Clean in the city
The Road to Natural 2019
story and images by Rick polito
The company can know where a specific batch was grown, when it was grown, who harvested it and what procedures were followed. Clean ingredients need a clean record and Gotham Greens keeps good records.
There was no lettuce panic on Third Street, explains Gotham Green’s Chief of Staff Sarah Grossman Greene. When customers had questions. They had answers, and those records to back their answers up.
Clean and green
A story that can be told
in as little as one
flight of stairs.
Listen to the buzz about New York’s most organic borough and you’d think it only natural that Brooklyn shoppers would be able to buy lettuce and basil grown 20 feet above the produce section. But step outside the solar-panel-festooned parking lot of the Whole Foods Market on Third Street and it’s striking how remarkable what Gotham Greens has done really is.
The company is telling and selling a traceability/transparency story illustrated in one flight of stairs. With luggage in tow on the first morning of this fifth edition of “The Road to Natural,” I skipped the stairs for an elevator, but the greens story still became very clear, very quickly. Transparency is an easier sell when shoppers can look through the window and see into the greenhouse or take a tour and walk through the cleanroom where the greens are packed.
But what also became clear, early into our visit and almost surprisingly, is how closely traceability is linked to the “clean ingredients” theme of this fifth Road to Natural trip.
“We could say we are fully traceable. We know we do a lot of on-site testing all the time. We’ve never had any issues, but we can immediately pinpoint things and have a really, really rigorous food safety program.” -Sarah Grossman-Greene, Gotham Greens
There’s a lot that’s green about Gotham Greens. Integrated pest management and a controlled environment mean the lettuces can be grown without pesticides and herbicides. Hydroponic can’t be certified organic, but it can also be extremely water-efficient. And that one-story trip from harvest to checkout counter doesn’t burn a lot of fuel either.
Still, the clean ingredients angle comes into better view when we step back far past the parking lot and into late 2018 when grocers across the country were wheeling bins of romaine and radicchio into dumpsters by the tons after an e-coli outbreak proved difficult to trace. Lettuce lovers went home empty-handed, unless they walked into a certain Brooklyn Whole Foods, or any of the other stores Gotham Greens supplies from a growing network of greenhouses.
Care/of co-founder Craig Elbert, who built the company on the brand-building expertise he sharpened selling clothing through bonobos.com, says quality and clean ingredients were integral to the origin story behind the supplement subscriptions. Sitting on a couch not too many feet from that kombucha tap and the sea of white desks and computer monitors, Elbert tells the story of how he and his wife were struck by the overwhelming confusion unique to the supplement aisle when she was pregnant with their first child. When he saw that confusion as a need state in search of a solution—a classic tech entrepreneur strategy—he took the next step of looking not just at which supplements to take but what should be in them.
“We didn’t actually have a good sense of what quality meant,” Elbert says. “We knew that we wanted to make high-quality products that would increase the likelihood of impact, but we didn’t know how to define it.”
Care/of recruited staff from companies such as New Chapter to educate the startup on how to not only define quality but to ensure it. Sourcing became a priority that got integrated into the customer service and marketing teams so that not only would the best ingredients go into every one of those millions of packets, but the story behind those ingredients would be front and center to the branding. Consumers are responding, Elbert says. Growth is strong. And those consumers eventually become de facto consultants, suggesting new products for the company.
Walk into the offices of Care/of, not a block from the mouth of the Holland Tunnel in lower Manhattan, and it’d be easy to mistake the personalized supplement subscription brand for a tech startup. There’s the well-stocked kitchen with kombucha and cold brew coffee on tap. There are the high ceilings and the stand-up desks. The open-office aesthetic gleams in ubiquitous monochromatic white.
It’d be easy to mistake Care/of for a technology company because in many ways it is. An algorithm translates the results of an online questionnaire into a supplement regimen and more technology packs that collection of pills into individual packets with not only the customer’s name but riddles and quote in a “thought of the day” style matched to that customer.
But to look past the supplements and focus only on tech trappings like the behavior-design digital nudges to keep consumers on track with their nutrition is to ignore the work Care/of is doing around quality and clean ingredients.
“They come to us because they trust us to get it right,” Elbert says.
The technology of quality
Those consumer suggestions helped Care/of move into protein this year with plant-based and whey formulations. The powder packs are made with organic ingredients in an organic-certified facility, with USDA certification in the works. The same goes for the smaller maca and electrolyte packets.
Consumers can know where the maca was harvested, which trace minerals make up the electrolytes and how they are sourced. They can know that the whey comes from Irish cows grazing Irish pastures.
Millennials, who represent a core consumer group for Care/of, want clean ingredients and are going to ask the kind of questions that a company promising quality should be ready to answer, Elbert says. Care/of can put those answers at the customer’s fingertips, literally, with points, clicks and swipes.
Just like a good technology company would.
It’s good and it’s clean, she says. It’s not just good because it’s clean.
