` Catching Up with Bill Sanders - Olive Oil Times

Catching Up with Bill Sanders

Oct. 8, 2014
Denise Johnson

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Bill Sanders at the Newport (RI) Wine and Food Festival

A few years ago, Bill Sanders main­tained one of the few blogs focused on olive oil, called Crush and Press, and he could be seen at trade shows and on local morn­ing tele­vi­sion pro­grams around his native Kentucky deliv­er­ing sales pitches for Tunisian olive oil.

These days he’s pitch­ing a brand of his very own.

A self-pro­claimed road war­rior,” Sanders was recently at a New England regional food show, the Newport Wine and Food Festival, tak­ing vis­i­tors through the story of what sets high qual­ity olive oil apart, and offer­ing tast­ings of his First Fresh extra vir­gin olive oil — a prod­uct Sanders says is so per­sonal, he put his own face on the label.

With his brand in over 200 American retail doors, Sanders is already fur­ther toward devel­op­ing a national brand than most who have set out to start an olive oil com­pany. But if it seems like just a few years is a short time to come this far, Sanders will tell you it’s been a long road and a lot of work.

When did you start tak­ing an inter­est in olive oil and what did you first do in this sec­tor?

In the sum­mer of 1996, I was suf­fer­ing from excru­ci­at­ing back prob­lems and other minor health issues — enough was enough. Being an emer­sion learner and not a dab­bler, I attended Tony Robbins’ Life Mastery” pro­gram in Hawaii. With the help of some fit­ness experts, I learned that I was fit, but not healthy. It changed my life for­ever. Fourteen months later, I com­pleted the first of seven marathons, pain free.

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During this period, I stum­bled onto a one-page arti­cle in People mag­a­zine about how olive oils were dif­fer­ent around the world. Until then, olive oil had been a com­mod­ity to me, like veg­etable oil. This small dis­cov­ery sparked my research on olive oil, includ­ing a sug­ges­tion from my yoga mas­ter whom I met at the Robbins event to read Mary Flynn’s book, Low Fat Lies. From these expe­ri­ences, I cre­ated a healthy lifestyle sem­i­nar series in 1999 called, More Life, More Sunrises. One ses­sion was called, Anti-Rusting, Staying Well-Oiled.” Participants learned to taste olive oil and some were avail­able for pur­chase.

First Fresh is a cul­mi­na­tion of that path. First Fresh isn’t just about sell­ing olive oil. It’s about dri­ving a fun and vibrant lifestyle. And to think, I grad­u­ated from law school. Life is a thrill a minute.

Tell us about your time con­sult­ing Tunisian olive oil.

Tunisia has a rich cul­tural her­itage and long his­tory of olive oil pro­duc­tion — the fourth largest in the world. I was involved with the 100% Tunisian Olive Oil cam­paign. Sales of branded Tunisian olive oil increased five-fold, plac­ing Tunisian olive oil on the shelves of more than 1,000 spe­cialty food stores. I worked with Hamman Marketing, who had a $1.5‑million mar­ket­ing con­tract of lim­ited dura­tion with the Tunisian gov­ern­ment agency respon­si­ble for pro­mot­ing Tunisian olive oil.

We’ve seen a lot of Kickstarter cam­paigns that never get off the ground, but yours did. Why do you think your cam­paign worked?

In hind­sight, the Kickstarter project con­verged my per­sonal and pro­fes­sional net­work from my var­ied life and career. Crowdfunding is actu­ally an alter­na­tive form of friends and fam­ily fund-rais­ing.

Setting a rea­son­able fund­ing goal was a crit­i­cal fac­tor, too. Many projects make the mis­take of seek­ing fund­ing for the entire enter­prise, rather than a project within the busi­ness plan, or as in my case, a pilot project. Fortunately, the project led to fur­ther fund­ing of the busi­ness plan.

What did you do with the funds you raised?

After sat­is­fy­ing the backer rewards, devel­op­ing the brand­ing and label design accounted for the largest por­tion of the remain­ing funds.

Who were your back­ers?

