January 2005 - Baby Fresh Idea

Two sisters with five children between them put a 21st century twist on conventional baby food preparation. Learn how they took a 30-minute concept and parlayed it into a healthy enterprise called Fresh Baby.

By Vitisia Paynich

In the 1987 film, Baby Boom, New York yuppie J.C. Wiatt, played by Diane Keaton, uses her marketing savvy to put her homemade baby food on the retail chain map. While Gerber execs might dismiss the movie plot as pure Hollywood fiction, sisters Cheryl Tallman and Joan Ahlers are proving otherwise. These Fresh Baby co-founders have put their “Fresh Start Kit” and other baby products on the shelves of major retailers and natural products stores throughout the United States. How did they do it? These two full-time moms combined natural, healthy food preparation with online marketing and a refined retail strategy.

However, Tallman, CEO of Fresh Baby, came from a very different background-far from the baby food market. “I graduated from college with a degree in [biomedical] engineering in the mid-1980s,” she explains. Tallman had seven years of sales experience at IBM before venturing on her own. In 1992, she founded Touchscreen Media Group (TMG), an Internet consulting firm. There she wore many hats, serving as CEO, COO, director of business development, marketing consultant and project manager.

“Our original focus was on interactive technology [that included] laptop presentations, [computer] games, touchscreen kiosks, and those types of things,” notes Tallman. “In 2000, we packaged the whole thing up and sold it to a technology company called Computer Technology Associates (CTA).”

As part of the deal with CTA, she agreed to stay on with the new company for a brief period.

Tallman, however, says her sister took a completely different path. “She spent her first five years in the professional world, and was the number-one salesperson,” she explains. Ahlers, Fresh Baby’s director of sales, left the business world, married and devoted the next 10 years to raising four children.

The “Fresh Start Kit,” is designed for busy parents and caregivers who are willing to devote at least 30 minutes a week to prepare fresh, healthy food for their infants. The kit includes instructions and storage trays.

At her home in Los Alamos, N.M., Ahlers was disenchanted with the commercially processed (jarred) baby food sold at grocery stores, and was equally dismayed by the fact that there were no all-natural alternatives for healthy and hassle-free feeding. So she opted to create her own baby food recipes using fresh vegetables.

Back in New York City, as Tallman was finishing her two-year contract with CTA, she decided to weigh her options for the future. “In the meantime, I had a baby, and I was sitting around one day trying to decide whether or not I was actually going to go on interviews [or] start another business,” she says. During that time, Tallman felt a bit displaced.

“Things move quickly and a lot of corporations think you’re unemployable-and you kind of have to figure out what to do,” she confesses. But one thing was for certain, she did not want to start another consulting firm.

Of course, she didn’t realize at the time that her sister held the key to her next money-making idea. When Tallman’s son, Spencer, was ready for solid foods, Ahlers sent her a package with instructions on preparing homemade baby food and ice cube trays for freezing a week’s worth of meals. The sister urged Tallman to follow the recipes, as opposed to feeding her child processed foods.

Tallman recalls one day making baby food from her sister’s recipes. “I just thought wouldn’t that be kind of interesting to package the whole concept [of] making baby food, and see if there was a market for it?” she says. Meanwhile, Tallman and her family moved from New York to Petoskey, Mich., where her business idea began to really take shape.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Ahlers. Her youngest child was starting kindergarten, and she was ready to go back into the workforce.
So, in October 2002, Fresh Baby was born.

Childhood Obesity Quick Facts
Fresh Baby provides visitors to its Website (www.freshbaby.com) with helpful research from government agencies, health organizations and major media sources. The following data currently can be found on the company’s site.

