Plum Organics: Where Good is Contagious

Plum Organics, based in Emeryville, California, is on a mission to provide healthy, organic food for babies and toddlers nationwide. After being acquired by Campbell Soup Company in 2013, the company has quickly scaled to become one of the largest organic baby and toddler food brands in the US. Not only is the company a certified B Corp, but it legally became a Benefit Corporation after its acquisition - proving that mission- driven businesses are finally getting a seat at the table with larger organizations. Plum is a shining example of how a company can marry purpose with profit and not only maintain its core values after being acquired, but make an even larger impact by being part of a larger corporation. We spoke (and maybe even shed a tear or two) with CEO Neil Grimmer and Head of Mission Victoria Fiore about the company’s acquisition and its goals for the future.

Will you talk a bit more about those sustainable business practices and your values and mission as an organization?

Neil Grimmer: Early on, we set a lofty goal that we wanted to be in every high chair and lunchbox in America. If we had a healthy product at either one of those two feeding occasions, it meant there would be less of the bad stuff, and we would actually materially be able to change the way that kids eat. Along the same lines, we realized that we’re not only selling baby food, but we’re actually shaping little palates for life. If we could introduce kids to the really good stuff at an early age, there’s an imprinting that happens where you can actually get them to start to love foods that you’d typically see “picky eaters” rejecting. As you start to think about the issue that we have of toddlers and then kids not adopting healthier foods, a lot of it starts from the first foods that we’re feeding our children.

One of our partners, Dr. Alan Greene - author and leading pediatric nutrition expert - started doing a lot of work around understanding the dynamics of palate development from the very first stage. His research found that typically parents will try to feed their kids foods like spinach only one or two times. If Johnny doesn’t like it, Johnny rejects it, and parents have this assumption that, “Well, he’s just not wired to like it.” What Dr. Greene unpacked in his research is that if you can break through the threshold of those two to three tries and expose your child to spinach six to ten times, there’s an 70 percent higher likelihood that they will adopt spinach in their diet as they grow up!

When we started thinking about that, we said, “OK, that takes our mission and our aspiration and our purpose of getting the very best foods to kids in the very first bite and puts some real teeth behind it - we can actually take action against that.” So, you’ll see that in many of our products, we’ll have spinach show up in two to three to four formats for an infant or a toddler to eat in a day, so they get repeated exposure to those tastes and we can build it out over time.

"We’ve grown to become the number one organic baby food company in the United States, which has been incredible, and we have also been able to equally elevate our mission."

We’ve grown to become the number one organic baby food company in the United States, which has been incredible, and we have also been able to equally elevate our mission. Our food philosophy has driven our mission, and as we started getting broad penetration in most retailers around the country, we felt like we had checked off one part of our mission, which is giving all American families a choice for an organic option and having it available anywhere they go shopping for their kids’ food. At the same time, we realized that there were millions of kids that actually weren’t getting proper nutrition in this country and didn’t even have the opportunity to walk into one of those stores and buy an organic option or, in some cases, weren’t able to go in and buy any option. As we started really unpacking this, we realized that one out of five kids in America go hungry every day - roughly 16 million little ones in this country.

I remember sitting in a meeting with one of the largest national hunger organizations in the US and I asked the question, “Has anyone designed a product specifically to address the nutritional needs of hungry children, more specifically infants and toddlers, in the US?” And a woman from the organization basically said, “No, that’s an interesting idea, but partner with us and we’ll take your donations and we’ll translate it into food offerings.” We stepped back and said, “We could certainly donate money to organizations, but what would be more powerful is to take our innovation engine and actually create a new product that is designed for donation that includes macronutrients and is made with little ones in mind.” Our product, the Super Smoothie, is the result of that effort.

Originally, we launched Super Smoothies as a product exclusively to donate to little ones in need, but we kept it broad enough that it could be a great snack for kids or adults, because when you’re dealing with the issues of hunger and food insecurity throughout the country, you want it to be as accessible as possible.

