Olive oil is a saturated market, but Andrew Benin heard a siren song calling him to start his own CPG brand. An alum of DTC brands like Warby Parker and Magic Spoon, Andrew struck gold when he did two things: put the olive oil into a squeeze bottle, and decided to target middle America versus going boutique. After launching with purely organic marketing, they fully sold out within one week. But successful products don’t truly launch overnight. In this episode of DTC POD, Andrew shares how the past 18 months have been spent getting Graza off the ground—and into the bottle.
Andrew Benin is the co-founder & CEO of Graza, a Brooklyn based DTC brand reimagining extra-virgin olive oil. Andrew previously served at DTC powerhouses including Magic Spoon, Casper, & Warby Parker where he worked in key operational roles. His new brand, Graza, had one of the most successful CPG launches of 2022.
3:29 - Becoming a CPG addict
Andrew got his start working for hot DTC Brands like Warby Parker, Casper, and Magic Spoon. It was a thrilling environment, but he knew he wanted to build something of his own.
“When you work at really hot CPG companies, you are an addict of course. Because the company you're working for is growing, and growth is the fuel that fires the whole engine. But I definitely was looking to replicate that fire for something that I cared about. And olive oil is a dream, because it's objectively healthy. It is delicious. The supply chain is beautiful. The places where olive trees are grown and harvested are beautiful. And people's general reaction is shit, I love olive oil. It's kind of everybody's best friend, you know? So it definitely had strong tailwinds. But when I actually thought, okay, it's time to start a company, super saturated market. Investors had seen decks come across their desk recently. Really fragmented supply chain. So all of the reasons not to do it started coming up at the same time as the energy to do it. But I couldn't stop. I knew that we were going to get an olive oil company off the ground.”
05:09 - Focusing on middle America
Luxury olive oil abounds in the world...for a steep price tag. Andrew realized that what middle America needed was olive that hit the sweet spot between amazing quality and accessibility.
“I got really, really close with Mike Anthony, the executive chef at Gramercy Tavern. I get back to New York. I'm still working at Magic Spoon. And I find time with Mike to do a tasting at the restaurant. And we're trying really expensive, really delicious, really crazy olive oils. And he looks me in the eye and he's like, you know, I have 10 of you in this zip code who I can call on to get me amazing Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Argentinian olive oil anywhere I want in the world. Don't start another boutique luxury olive oil company. Don't do it. That's not what we need. Middle America doesn't need that. Because it's not even just middle America doesn't need that, we can't afford it. So that changed my perspective completely. And ever since then, mass and scale and mass premium have been the leading principles for this company. Of course without sacrificing quality at all. I would put up our olive oil against any gold metal, whatever award olive oil there is in the world.”
8:07 - Making olive oil sexy
Graza’s unique squeeze bottle makes it possible to be both playful and insanely functional.
“We just wanted to add some life and some sex appeal to it, some fun. A big part of the development process and the idea was when we were like, screw it. We're going to put this in a chef-inspired squeeze bottle. That was a whole deviation from the norm. And that was a lot of energy from the culinary community, a lot of energy from the investment community. People were like, damn. This is going to really be usable on all social media verticals. You can do collabs with restaurants. And it all kind of started coming together when we flipped the form factor. You know, olive oil is always sold in the same dark green glass bottle with a random label with an olive branch on it. And when we chose a squeeze bottle, everything changed in terms of the visual appeal. And this is something that makes us not only a CPG food company, it makes us a tool in the kitchen.”
14:13 - Finding a design partner
Graza tapped Gander as their design agency, and offered them an equity and cash partnership to give the relationship deep roots.
“Our original design was a Dr. Bronner's bottle with a Mike's Hot Honey cap, put together with some Photoshop work. That's how it started. But we knew we were going to work with a great branding and design agency. We worked with Gander, Take a Gander is how you can find them online. They also did Magic Spoon and Banza and Gotham Greens and Mystic Market. So I knew they had the heat. We decided to explore an equity and cash partnership with them, which I think is a great way to work with long-term partners. I think it's a great way to keep people invested and honest…I think working with a great branding agency not only is like the visual aspect, they instill amazing creative project management into your company from an early point. And their first job is to extract all of the thoughts that you've had for six months alone, writing in your iPhone notes, writing a Google Doc, sending emails. Their job is to get that all out of you. And I think if we didn't work with some professionals like that, it would still just be stuck in my brain somewhere. And I'd be very frustrated.”
