For someone with as many credentials in the food industry as him, John Foraker is extremely approachable.
But there's one sure way to make him laugh: Compare his celebrity in the natural and organic food world to that of actress Jennifer Garner, who is the chief brand officer of the fresh baby food company Foraker currently heads, Once Upon a Farm.
"When you run a company like Annie's, you're bound to get really well known, irrespective of me. But, no, I will never be as famous as Jennifer Garner. People love her," Foraker told Food Dive from Once Upon a Farm's booth at Natural Products Expo East last week.
But surely many of the thousands of attendees at last week's convention have the same kind of love for Foraker. He was CEO of organic powerhouse Annie's as the category picked up steam in the 2000s, helping organic go from niche to mainstream. As an outspoken advocate for natural and organic food, as well as many social causes, he brought Annie's to IPO in March 2012. After the first day of trading, shares of BNNY — for Annie's bunny mascot, of course — were up 89%.
Two years later, General Mills bought Annie's for $820 million. Despite the acquisition, Foraker stayed at the helm of the company until last year, when he announced he was becoming CEO of Once Upon a Farm.
Food Dive caught up with Foraker about his journey in the organic food industry, how he's harnessed the CEO's platform to make a difference and the food power brands of tomorrow. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
FOOD DIVE: What is new with Once Upon a Farm?
JOHN FORAKER: What we are introducing right now are nine baby food cups. Up until now we've been only in pouch format. ... But if you look at the conventional baby food category, only about 25% is done in pouches. About 75% is done in a jar or a cup. ...We're going to be shipping that in December, launching in January. It's the same basic idea. It's cold-pressed baby food. Really cool flavors in three stages.
Three of them are WIC eligible. Our long-term goal is to be the first fresh WIC baby food in at least a few states, and then we'll build it out over time.
The business is doing great, and we're trying to create a new category called Fresh Baby. You'll notice when I got here, one of the first things I did and our team did ... was launch smoothies in a pouch, because we didn't want to build a brand as just [for] baby. It is really kid all the way up to about age 12. Right now we are building out the baby line. Smoothies are growing really rapidly, and we have a lot of innovation coming over the next few years to fill that continuum.
How did you get started in organic food in the very beginning?
FORAKER: In 1994, I was in business school at UC Berkeley, and between my first and second year, I started a specialty food company with two entrepreneurs in the Napa Valley. Right about that time, we had our first child. His name is Jack.
I was building this specialty food business, and I came home one day, and there were some strawberries that were on a shelf by themselves in the refrigerator. And I come in, and I was hungry, and I grab them, and my wife’s like, "Oh, no no no. Those are not for you. Those are for Jack." And I'm like, "What are you talking about?" She goes, "My kids are going to eat organic and those things cost three times as much. Your strawberries are on the shelf down below."
And so that was my first consumer exposure to organic, and I’m like, "I need to learn what this is about."
We ended up doing organic products in that company, and I got involved in Annie's in 1999. They had just launched some organic products before the USDA certification came out in 2002. We just grew that business. Over time, we converted Annie's to mostly organic and we were really involved in seminal fights in GMO labeling. We were always part of a coalition of people trying to do the right thing for organic. My partners in crime were Stonyfield, Organic Valley, Clif Bar, players like that. I love that collaborative spirit about this industry. So that's how it started.
What were some of the struggles that you faced working with an organic company back in the day?
FORAKER: So the earliest struggles that we had were supply. Obviously, consumer awareness was really low for organic. It started growing over time. It's still growing now, but even today there is confusion among consumers across natural and organic.
There was not as many organic farmers, and demand for the ingredients was growing really fast. One of the funny things that happened was there was this organic ingredient that we used to take for granted. I think it was organic corn starch. We just assumed it was fine, we had a supplier. All of sudden, that ingredient became incredibly hard to get for reasons no one could explain. And it wasn't just us, it was everybody, and it was for a period of months. And then we saw this announcement that one of the big food companies was introducing an organic product and they'd basically been buying up everything in the industry and stocking it up in a warehouse.
That kind of stuff was happening as organic became more mainstream, and these big CPG companies started doing big launches and getting involved. The scale at which they do everything is so big. So the industry had to adapt, and it’s still adapting.
How did you build Annie's from something small to what it became?
FORAKER: When I first saw that brand, I fell in love with it. Not because the mac and cheese was good — which it was — but because the brand, it was quirky. It had all these slogans and statements on the package that were all going at sustainability and anti-war and peace and love your neighbor. All these emotional things, which I thought were amazing. This brand had an incredible emotional connection with consumers: moms, but also young adults that were idealistic and cared about these things.
"We were competing against Kraft. We always said — and it's true to this day — they could always outspend us, you know, a hundred to one, but they could never be more authentic than we are."
CEO, Once Upon a Farm; former CEO of Annie's
What really changed the game for Annie's was the emergence of social media. We were one of the very first consumer brands that developed a Facebook page and started really being active, like really early. We used to have a guestbook on our website, which ... most people [who are young today] don't even know that that even is a thing. We used to interact on our guestbook. It was hilarious. Then Facebook comes in. We leaned into that really early and it became such a great tool for us.
