Podcast 2: Uproot’s Co-Founder Jacob Conway speaks with Andrew D. Ive from Big Idea Ventures about starting a plant-based milk company
In “The Big Idea Podcast: Food” series, each week our Founder Andrew D. Ive will speak with some of the most innovative minds in the food space about the exciting projects they are a part of.
To listen to the second episode featuring Uproot‘s Co-Founder Jacob, click on the links below!
The podcast can be viewed at the links below:
Please view the transcript of the interview below.
Andrew D Ive 00:00
Hi, this is Andrew from the big idea food podcast. Today we’re going to be talking to Jacob from uproot foods. Great company. I think you’re going to enjoy this. If you have any questions or comments, please reach out to myself for Jacob. Or just put a comment on any of the, you know, YouTube send podcasts and all the other places where you may see this. Look forward to interacting with you. love to get your feedback. Thanks. Jake Conway, the man the myth, the legend. Tell us tell us a little bit about Jacob. And then maybe we can get into what you and your co founder are up to.
Jacob Conway 00:39
Yes, that sounds good. Um, who’s Jacob? a bearded vegan gnome is how I’m often described by friends. But I live in New York moved here from San Francisco. Technically Providence, Rhode Island where uproot started but I am 26 I am a pretty passionate vegan, and also some. Sorry, I’m laughing because that’s an understatement.
Andrew D Ive 01:06
That is a big understatement, man. You have savaged me on more than one occasion.
Jacob Conway 01:12
And you very interested in passionate about food justice in general and ways we can improve our food system. And just educating people more generally about where food comes from, why we eat, what we eat, how it gets to us. And the best way to move forward with that, because it’s not sustainable for a growing population right now. So there’s a lot of changes that need to be made. Yeah, pretty outgoing, energetic guy, love to run. I do love to eat, I love to cook, which I think sort of brought me to where I am today working in a food company. And you have been with that group for whatever. It’s almost two years now.
Andrew D Ive 01:54
When you say you’ve been uproot, you started uproot like there wasn’t an uproot milk before Jacob Conway.
Jacob Conway 02:00
Well, yes, I I’m a co founder uproot. Kevin had given birth to it. before I’d arrived, but
Andrew D Ive 02:09
Okay, so you’re number two.
Jacob Conway 02:11
Is there in the infancy? Yes.
Andrew D Ive 02:14
Oh, I should I should have given you shit about being number two that would I’m not sure. I’m allowed to say shit. Oh, well. I guess I’m gonna have to put like, an age and age monitor thing on this on this on this video. podcast. I can cut it out. So. Okay, so how did you get? How did you get here? I mean, when I say you, I don’t mean how did you get here to the business? Jacob Conway, why are you so passionate? How did you get so passionate about these things? Was there a moment in your life where you’re just like, you know, we’re treating these animals appallingly. And I need to personally do something about it. Not everyone gets that same motivation.
Jacob Conway 02:53
Great question. Yes, it’s very, it was a very clear path, I think for me, which it often not people but my brother, my I have three older brothers, my second oldest brother in like 2015, I was still in college. He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. And he had his whole thyroid removed. Cancer came back, it was normal for his type of cancer. But for the second round, the doctors essentially said, it’s not big enough for us stock break, there’s not much we can let it grow, come back to us in a year. And we’ll remove everything. And my brother and my parents and I grew up with a mom who cooked a lot and my family has always been healthy. We’ve always been active people, but never focused on any one thing. So when my parents heard that diagnosis from the doctors, my mom’s thought was just kind of this, how is that possible that it’s 2016 at this time, and you have no other options other than just let this potentially deadly thing continue to grow inside of you. So my mom dove really deep into whole food plant based diet and found incredible stories of people never doing chemo never doing radiation just switching to very cater whole food plant based vegan diet to battle their cancer. And there’s a story of a woman who had stage four brain cancer, never had any operation never had any treatment other than switching her diet and fully put it in remission. And there’s a lot of these stories out there. But they’re they can’t really be. They’re one they’re not studied well enough. And two, it’s hard for doctors who studied Western medicine to support this stuff because it’s not in their training. They weren’t. No one in medical school tells you a vegan diet can do these sorts of things. Lots of doctors actually get like 19 hours of nutrition training total when they go to medical school. It’s pretty insignificant so my parents decided to go vegan with my brother as an effort to combat his cancer. Fast forward a couple years my brother still has cancer, but he’s doing really well. He’s on a more or less whole food plant. Besides, they tried some modifications before where it wasn’t fully