15:56 - Vetting new partners
Andrew suggests doing reference checks, carefully reviewing offers, and paying close attention to what is in the project scope before committing to new partners.
“It's the classic. You have to reference check. You have to right away ask for three companies that you worked with. I'm going to speak to all of them. And you got to put in the effort. What I will say is don't pay more than $150 grand for branding work. That is when things get crazy. You know, we got some offers in for $250k, $300k, $350k and we're going to do these data insights and consumer insights. I kind of read all that stuff is BS. Like if your job is a creative agency, I'm going to pay you for the creative. If your job is to give me consumer insights, I'm going to partner with McKinsey before I partner with the creative agency for that. So know what you're getting, and I know what you need. My last bit of advice would be the scopes of work that come through. You are going to be held to it. And if you deviate from scope, you are going to be billed for it. So don't take those lightly. Make sure exactly what you want is in there. And if you don't know how to ascertain that information, get help from a founder. Go into CPG founder Slack groups and figure out who can help you figure that out.”
21:04 - Seeding to creators pre-launch
Graza’s successful launch can be credited to successfully seeding to creators and influencers in a respectful way.
“For us all this organic pre-launch effort was mostly around seeding. I think if you have a physical product that is affordable to seed, you have already struck gold. And then you have to have faith in yourself and your team and your story and how you package it and the notes that you write and everything that you do, that these creators are going to naturally feel inclined to participate. So we took a seeding approach that was no strings attached, no asks, nothing. No incessant communication. If you want to squeeze with us, if you want to have some dope olive oil, drop your address. And if you don't, no hard feelings at all. If you only want to do a paid campaign, we'll speak to you in a year. I think that having a deep respect for the creator economy is vital for a CPG founder. Because these are people that their skill is mocked sometimes. And oh, you have 20,000 followers on Instagram. These are people that are trying to hustle and make a career out of this. And getting behind a camera with food is really hard, really hard. I have tried to do it many times, and my videos are awful. So I just think having the utmost respect for them and treating them like they are the key for all of us. So seeding really worked.”
32:12 - Kicking off a retail strategy
Andrew knew that retail would turn into a big component of Graza’s business. That’s why he identified a talented co-founder to run and own Graza’s retail arm.
“We divide and conquer. I have an amazing co-founder Allen… Allen had run an $80 million business just at Costco in apparel, and it's the retail mass mindset that we needed. So Alan runs our entire sales team. Allen facilitates our selection of brokers and a whole bunch of other stuff. But dividing and conquering in those channels. It was always kind of a dream to be okay, maybe we can actually have different ownership of digital and physical from day one. And obviously it's not a perfect line, but we're doing a pretty damn good job. So for us, we have to figure out how to supply 1,500 stores. It's a huge, huge challenge for a new brand. Our interactions with our customers digitally will always be so vital to our community building and brand building. And we're not going to let those strategies conflate with what works on a retail shelf. I don't think they are completely transferable. And I also think it's a pipe dream to be like, oh, we'll get our physical retail customers and convert them over to digital customers, and everyone's going to be happy. Wrong. No one's going to be happy.”
36:40 - Channeling startup energy
Work-life balance is simply impossible for a startup founder. Andrew said that something changes when it’s your own business that allows you to draw on a deeper well of energy.
“I worked for people that I watched them suffer, because it was their company. And I got to go to the gym at 7:00 PM and go out to dinner with friends. That's not my reality right now. But I think at the same time, you tune into like a different stamina, different energy, that just keeps you going. Yesterday was Sunday, and I was answering every single customer email that we got, because I think it’s really really important, especially with these early customers. And that's in thanks to amazing training that I had at companies where customer service was everything. So I'm not going to sit here and say that my personal health is at an all-time high. It's not. But the community that we're building in the food space is insane. It is a lot of fun to work with olive oil. Every time we go to dinner here in Brooklyn, we bring a bottle and we're just squeezing it everywhere. It is fun. We're gonna build out a team to help, for sure. And that's going to be so exciting. Maybe in a year and a half, two years, I can come up for some air. But right now I want to put everything into this, because at the end of the day, we're selling something to people that actually is good for them.”
Watch the full interview here:
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Andrew Benin - CEO of Graza
Ramon Berrios - CEO of Trend.io
Blaine Bolus - COO of Omnipanel