At Annie's, we were competing against Kraft. We always said — and it's true to this day — they could always outspend us, you know, a hundred to one, but they could never be more authentic than we are. So it allowed us to talk about ourselves and also to take positions on social issues that we thought were really important and spread it.
How was the landscape for organic back then different compared to now?
FORAKER: There were a lot fewer competitors. There was a lot lower awareness, and organic products were really viewed by most retailers as very niche. ...Park Slope Co-op or Fresh Fields or these chains ... that ultimately became Whole Foods, they understood it and you could buy those products there. But you would never find those products in a Safeway or a Kroger or a Target.
So what's happened is the consumer's gone more mainstream, retail has realized that that's a real opportunity and distribution has grown. Now its accessibility is probably the biggest difference. You can walk into any retailer, I don't care who it is, and you will find organic products there.
When I first started talking to retailers about organic … in [the] late '90s, early 2000s, people thought it was just a fad. Small and fad-y and niche-y. And now it is the mainstream.
Like this show, ... this is the food show. It used to be the big packaged food show in Chicago [that] the CPG companies went to. This is it now. This is the epicenter of all innovation and all that.
Going back to one of the things that really got Annie's on the map, why did you decide to IPO?
FORAKER: The main reason I decided to IPO was because we had a really supportive capital partner that had been in business for a long time. It was Solera Capital in New York City. And I knew I needed to give them some capital back. They'd been invested for over 10 years. So usually that means you do a recapitalization or you sell. It doesn't usually mean you go public. But I remember talking to Molly Ashby, who runs Solera, and I was like. "I think Annie's could be the company that could go public."
I explained why: because [of] the emotional connection to consumers, the opportunity to grow. And she agreed, and so we talked to investment bankers, and they agreed, and so we took it public in 2012. It was wildly successful, and it was great for the brand. We raised so much awareness for the brand, and it really positioned us as a leader in the space in a way that I didn't really fully appreciate that it would, and that I loved.
"[Going public] was wildly successful and it was great for the brand. We raised so much awareness for the brand, and it really positioned us as a leader in the space in a way that I didn't really fully appreciate that it would, and that I loved."
CEO, Once Upon a Farm; former CEO of Annie's
The main reason I didn't sell the business at that time and decided to go public was because I wanted to keep it independent and continue to build its values and what it stood for so that it would stand the test of time. And I think that's shown that it worked, because it’s standing the test of time inside [General] Mills now.
When General Mills acquired Annie's, had you been in talks with them for awhile? And had any other big food companies approached you?
FORAKER: There was a period [when] we had a tough couple quarters because commodity prices were getting out of control, and we had not done a very good job managing that. So our stock was under a little bit of pressure, and then the phone started ringing. When that happens, it's a public company, we needed to figure out what to do, and we decided the best thing would be to find a great partner to go to the next chapter with and we ended up with General Mills.
In general, from what you saw working with General Mills and also what you see now, what is Big Food's relationship to the organic and natural space?
FORAKER: I think they're integral to it because now they own a lot of organic brands. They're investing a lot in organic supply and infrastructure. General Mills just invested in a big project in South Dakota. It's a 35,000-acre ranch that's being converted. … I think organic is a very mainstream industry and they're going to be part of it now, whereas they were very separate from it many years ago.
When you left Annie’s, why did you choose Once Upon a Farm as your next destination?
FORAKER: I could have had a lot of opportunities to run big companies and small companies and start things. ... I was still running Annie's for General Mills [about two years after the acquisition] and I had a responsibility for a lot of the natural organic portfolio there, and I was on the U.S. leadership team and everything.
I said when something touches my heart, I'll know that that's the right thing to do, and this brand literally touched my heart. I was an investor in it first. I loved what it was doing, although it was very small. Then one day my phone rang, and Jennifer Garner wanted to meet me. She was interested in doing something in the food business, and had been looking for 10 years. She spent over 10 years working with Save the Children in the U.S., and has three kids and is very attuned to the issues about healthy eating with children and the challenges — especially that low-income families have.
I was a half-hour late for our hour-long meeting, and then it went three hours. We basically talked about how can business be a force for good in the food space, in kid nutrition. We just have so many common passions around that. We high-fived at the end of that meeting and were like, we're gonna do something together and let's see if we can make it this.
Speaking of food companies being a force for good, as CEO you're also definitely a force for a lot of different things that you believe in. What made you start taking the CEO perch to talk about both the industry and also larger issues?
FORAKER: I grew into it over time. To me, what I loved about Annie's was it was an optimistic business that had a view that business could make the world better — at the same time, coexisting with profits and shareholders and all that stuff. There are companies, like Ben & Jerry's, out there that had talked about that, ... but it was kind of rare. So I saw the power of that, and as I grew in that role, and just grew confident in my position in the industry, I felt like I should speak up about things that I really cared about.