The average 11-year-old boy weighs 11
pounds more than
in 1973.
Source: New York Times, 09/04/03

Nearly 16 million six- to 19-year olds are
overweight or at risk of being overweight.
Source: CDC

Overweight adolescents have a 70-percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.
Source: National Center for Health Statistics

Obesity rates in adolescents have tripled in the past 20 years.
Source: American Health Association

Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s top priorities for fighting obesity:

  • Decrease TV viewing time
  • Increase physical activity
  • Increase consumption of fruits and vegetables
  • Increase breastfeeding rates

From the beginning, Tallman says she tried to look at the overall picture of where natural living was going, as well as the controversy of processed foods versus whole foods. “Based on my research, I saw there were trends that were moving in very positive directions toward natural living,” she notes. “I think the obesity epidemic was probably the reason why I thought there wasn’t just a small opportunity but a huge opportunity for going for the business.”

According to a September 2004 report on “Childhood Obesity” from the Institute of Medicine/National Academy of Sciences, the number of obese preschool children has doubled in the past three decades, while 30 to 40 percent of these children run the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. What’s more, the study reports that one in six children attending school today are overweight, while 80 percent of obese children will likely become obese adults.

Tallman says she believed the more media attention the obesity epidemic garnered, perhaps, the more parents would realize they would need to take action and commit themselves and their children to healthier eating habits. “With a small company with a tremendously small voice, I thought riding a wave of what could be an essentially large voice would be the way that we could be successful,” she contends.

The next step was to create the flagship product. Tallman and Ahlers named their product the “Fresh Start Kit,” which features a “Cworkbook,” combination cookbook-workbook containing 40 recipes; a 22-minute video that offers easy-to-follow instructions on preparing the meals; a quick reference card containing nutritional guidelines; and two freezer trays designed for 24 pre-measured one-ounce servings. “[We] called it the Fresh Start Kit, because we’re going to give your child a fresh start on a path to healthy eating,” explains Tallman.

The kit was developed together with a pediatric nurse practitioner from Yale University. “[She] was our primary person who was on the product development team,” Tallman explains. “In addition, we had two nutrition coordinators. One is a dietician, and one is a speech therapist for children.” The two coordinators helped to review the products before they went to market.

As Tallman and Ahlers were beginning to roll out their Fresh Start Kit, they considered different marketing channels, which included retail and DRTV. “The original idea was to focus primarily on direct-to-consumer, and I had felt that the wholesale side of our business would be smaller than what [it was] becoming,” recalls Tallman. “We wanted to do an infomercial appealing to parents and do more direct response marketing.”

The company even tried its hand at the home shopping medium, appearing on QVC on July 1, 2003 to market the baby food kit. Tallman says the product didn’t perform well. The company even pitched the kit to HSN, but the network told Fresh Baby it didn’t sell baby products.

She admits that they misestimated the market. “I mean, it kind of sounds funny but we thought this product would sell very well in baby stores like Babies ” Us,” Tallman says. She says they discovered that the baby market was relatively small; and therefore, there weren’t enough retail outlets specific to that market. The two women, however, also discovered that parents who were writing into their Website believed their product belonged on a completely different type of shelf. “We didn’t really realize we had a grocery product,” she confesses.

Tallman adds that from then on, they moved away from direct response marketing and concentrated more on the grocery chains and natural products and health food stores.

The other aspect that Fresh Baby had to confront was the product’s unique selling proposition (USP). “When we originally [launched] the product, we really focused more on the healthy aspects,” notes Tallman. “But, the overwhelming number-one consumer benefit that we heard over and over again was, ‘Wow! I can’t believe how easy this is.’” Thus, the company altered its USP. “We’re the only product for making baby food in less than 30 minutes a week. The kit comes in a box. You open it up; you get started. It’s easy. It’s convenient. There’s no reason why you don’t have 30 minutes to give your child more healthy and all natural foods,” explains Tallman.

The other benefit is that preparing food at home gives caregivers enhanced control of their baby’s diet and knowledge of what ingredients are used in the meal. In addition, buying fresh saves parents or caregivers money, as homemade food averages $55 during the child’s first year compared to $300-$500 with processed alternatives, according to the company.