vegan. But at this point, they all went fully vegan. Then I started working at my brother’s cookie company, which ironically, the cookies he was selling, it was in San Francisco, on demand anywhere. And the cookies they were selling weren’t vegan, which was funny, he couldn’t even eat them. And I had not gone vegan at this point. But I’d started being more plant based just because they were and I shared recipes with my mom, and it was fun. And then the overlap for me was seeing my family and my brother, my parents and my brother do it. And then I am an avid runner, like they said, and being plant based athletes, one of the most famous ones is rich roll. He is an incredible, incredible athlete turned his life around at 40 and is one of the fittest people alive, and he spoke vegan. And my thought process was just kind of if these athletes are performing the level they’re performing and they’re fully vegan, why couldn’t I do that? So I never I didn’t originally go vegan. for animals or for sustainability. I really went vegan, it was kind of selfish. I was like, this sounds great. Like if I can up my performance, if I can feel better if I can do better, just by being vegan. I might as well try it. So I weaned myself off of animal products in July 1 2018 was my like, our date where I said, I’m fully vegan from here on out, there’s no looking back. And then once I went vegan, inevitably just looking up recipes and doing research on vegan, I guess vegan morals and become vegan watching you, you do videos, it led me down the path of animal welfare sustainability. And I realized there was so much more to veganism than just what you were eating. I mean, the ripple effect of our food choices is more than we could ever imagine. So that’s sort of how I got to where I am today. I always say I went vegan for my health, but I stay vegan for animals. You can’t unlearn that stuff once you do know it. And I got pretty pretty far down there. But I also just tell people, there’s no there’s no bad reason to go vegan, which is true. I mean, it’s more sustainable. It’s better for your health, for across the board with some exceptions, but work with doctors to figure out how you can make veganism work for you. Um, it’s better for the environment, it’s I mean, there’s just a never ending list of ways it is beneficial. But no one can really point to why it’s bad. There’s like any food diet or however you eat, there’s complications, you might come into a lot across, like across that journey, but you need to address those as they come. But you can still be vegan throughout all of that. So that was the long answer.
Andrew D Ive 07:50
That that’s not the long arm. So you you’ve given me the long answer many, many times when we’ve, when we’ve spoken where you, you know, regard me on the benefits, etc. veganism. Let’s and by the way, totally, I totally agree with you. Now, the only thing I would sort of challenge a little bit is there’s no bad reason for going vegan. It’s not easy, man. It’s not easy. You know, maybe maybe it shouldn’t be maybe I was gonna say maybe it shouldn’t be maybe it’s worth doing. It’s it needs to be a little bit of hard.
Jacob Conway 08:25
Yeah, I mean, there’s not many significant life changes you can make that are both good for you and easy to do. We just get set in our ways.
Andrew D Ive 08:36
Jacob Conway 08:37
But yeah, I mean, I think the good outweighs the bad in that, in that scenario. I mean, I, I forget, I’m vegan all the time. I was with a friend. One day eating brunch. And it was a whole we did a whole homemade brunch and we’re sitting outside eating. And I had made a bunch of vegan options, though. I was filling my plate loading it up, and I asked someone to pass the whipped cream for pancakes. And my roommates looked at me, and I was like, why are you while looking at me like this? And we’re like Jacob, that is just a bowl of dairy. What are you talking about? But because I’ve been vegan for two years, and I’ve learned how to make so many things, and there’s so many good products out there now. I don’t even think about it. Like veganism is just eating to me. It does it. There’s no restriction. I don’t view myself as ever restricted. So there’s definitely those learning curves at the beginning. But once you figure it out, it’s smooth sailing. I mean, it’s I’ve never had trouble eating. I’ve never had trouble nourishing myself. I’ve never I mean, there’s all the reality is everyone listening to this probably lives in a major city, they have access to good food. They have access, they have the income to buy good food. And when you are in that position of privilege. You can do it like it. It’s totally doable.
Andrew D Ive 09:57
And I think be IV big ventures were sort of focused on making it available to everyone. So in other words, finding the companies like yours who are bringing new, innovative products to market which don’t require people to change their, their likes, their dislikes, the flavors, they’re the kind of sensations, the textures they’ve grown up loving, they can just do it in a more sustainable way. So let’s let’s turn to uproot, tell us tell us how of all of the things you could have done to move this forward across, you know, across veganism, etc.
Andrew D Ive 10:37
uproot? And tell us a little bit first about what it does, and why why it’s special.
