As we move into 2021 and continue to grapple with the pandemic, wellness has gone to the next level for everyone, but especially within the food and beverage world. We've already rounded up makers to watch who are embracing the "food as medicine" approach yet today, we're going behind the scenes of the wellness journey for Michelle Razavi, co-founder of ELAVI protein snacks.
Michelle details for us how she came up with the idea of a collagen-based protein bar; how she and her co-founder Nikki Elliott managed their launch last November; and then how they pivoted when the pandemic struck. She also shares her biggest win and what their 2021 goals are. Read more about Michelle's journey below. You can also follow ELAVI on Instagram @heyelavi.
Growing up, did you have an interest in the food and beverage industry? OR When did you first become interested in the food and beverage industry?
As a kid, I've always loved grocery shopping and found it to be a place to zen out, explore, and learn. I enjoy visiting all types of stores–farmer's markets, Costco, Whole Foods, specialty food stores, etc. It was also one of my favorite things to do while traveling internationally (pre-COVID) because it was the best way to immerse into the culture–Japanese markets are quite possibly my favorite. I never imagined starting my own food company, but when reflecting back on what lights me up, it all makes sense.
Where did the inspiration for your product come from?
I first discovered collagen almost a decade ago while interning abroad in South Korea, a country known for being 10-15 years ahead of the world on wellness/beauty trends. This was well before collagen became popular in the US and it intrigued me as an ingredient in the Korean smoothies I would pick up after work.
I learned that consuming collagen is not a new concept–many cultures have been consuming broth soups or all parts of the animals for centuries–and that our natural collagen production declines in our mid-twenties. Fast forward to juggling a corporate job and teaching fitness classes at 27, where I struggled finding something to reliably fuel my body, not upset my stomach, and be something I looked forward to everyday.
I began making my own collagen protein bars and noticed significant improvements in my mental and physical performance, my hair/skinails, and my gut health—and wanted to help others experience the same benefits.
Can you tell us a bit more about your product?
ELAVI is a functional snack designed to keep your body strong and your taste buds satisfied. We've reinvented the overly-processed, stick to your teeth, fake-tasting protein bar into a decadent, melt-in-your-mouth snack made with ingredients your body needs to thrive.
We use sustainably-sourced collagen, plant protein, and antioxidant superfoods and leave out the inflammatory gluten, dairy, refined sugars, and artificial sweeteners. Our mission is to make collagen snackable by creating an elevated product that can fuel our customers through the hectic days, visibly strengthen their bodies, and also serve as a healthy indulgence.
When did you decide to start selling your product? What were the early days of business like?
We launched on Black Friday of 2019 and had a couple months running the company before the pandemic hit. We're bootstrapped to date and from Day 1 we did anything we could to save money. We turned my apartment into a storage and packing facility, stayed up late fulfilling orders and becoming regulars at the post office. We personally dropped off boxes to our friends and retail partners in San Francisco to save money on postage. I would visit stores to monitor inventory and rearrange our products to make sure they looked nice on shelves.
It truly took a village and we tapped into our community for help. We asked favors from our talented friends who were graphic designers, photographers, accountants, and entrepreneurs, as well as friends who worked at Facebook and Google to help us with ad credits and Google analytics. We had this mindset that we could figure anything out through Google, Youtube, or ask for help and that was crucial to our success. Despite it consuming our lives, we were energized by the momentum and the daily messages from customers praising the bars.
What has been the hardest part of launching a product so far?
Staying on top of all the logistics. There's so much that goes on behind the scenes to bring a food product to market–formulation with food scientists, sampling prototypes, package design, inventory forecasting, budgeting for large purchase orders, setting up shipping and fulfillment logistics, making sure we're complying with FDA standards, marketing, the list goes on.
Even with our backgrounds as project managers and financial analysts, there was still a huge learning curve for us to go to market as first-time food founders. I had to quit my full-time job just to manage everything and my co-founder, Nikki Elliott, was sleeping about four hours a night, juggling a full-time job to help. Now that we've gone through three production runs in the past year, we know how to plan ahead, what questions to ask, and what to negotiate.
What has been your proudest moment as a founder?
Getting ELAVI accepted into Erewhon Market in LA within nine months of launching and getting that first reorder request from them. Erewhon has extremely high standards for allowing new products in and as a young brand, it was incredibly validating to hear the buyer loved our bars.
On top of that, we were dealing with a global pandemic with buyers hesitant to bring in new products, supply chain issues from COVID delaying our production run, California wildfires in the summer, and grocery store capacity restrictions in the winter. To say these were unprecedented times was an understatement - the odds were against us as a new brand and it was easy to feel defeated by conditions out of our control.
With a strong product and sheer grit, we finally got in and it still feels surreal to see them on the shelves.
What can we expect next?
So many things! We're currently formulating our Spring/Summer flavor and are about to announce a new evolution of our product line. We can't say too much about it yet, but this has been requested by a lot of our customers and we're excited to roll out with it soon. We're currently fundraising for our seed round to help us continue our growth and innovate faster with new products.
How has Covid-19 affected your business?
When we launched Nov 2019, the market was different. Our customers were on-the-go, active, traveling, going on epic adventures and relied on protein bars to fuel them. There was a gap for a truly clean high-protein bar that tasted amazing and delivered functional ingredients like marine collagen conveniently. Our growth strategy was to build brand awareness with fitness studios, endurance events, and specialty coffee shops - meeting our health-conscious target market directly.
Covid-19 changed all of that. We couldn't do samplings, we couldn't meet with buyers or investors at Expo West (a natural products expo that announced its cancellation literally as I was about to board the plane), and we both got furloughed from the gym we taught at.
We swiftly pivoted to a more digital focus, nurtured our existing San Francisco retailers, and leaned more into positioning ourselves as a healthy snack over a protein bar. I negotiated as much as I could with our vendors to keep our costs low and Nikki kept a strong eye on our finances to make sure we didn't go into the red. We launched our second flavor in May and most recently our third in November, using pre-sale order revenue to finance our production runs.
This year was arguably the hardest year for small businesses and experiencing it during our first year was even more challenging. Fortunately, people are snacking more than ever and prioritizing their health, so our bars help keep people strong and healthy. Despite the many obstacles we faced, I'm extremely proud that we've maintained growth in a category (the bar category) that hasn't been doing as well this year and that speaks to the strong product that is truly in a league of its own.
What advice do you have for other early-stage food and beverage entrepreneurs?
Get a co-founder and don't be afraid to ask for help. It’s a lonely, rollercoaster of emotions starting a company and I don’t think I could’ve navigated the first year (especially with the emotional/financial challenges of a pandemic) without having someone to ride the highs and lows with. You want someone to celebrate the wins with, to help you work through the challenges, and to provide that alternative perspective.
My co-founder Nikki is incredibly talented and skilled in areas that I'm weak in and we're stronger together as a team. We've found that the food & beverage industry is an awesome community of supportive people who are happy to help and share their expertise. You just have to ask and put yourself out there.