At the Natural Products Expo East, Fresh Baby’s kit became a “Most Innovative” award finalist.

“One of the biggest challenges that we met very early on was at our first trade show,” notes Tallman. Fresh Baby exhibited the kit at the Natural Products Expo. Tallman says their product had nice packaging with soft colors that gave a boutique look to the kit. However, she confesses that she didn’t believe the packaging was that important, especially if a product was being displayed in a baby boutique.

Tallman describes exhibiting the kit at the trade show when a frozen foods manager from a major grocery store chain approached their booth. “[He walked] up and said, ‘You have the best idea I’ve seen at the show but your packaging is horrible!’ And we were like, ‘Come back here! Tell us what’s wrong with it,’” she says. The man explained to them that on a grocery store shelf, you have three seconds to draw the customer to your product. “You need bold colors. You need to change the name,” he told them. Although the man spoke bluntly, Tallman says it was exactly what they needed to hear.

“That in itself was probably the biggest hurdle that we had to meet, because we had to look like a Gerber or a Beechnut,” she admits. The other hurdle was the fact that the product was not food. Non-food products are purchased by a different buyer in the store who must negotiate shelf space in the food aisle. “That is something that we continue to deal with, and all non-food products have that same problem. So, there’s no magic solution,” Tallman says. The company did revamp its packaging but decided to keep the name. In 2004, with its new packaging, Fresh Baby was voted one of the top five new products at Natural Foods Expo East.

Tallman contends, “One of the things that we decided to do as a company, was to establish ourselves as credible experts in healthy eating for children. But in order to do that, we realized that it was very important to provide a lot of free information.” In addition to providing information about its baby products, the Fresh Baby Website features research data on health and nutrition for children, educational tips for parents and an area to post questions and comments. Parents and caregivers can sign up to receive the company’s monthly newsletter, called “Fresh Ideas,” which also provides advice for parents and other valuable information.

In fact, the newsletter has been incredibly successful for the company, with readership growing at a dramatic rate since its debut in February 2003.

As the founder of an Internet consulting firm, Tallman knew it was vital to make sure that Fresh Baby had a prominent position on the major search engines, so that their site could be easily accessed. In addition, “we answer every piece of e-mail within 48 hours,” she affirms. “We don’t care if you are a customer or non-customer.”

The company even calls on its newsletter subscribers and product customers to review new products and packaging in development.

In terms of online sales, Fresh Baby products are available at such online retailers as BabySensors.com and Amazon.com.

As Fresh Baby continues to grow steadily in sales and distribution, the number of employees remains in its infancy. Tallman handles all the marketing, while Ahlers takes care of the sales.

The company enlisted the help of Fosdick Fulfillment in Wallingford, Conn., to handle the fulfillment part of the business. “They provided me with all the services that we needed,” notes Tallman.

Even the company’s accounting services are outsourced to a firm based in Northern Michigan.

Today, the Fresh Baby product line designed for today’s busy parents and caregivers includes homemade baby food kits, baby food cookbooks, baby food and breast milk storage trays, breastfeeding reminders and child development diaries.

These products have found their way onto the stores shelves of more than 500 stores, such as: Whole Foods Market, Earth Fare, One Step Ahead and the Right Start. The company also will be expanding into Canada thought a distribution deal with Grobag Canada Ltd., a juvenile products distributor in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

In addition, Fresh Baby has a distribution deal with Biblio, one of the largest independent book distributors in the United States.

“In the next five years, I would like to get the company to the point where it has excellent shelf space or coverage in natural products and baby stores,” says Tallman. “We’re at the point where we’re in medium-sized natural food chains, moving to the larger ones. And as soon as we get our feet wet there, we’ll start moving into the mainstream grocers. These are stores that have realized that organic and natural foods are becoming a huge retail segment, and [are now] building stores that will accommodate those kind of more conventional and natural products.”

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