Growing up on a farm in Idaho, Drew Facer and his family would harvest red potatoes from their garden before cooking and mixing them with peas and a sweet cream sauce.
Today, Facer hasn't left his potato roots far behind. He's spent more than two decades at Idahoan, the country's largest producer of mashed potatoes — the last six of them as CEO.
Facer's role leading the privately held company — also known for its hash browns and potato-based soups, among other spud-centered items — comes amid a consumer push toward snacking, better-for-you foods and eating on the go, as well as trendy diets such as keto and paleo.
The sudden popularity of those trends can be tempting for a company to latch on to, especially as competitors and young upstarts do the same and reap the financial windfalls that comes with it. Facer remembers the Atkins craze 20 years ago. Carb-shunning consumers avoided macronutrients, causing sales at Idahoan to drop 20%. They company's board got really nervous.
"I said 'Hold, hold, hold on, don't make any erratic changes because this will pass.' You have to be very careful not (to have a) knee jerk reaction because you can't afford to take your company through that," Facer said. "You have to just know what your core values are and what you do best. Because otherwise, if you're going to go with all the fads and trends, one: You're never going to keep up and, two: It's hard to predict what is long term. You have to be in touch with what your consumer base really wants."
Facer's prognostication with Atkins proved correct. Six months after the sharp drop in sales, revenue rebounded to where it was before the craze. Idahoan, he said, has been careful to embrace long-lasting trends like authenticity, quality, convenience and affordability, while shunning those that could cause financial and operational headaches.
The company has positioned itself to benefit from these attributes by using only Idaho potatoes, working locally with the same farmers with whom they have partnered for decades, and delivering a flavorful product that can be prepared quickly and conveniently. It has introduced a range of new products, such as soups and a Cheese Across America line featuring its iconic fresh-dried potatoes made with regional cheeses Wisconsin cheddar, Monterey Pepper Jack and Vermont white cheddar.
The strategy has proven to be a success. While the company won't disclose sales, Facer said revenue at Idahoan is growing annually in the high single digits to low-teens. Idahoan also is profitable.
And household penetration — defined as the percentage of households in a market buying the brand in a year —rose 5 percentage points in the last 12 months to around 30% as Idahoan stepped up to promote its products more online, hand out free samples through mailers and target customers at events such as NASCAR.
"There is a lot of opportunity to grow and introduce the brand so we haven't felt the need to get" outside of our core product offerings, Facer said. "For us, that means staying in the center of the store."
For now, he said Idahoan has no immediate plans to expand into other parts of the supermarket through offerings such as ready-made mashed potatoes or potato salad anytime soon. Instead the company will focus on creating new products that resonate with consumers and boosting its household penetration.
"Our brand does resonate beyond the categories we currently are in. Never say never," Facer said. "That's one of the principles that we live by as an organization. You cannot be complacent because you got to continue to move. You got to support the legacy of growth that's been such an important part of our culture."