Over 90 per­cent of my back­ers came from my per­sonal and pro­fes­sional net­work, friends and fam­ily. For exam­ple, my first three back­ers were my son, a col­lege room­mate and fra­ter­nity brother, and a for­mer col­league at the U.S Department of Labor. This was the norm until reach­ing the min­i­mum fund­ing goal and the last few days of the 32-day project. Most projects seek to tap into the crowd­fund­ing junkies,” the folks who con­tribute to a mul­ti­tude of projects. Hinging suc­cess on folks you don’t know is risky.

What advice would you offer oth­ers who try to use crowd­fund­ing to start an olive oil busi­ness?

Seek to fund a project, not the entire busi­ness plan, and set a rea­son­able, attain­able min­i­mum fund­ing goal. There is no limit on the amount of funds that can be raised, but the min­i­mum goal must be achieved before any monies change hands.

Lay exten­sive ground­work among your net­work prior to launch­ing the project. Sprinting from the gate is crit­i­cal. Reaching 25 per­cent of the fund­ing goal in the first week has proven to be an impor­tant suc­cess­ful fac­tor. Momentum is key!

Rewards must have mean­ing­ful value. Crowdfunding is not char­ity. It is a rea­son­able exchange of monies for goods and ser­vices.

Tell us about First Fresh, about build­ing the brand, how you got it into doors and where it stands now.

Bob Sickles, owner of Sickles Market in Little Silver, NJ, describes me as an olive oil négo­ciant (a French term for a wine mer­chant who assem­bles the pro­duce of smaller grow­ers and wine­mak­ers and sells the result under his own name). My sig­na­ture oil is cer­ti­fied California extra vir­gin, and is pro­duced by Lucero Olive Oil located in Corning. This con­sis­tent award win­ner is an exclu­sive blend of ascolano, arbe­quina and man­zanillo.

Our brand-build­ing strat­egy has evolved and con­tin­ues to evolve with four key build­ing blocks: brand devel­op­ment, leads gen­er­a­tion, sales strat­egy and con­sumer pro­mo­tion. The idea of the sole entre­pre­neur is a myth — credit must go to the gen­er­ous folks who have aided the growth of First Fresh.

I invested in high-level brand devel­op­ment and label design, posi­tion­ing the brand as an American with an American olive oil,” at the urg­ing of con­sul­tant Liz Tagami. One of our bet­ter deci­sions was secur­ing kosher super­vi­sion at the urg­ing of Lori Levy at Fairway Market.

One of my first cus­tomers, Evelyn Ignatow of Hyde Park Gourmet Food and Wine in Cincinnati, Ohio intro­duced me to the Specialty Food Association’s new mem­ber pro­gram lead­ing to mem­ber­ship and exhibit­ing at the Summer Fancy Food Show.

Because my prod­uct was so per­sonal, my friend of 30 years, Ralph Walthall, encour­aged me to hit the road vis­it­ing prospec­tive retail cus­tomers in per­son. Ralph lost his 20-year bat­tle with can­cer three months later, but I haven’t stopped dri­ving — nearly 100,000 miles in the past two and one-half years.

John Roberts, for­mer pres­i­dent of (the now) Specialty Food Association taught me the art of the demo blitz. I am a demo war­rior aver­ag­ing more than 600 hours of tast­ing demon­stra­tions annu­ally. The sales process does not stop with the store owner or buyer. The sec­ond sale to the store’s cus­tomers is imper­a­tive. By not being the farmer, I have the advan­tage of being avail­able in stores dur­ing the high-vol­ume fourth quar­ter.

Today, First Fresh is avail­able in nearly 200 loca­tions in at least 20 states. To date, our dis­tri­b­u­tion has been store direct. Our ware­house is near the UPS pre­mier dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ter in Campbellsville, KY, enabling us to ship to most of the coun­try in one to two days.

Last year we intro­duced the 3 Village Blend, designed to be an afford­able olive oil that is the work­horse” of the kitchen. This year the source is from the La Rioja region of Argentina and is kosher super­vised by the Orthodox Union. Keeping with the First Fresh brand, a pri­mary goal has always been to carry a Northern and Southern Hemisphere olive oil allow­ing for a release of a fresh olive oil every six months. The 3 Village is sched­uled for release later this month.

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