Jacob Conway 10:43
Yep. So I’ll serve as who we are, and then I got there so uproot, we are, we are currently a plant based milk company, our aspirations are larger than just plant based milk. But um, that’s where we got our start. And that’s what we’re focusing on right now. And our mission is to make plant based milk more accessible to everyone. And we don’t believe that you need to reinvent the wheel to do that, I think you need to, we think you need to meet people where they are. So that’s kind of what makes us different. And that’ll allow me to tell you, can you unpack that I’m
Andrew D Ive 11:23
not sure what that means. So
Jacob Conway 11:25
I’m going to So what I mean by that is right now, so many of the plant based options are just products on a shelf in a retail store, or something you order online. And there, in order to get those as a consumer, you need to go to a grocery store, read through the options, read through the ingredient labels, you kind of need to do, the onus is on you to do your research, figure out what’s going to work for you, and then purchase it at the grocery store and hope it works out, which is totally fine. And I think there needs to be some responsibility for each of us to do our own research about our food. But our goal and uproot because plant based milk has come as far as it has soy milk has been around for a very long time. Nobody is the idea of plant based milk is not foreign to anyone at this point. There’s nuance within what types you have in in protein and things like that. But everyone knows what plant based milk is. So instead of making you go to the grocery store and find it and redraw this, we’re going to meet you where you are. And that means we’re going to be at your hospital, we’re going to be at your college dining facility, we’re going to be at your convenience store, we’re going to have a plant nice soft serve option for you at the vegan drive thru or at the non vegan drive thru. So we want to bring it to people as opposed to forcing people to go find it. Um, our focus is on food service. That’s where we found a big gap in the market. As I just said, so much of the innovation has been brought about and retail, but food service has largely been ignored. So so many people are still finding themselves in these scenarios where they are trying to go vegan, they’re trying to be diligent about it, they’re trying to be good and healthy. But if you’re in the hospital, and they say we don’t have any plant based milk, what are you supposed to put on your cereal, I mean, your options get very limited very quickly once you leave that retail space. So we want to make sure that plant based milk milk is accessible to everyone everywhere. And that includes like K through 12 public schools as well. Dairy is how they can milk that students are served in schools for decades now. And I think we’ve all sort of evolved past that. And there needs to be more options for kids. So many students are lactose intolerant, and don’t even know it, or just don’t have another option. Um, and we think you should have that option. And we want to be the one to provide that to them.
Andrew D Ive 13:45
So just just so I wouldn’t say just to be clear, you guys are not coming up with something new. This is not you know, milk made from, you know, some ingredient that nobody’s ever thought of before. This is it sounds like uproot is about accessibility and distribution, about getting it into places where it isn’t right now. putting it into formats, in ways that make it much more accessible and digestible and relevant to people based on where they are. So, as you said, hospitals, schools, restaurants, yeah. Also that I guess the question is, where’s that? Where’s the uniqueness of that? Where’s the barrier to entry there? Not that you need a barrier to entry? Maybe that’s not what it’s about.
Jacob Conway 14:30
Um, first, you hit the nail on the head, we still make our own milk. And we do think what we’re offering food services is significantly better than what their current options are the current plant based milk options out there are so we’ve improved upon that. And we think there’s uniqueness in the way it can be served. So dispensing hardware and for example, coffee shops, currently still use mini fridges under the counter with cartons that’s wasteful. It’s inconvenient. It’s time consuming. We think there’s better ways to do that. And we want to bring those to market. That’s a bit further down the line for us. But yes,
it’s a good point.
Jacob Conway 15:08
Um, the barrier to entry question. I think this is something that we’ve learned as we’ve grown uproot. But because of the way our food system works, so much of it operates on this relationship, transaction. So knowing where you’re, where and who you’re getting your products from, knowing that it’s going to be there on time, knowing that they’re going to have enough for you, knowing that you can trust the quality. And you can trust where it’s coming from and how it’s made. That’s one big, I guess, differentiator for us, we are starting there. So it’s that first mover advantage, once we’re in these college cafeterias, if students are giving us rave reviews like they are, if it’s cutting down on the time that staff need to descend on refilling machines, or fridges, or whatever it is, and if we can help them reach their any facility reach their sustainable sustainability goals better by introducing plant based options and reducing packaging waste, there’s no reason for them to switch you. It doesn’t have this constant one up mentality that retail has, at the end of the day, what you’re really trying to do is affordable products that are also healthy to people and making sure they will enjoy them. And we think we’ve cracked the code on that. And the response so far has shown us that we have and will be very happy with our product. So it’s a combination of the product itself, the relationships performed with people and being the first ones to really take this approach.
