out a work-around or his own path, he did. Just like his dad."
While Gary was forthcoming about how hard it would be to start a business in food, he has otherwise stayed quiet. He has kept his "mouth shut and respect that there are some things (his son) has to learn on his own in order to become a successful leader," Gary said.
"Ethan got to witness a lot of stress, calamities and near fatal disasters, and we made no effort to hide any of it," Gary said. "I can't say that I was consciously trying to discourage him because I actually love and get energized by facing and overcoming these challenges, but I also never wanted to sugarcoat any of this."
Stonyfield has grown a lot since it launched back in 1983, with its organic ingredient purchases now supporting hundreds of family farms, thousands of cows and more than 200,000 acres.
Stonyfield eventually partnered with Danone in 2001 when the French company purchased a 40% stake. The dairy giant fully acquired the yogurt maker in 2014 before divesting it three years later as part of an antitrust deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to complete its $12.5 billion purchase of organic-foods producer WhiteWave.
Ethan said his father's experience starting Stonyfield gave him valuable insight when he launched his business, which now boasts several different organic shot products and flavors.
"When you're founding a company, the one thing that he impressed upon me was you can only do one thing at a time," Ethan said. "That's just been a mentality thing for me to carry while I’m getting this thing going. You put one foot in front of the other."
But the best advice his father gave him has been to "stick to your mission" even if it becomes an invaluable learning experience. Ethan said he hasn't listened to investors who asked him to switch from glass to plastic since it's cheaper or not do 100% organic because he's always had that lesson from his father in the back of his head.
"We have to stay true to what we set out to do, because otherwise in the end, it will turn into something that we didn't want it to be," Ethan said.
Now that Ethan's business has started to take off and Gary remains chairman of Stonyfield, advice comes from both sides of the relationship. Gary said they offer each other help on all aspects of the business, sharing insight on different opportunities and talking over new trends.
"This experience has deepened our relationship and mutual respect. We talk and share all the time, and we’ve seen that we speak the same language and our observations enhance each of our understandings and empathy. I think he now better understands all that I went through in building Stonyfield, and I have been impressed how much quicker a learner he is than I was at his age," Gary said. "And we've had a lot of fun."