Soon after launching this program, we donated about 500,000 Super Smoothies to select nonprofit partners, including Convoy of Hope. We started telling Target about this program and Target fell in love with the idea and so we co-created this notion of a buy-give program for every four pack of Super Smoothies. We pay for this out of our own budget. We took a quarter of a million dollars out of marketing and said, “Let’s do this instead of buying more advertisements.”

I think it was very successful for both the community that we were serving and for our employees, but it grounded us as a company, too. We now feel like we are holistically addressing this issue in a more meaningful way. It’s been cool to have this as a creative engine for our company around how we can marry the purpose and the profit of the business together.

"Business needs to be personal in order to make the social and environmental changes that we need."

On the personal side, what’s inspiring you guys right now? What keeps you going?

NG: I’d start with the people and the culture. We built a company where we all wear our hearts on our sleeves as a company. You have to take almost a personal orientation to business, sort of defying the logic of, “Hey, it’s not personal, it’s just business.” We think that’s complete bullshit, and we think it needs to be turned on its head. Business needs to be personal in order to make the social and environmental changes that we need. When you take that orientation and you get a hundred plus people that are aligned in the same way, amazing friendships start to form.

For example, we got an email from a family saying, “We know a family that has a child who has terminal cancer that has been using one of your products that has been discontinued. He literally won’t eat anything else. We’ve scoured the retailers in our neighborhood to find all these products, but they’re running out, and he’s running out of his supply. Can you help us?”

Immediately, we reached out to the family and to the mom, Jacki, and said, “We heard about your story, and we’re going to reach out to our retailers to see if we can find more of these morning mashup products.”

Honestly, we were all brought to tears on this thing - it was pretty emotional. I said, “OK, we’ve got to find more products out there, but we’ve also got to do something more - this is why we’re in business. We’re in business to solve this problem for this little boy.” I think we all kind of just stepped back and were like, “This is absolutely what we do. This is why we do it.” The team rallied, and Ami [Hamilton, Plum’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs] was kind of the quarterback on this thing. We got our head of operations to see if we could get pouches donated, production time donated, and raw materials donated. Our art designers stepped up and said, “We’re going to create a unique package for Harlan.” His name was Harlan the Hero, and he had been surviving brain cancer for a number of years. At this point, I think they didn’t know how much time he had left, but he was in the later stages of his fight with cancer. Literally everyone stepped up; our production partners, our packaging partners, and our raw ingredient partners, within two minutes of hearing this story, said, “We’ll totally help out,” and we ended up creating 5,000 custom Harlan’s Oatmeals - we renamed the product - and on the back there’s a little love note from the company.

Anyway, this story has an incredibly sad ending: he passed away before he could receive his shipment of these. But I think, for us as a company, it really kind of codified why we’re in business - we’re in business to do this, right? The community reaction to it was very personal, and they were like, “Wow, it’s amazing to see a company actually be a human being.” Even though it was really a tragic story, I think it’s given our company a level of focus and commitment to the mission that we’re on in a very tangible way beyond making products for retailers.

Victoria Fiore: We ended up creating a really strong friendship with the family. Because Harlan never actually got Harlan’s Oatmeal, we continued to produce it, and we said, “We’ll figure out what to do with it later.” Within the past month, we ended up working with Jacki, Harlan’s mom, on this. We said, “We want to keep Harlan’s story alive, so you tell us what charities you want us to donate the product to.” She wanted it to go beyond North Carolina, where they’re from, and go across the country, so that she felt that his story was being told. We picked a handful of charities around the country and delivered the pouches. We wrote a note about why we were working together and called up folks to make sure that the products had arrived. People were just blown away by Harlan’s story and the fact that kids could know his story now by enjoying these pouches. It was pretty amazing.

NG: Good is contagious. When you do good things in the world, it inspires other people to step up and do good things. When I think about what we’re in business to do - we’re inspiring good in the world.

This article appeared in Issue 2 | Spring 2015

To see more stories like this and features on innovative disruptors such as Chip Conley, Kimbal Musk, Plum Organics, Rocky Mountain Institute, and more - purchase Issue 2 online!

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