Andrew D Ive 16:48
Perfect. You mentioned universities, how have you How have you gone about engaging universities around this this kind of message this product? And how receptive are they? And who of you who do you want on board that you haven’t got yet.
Jacob Conway 17:07
So as I mentioned before, one thing that works are advantages, everyone has a base level knowledge of what plant based milk is what non dairy milk is. So most of our outreach, if not all of our outreach is really just cold outreach to universities, to hospitals, to K through 12. school to small retails shops, vegan shops in New York. And all of them know what plant based milk is, but it’s this pitch of, we’re bringing it to you, you don’t have to go through a distributor catalog to figure out what plant based milk is going to be best for you. We know it, we know it really well. And we’re gonna do all the legwork to get it to you right now. And we will get we guarantee that people are going to like it. So it’s been a lot of cold outreach, really establishing early relationship with these schools and getting to know their needs. Because that’s the other unique part about food service that I think maybe is different from retail, retail, you develop the product, you get your distribution, and you just start sending it out. And to a degree, you can do that in food service. But everyone’s needs are different. Not every hospital has the same cafeteria style setup, not every college has involved in needs, all of them are a bit different. Do you really need to get to know these schools and get to know what they really want. What what’s going on, it’s gonna make everyone’s lives easier. And that’s been really bizarre to go down that path with them, because it helps influence the things we’re going to develop in the future and the products we’re making. So predominantly cold outreach to the schools, and then word of mouth. Inevitably, this is, how do I it’s not necessarily an old industry. It’s just things have always been done a certain way, and they continue to be done that way. What I mean by that is, people are perfectly happy to work with paper forms and word of mouth and the more handshake relationships that you would maybe expect, especially as a startup, as we all adopt tech for everything. This industry, food service kinda lags behind on that. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But you know how to work in that space. So you need to be comfortable showing up and having a 30 minute conversation that’s not about plant based milk, but you’re getting to know your customer really well. Um, and you have that special relationship with them and dropping off samples and giving them a couple cases so that students can try it and they can get the feedback and the reality is our end consumer is not usually the person we’re selling to the people we are selling to are older, several generations older than our end consumer. So they grew up drinking dairy, they still drink dairy, but we need to sort of bring them into this fold of oat milk and what does that mean and why is it better and P milk How do you turn peas into chocolate milk? These are cognitive That you kind of need to spend time unpacking with these people. But I mean, that’s also part of appgrooves mission. And that’s why I love what we do. Because I don’t believe the change we want to see in our food system is going to come from just putting products in front of people and hoping that it works. You need to educate people, you need to people need to know why they’re making the food choices they’re making. And I don’t think those are necessarily conflicting things, I think you need to start with education. And then you can put products in front of people, and they can make those dishes decisions for themselves. But I think part of why our food system today is so messy, is because we let these brands we let these large food companies just dictate what was healthy, what wasn’t healthy, what natural men, what whole food men, and a lot of these are marketing terms that have been manipulated over the years. And people are buying things, but they have no clue what’s actually in it. They don’t know where it comes from, they don’t know why it’s good, or why it’s bad. Not to put food into those two categories only. But education is a huge part of that.
Andrew D Ive 21:07
And good taste.
Yes, good taste, it always has to taste good.
Andrew D Ive 21:12
Which uproot does, you know, you were kind enough to put an up uproot dispensing machine in the office at Big Idea ventures, which meant I spent a lot more time at the office than I should have. Basically just drinking chocolate milk on a daily basis.
Jacob Conway 21:29
It’s good to go across it’s it’s like the soda machine where you go across and get one of each flavor. You can just hop across and mix your pea milk with your selling milk with your oat milk
Andrew D Ive 21:38
and test all the flavors and they’re all really really good. Are you putting those dispensing machines in places outside of universities? Or are you trying to get into offices and things? Or is that just not?