Here at Once Upon a Farm, I've been talking up about issues that I know our consumers care a lot about, like child separation at the border, … the Dreamers and most recently, paid medical leave [and] paid family leave. I think you have to as a leader — and I encourage other leaders to — understand where your core values are, understand where your business' are. Hopefully, they align. If you don't, you should leave that company. It should have the same values right?
"Your goal as a CEO is not to make everyone happy. It's to really build trust with your consumers about what your brand is about. So I encourage people to do things that are authentic and that will build trust with their consumers. And sometimes those positions are not popular broadly, and that's OK."
CEO, Once Upon a Farm; former CEO of Annie's
Once you know that, feel confident in standing up for those. I think ... what Nike just did with Colin Kaepernick was a classic, amazing example of it at the biggest company you could possibly do it at. CEOs should be comfortable doing that, and your goal as a CEO is not to make everyone happy. It's to really build trust with your consumers about what your brand is about. So I encourage people to do things that are authentic and that will build trust with their consumers. And sometimes those positions are not popular broadly, and that's OK.
Do you think that that was a part of the success of Annie's, and now for Once Upon a Farm?
FORAKER: It was definitely a part of the success of Annie's because we were willing to take positions that were not popular. In my post I actually put a picture up ... of a bunch of mac and cheese boxes lined up in a [LGBTQ] pride color format. We did that at Annie's years before companies were willing to possibly associate with that. We took some heat, I had consumers emailing me directly saying, "How dare you do that?" But I knew that our consumers supported it — most [of them] — and I really didn't care because I thought it was the right thing. I think because of that, consumers came to trust the brand and really understood that there were really authentic people behind it.
So it bonded us together, and at Once Upon a Farm, I think it's the same thing. We took a position on paid family leave that I wrote a lot about. We did our own policy ourselves, we advocated nationally for it, we're partnering with other companies to do it. That's something that people — and companies everywhere, but in our space — should really do. … I want leaders to stand up and say things like that because that's the only way you can affect change. Government and nonprofits cannot make all the change we need. We need business to be a force for good. So that's what I strongly believe and that's why I do it.
I've seen that you have a lot of different investments in food companies. How do you choose?
FORAKER: You know, it's hard, and it's evolved over time. I would say early on I would fall in love with a product. It's now much more become I'm falling in love with an entrepreneur and what the capabilities [of the brand] are. Also, I'm looking for businesses that are really challenging [and] disrupt the status quo.
I was an early investor in Wild Friends [nut butter]. ... I love them. They're so innovative. What they do in social media is really industry leading. For a small company, they're doing stuff that a lot of big companies admire, right?
There's an entrepreneur I just invested in, A Dozen Cousins, which is [former General Mills marketing manager] Ibraheem [Basir]'s company. He's an incredible marketer, and I know he's going to really do something special there.
What kind of advice would you give to another brand that is trying really hard to get out to the market?
FORAKER: I would say there is a lot of experienced people in the industry. Network a lot, talk to other companies that have done it — and I'm not talking about [people] like me. There are so many entrepreneurs that have faced the exact same challenges that you're stressing about and wondering whether you can do.
The most important thing to do is prove that you've got something that really sells before you try to put it everywhere. That's a common mistake a lot of entrepreneurs make, so don't make that mistake. Surround yourself with people that are more experienced than you. Be honest about what you're really good at and where your experience lies, and be willing to bring in people that complement you.
"The power brands of the future, many of them are being hatched right here. Twenty years from now, we'll be talking about a brand that probably was started at this show that's changing the world."
CEO, Once Upon a Farm; former CEO of Annie's
Where do you see the organic and natural industry going in the next five to 10 years?
FORAKER: Right now, organic is about 5% of U.S. food. I think it's going to be 20[%]. I can't tell an exact time frame it's going to get there, but I'm confident of it for two reasons. One is the big CPG players are now in it and it's attracted business for them. Second, and probably way more important, is that … if you talk to millennials and you talk to the generation after them, like what's important to them, clean, simple food like organic is right in the sweet spot of that. And there's no way to me that that's not gonna be a much bigger business in the future than it is now. It's just obvious, it is just a question of how fast it gets there.
When you look at all these brands here, what do you see? How do you react to it as somebody that's been in all stages of working with a natural and organic food company?
FORAKER: I just love the entrepreneurial spirit and the optimism and the innovation. The innovation at this show is just crazy, it's insane. That doesn't mean that all of it's gonna be commercially successful. Sometimes it's too early, sometimes it's too late and there are other people that have already done it. But anyway, I just love people that have a passion to take a risk and go, and this is such an ecosystem for that. It's amazing.
So I'm very energized when I come back from this show. I get pumped up and excited and I learn. I'm learning from people all the time. I learned from the guys across from me. I'm learning from people who have been in the industry 20 years longer than I have. It's just having an open mind to new ideas and new ways of doing things, and new ingredients, new consumers, all that stuff.
The power brands of the future, many of them are being hatched right here. Twenty years from now, we'll be talking about a brand that probably was started at this show that's changing the world. And it might not even be in 10 to 20 years. It might be five. That's so exciting, you know?