“I would never pick up a Gatorade or a Powerade or any sort of traditional sports drink, not only because of the high calories of the sugar, but the coloring and all the other sort of ingredients that everyone knows is bad for you,” Shobin says.
So she took some of her depth of knowledge on nutrition from Charlotte’s Book and some of the business chops she learned in 14 years on Wall Street to launch HALO Sport. Made with “a full spectrum of 72 ionic trace minerals,” antioxidants from the amla berry and organic lemon juice, Shobin’s drinks offer a dose of science to go with the dash of stevia she describes as just enough to counteract the bitter from the lemon and make it something consumer want to drink.
We meet at Drive495 because owner and celebrity trainer Don Saladino is on the advisory board for HALO. He calls it the first hydration beverage he’s ever wanted to drink.
“I’ve always just put water in my body,” he says.
Watching people chug down questionable sports nutrition beverages—hydration is only one of many problem subcategories—has long been disheartening for Saladino, but he sees signs that people are waking up to the idea that unhealthy ingredients are a poor way to pursue health. “My clients are a hell of a lot more aware now than they were a year ago, than they were three years ago,” Saladino says. “It’s like every day they’re starting to wake up more and more to it.”
For Shobin, the answer is offering options. And spreading the word.
Whether or not she’s counting calories, she’s counting hits on Charlotte’s Book. She’s counting new customers too.
Sitting 20 feet or so from the workout space, but not much more than arm’s reach from a cooler stocked with the 10-calorie HALO Sport bottles in lemon, lime and blood-orange, Shobin tells the story of how hard it was to find something to drink after a workout. She knew she was working hard enough to need electrolytes. She also knew the mega-brands like Gatorade and PowerAde had too many grams of sugar and too many ingredients that were too hard to pronounce and too hard on her body.
Maybe Robin Shobin looks like one of those people who doesn’t have to worry about calories because she does worry about calories. Or at least thinks about them. Maybe even counts them. When I meet her at Drive495 gym in New York’s SoHo neighborhood it’s obvious she’s counting steps or reps or minutes on the treadmill and probably her pulse during high-intensity workouts. Fitness and nutrition are obviously core values. That’s obvious to anyone who frequents the Charlotte’s Book beauty and health site she founded or follows her as @robinshobin on Instagram.
But counting calories wasn’t nearly as important to her as counting the questionable ingredients in sports hydration products when she made the decision to launch HALO Sport, a product she and her marketing team have dubbed “the cleanest hydration drink ever made.”
“I don’t want any ingredients that stay behind after I’ve eaten and digested my food,” he says. “It should go on through.”
Sharing samples of her True Moringa personal care products, Emily Cunningham says “clean ingredients” need to go beyond “what we put in our bodies or on our bodies.” True Moringa supports African communities where the moringa is harvested and customers can check their lot number online to see who harvested it and how they are benefitting from the program. “For an ingredient to be clean, the supply chain has to be clean for everybody.”
I started the day looking at clean ingredients from a “why?” perspective. Why use them? Why pay more for them. Why are they important?
That’s the question we ask Schnell before leaving.
He turns the question around. “Why would you put unsafe ingredients in your body?” he asks. “Why would you support agriculture and ingredients that aren’t organic?”
The question, he says, shouldn’t be “why use clean ingredients?”
“The question,” Schnell says, “is ‘why not?’”
“My clients are a hell of a lot more aware now than they were a year ago, than they were three years ago. It’s like every day they,re starting to wake up more and more to it.”
-Don Saladino, Drive495
The Beyond SKU accelerator culled through scores of hopeful brands to settle on the five that will be going through classes and working with investors who become mentors in the process. Beyond Brands founder Eric Schnell says clean ingredients are a basic expectation now. The bar is as high as it has ever been set in his 20-plus years in the natural products industry. “Don’t talk to me unless you’re organic or on your way to becoming organic,” he says.
The cohorts are quick to fall in behind Schnell’s marching orders.
For Sam Friedman, a founder at MUD no-dairy desserts, clean ingredients means several things. Indulgence is one of them. He has a sweet tooth and date-sweetened desserts mean less sugar. But it also means that whatever he eats doesn’t stick around, like chemicals or compounds that can build up in the body.
The music isn’t exactly throbbing on the 12th Floor at 114 E. 25th St., but the atmosphere at the Beyond SKU accelerator launch party is still far from the stilted interaction common to trade show booths. It’s a party for the five “cohort” young brands chosen for the latest incarnation of the Beyond Brands program, and each entrepreneur is both approachable and being approached as mentors, investors and other guests tuck huddle around the impromptu demo tables tucked in behind a buffet of cheeses, roasted peppers, organic vegetables and baba ghanouj.
A clean ingredient deck was a requirement to get an invitation to this party, at least for the brands, and that made it a fitting place for our last stop of the day.
A cleaner class
Read Day 2: The cost of clean
The Road to Natural 2019
That’s a clean ingredient story.