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.
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.