Jacob Conway 21:49
Yeah, so if you don’t mind, I realized that I sort of skipped over the actual product. But our first product was a dispensing machine similar to those dairy big silver dairy dispensers you see in colleges where you lifted a handle, and there’s a little plot rubber spout and milk comes out. We did that for plant based milk. And that was our first product is mentioned. We launched that at Brown and Wellesley College. Last year, we had five other schools on board, and they are all still on board. But the pandemic happened and that changed everyone’s needs. And that we have gotten to our single serve launch, which we’re launching right now. eight ounce cartons of milk, which are safer during the pandemic for people would have also allowed us to access a lot more spaces like retail, like small retail and hospitals, for example, where maybe a dispenser didn’t make sense. But to your point, yes, we would like to see the dispenser in other places in office setting is one of those places. K through 12 is another one of those places where you sort of have that traditional lunch line where people are going through, they can fill cups, they’re filling cups of water, they’re filling cups of milk and juice, there’s no reason they can’t fill a cup of plant based milk as well. And then, at larger hospitals and larger dining facilities cruises are another good example when those do come back, you have this large cafeteria setting where people are serving themselves dispensers were would work really well there some larger hotel chains, where they have a consistent breakfast or lunch dining operation, those dispensers would make sense. So you’d like to see those lots of places and then we’d like to see adaptations of the dispenser versus you walk into a convenience store there’s always those creamer setups and a lot of them do have smaller countertop dispensers with three types of everyman you can try there should be a plant based milk dispenser there as well so that you can whiten your coffee with plant based milk options as opposed to the dairy options that are
Andrew D Ive 23:46
perfect. Quick question for anyone that’s kind of not necessarily got into the plant based milk space yet from a taste from a consumer perspective. What are the choices that you guys provide? And why why those choices? Why an oat versus a soy or a P or you know, whatever are the choices that you guys are providing what are the differences between them and why choose one versus another?
Jacob Conway 24:10
Do we have oatmeal, soy milk and chocolate female. And there’s varying reasons for all of them. Oatmeal is a mix of it’s just become incredibly popular in the last three years, probably three or four years. So that’s what people want. But oat milk also is a great base because it yields a very creamy and milk analogue product like milk, similar products, get that whiteness. You get that sort of I call it chug ability. Where it doesn’t feel too heavy. It’s nice, it’s cold, it’s refreshing. It hits the palate just right, though milk is a crowd pleaser. It’s great and coffee because the flavor is pretty mild and it’s just good. feels familiar to people, I think that’s why everyone likes it. So. So milk was a given or oat milk was a given. And then soy milk is kind of the, the Oji of the group, the original, it’s got that eight grams of protein that you want, you can do unsweetened oat milk, or sorry, soy milk, and it’s still pretty great. You don’t need to sweeten it that much to make it good. But with regard to protein, it fills that spot for milk. I mean, I always tell people, if you’re actually looking for a milk substitute, soy milk is where you should sell soy milk, or plain milk is where you should look. Because you want that protein content, you can get eight grams of protein and a glass of female for soy milk pretty easily. So soy No, soy milk also brings in maybe older generations where that’s what they grew up on. That’s what they’re used to. That’s what they like to have. It’s familiar to people. So it’s a tried and true one, and I think is important to have an email is another sort of newcomer, it’s even newer than old, no one is familiar with it. But again, you get those eight grams of protein, especially in something like chocolate milk, where you’re gonna have sugar content, you want to make sure you’re also providing something else that’s beneficial, which is that protein content, eight grams of protein in P is also one that’s the flavor profile is definitely I think, newer to people and maybe a little harder to get used to talk like cocoa does a really good job of masking that. So they pair really well together, you get that protein. And you could do a chocolate soy milk, but we didn’t want to pit soy against itself for the chocolate variety in the regular because then everyone’s going to go for the job. So it’s nice that they’re able to stand on their own, I think.
Andrew D Ive 26:54
Perfect. So you guys,
Jacob Conway 26:57
one other thing I want to mention Andrew just because it’s me and you know how I am. At one point, we did have an almond in a coconut milk. Um, there are several reasons we phase those out. But one of the most significant ones is those are just two of the least sustainable options. omens. 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, they take an incredible amount of water and a drought ridden state. And they also require intense pollen is pollination practices, which results in these bees that are brought in in order to pollinate these almond orchards. But they’re driving out native species of insects, natives, he sees it. He’s an environmentally it’s just not, it’s not good, it’s not beneficial. So Omen didn’t make the cut. And also almonds just don’t have a captivating nutrition profile, you don’t get that protein. Most almond milks are just water, you’re getting two almonds, two, three almonds and a glass of almond milk. You might as well just be drinking water at that point. And then coconut milk also, it’s all imported from outside the US. So you have emissions tacked on there. And then inevitably, with the demand for coconut going up coconut oil, coconut water, coconut milk. native species in other countries where this is harvested, are being cut down in order to make room for these coconut farms so that we can meet this, this demand port but again, not a sustainable practice. So we found our sweet spot with these three, you can get oats, you can get soy, you can get peas, all grown in the US. Um, and they take a lot less resources to make and to transport. Um, and they just yield better. Sorry.
Andrew D Ive 28:49
No, I mean, I think that’s fantastic. I think I agree with you. 100%. So that’s uproot. Thank you for thank you for the background. You and Kevin. You are the You are the uproot duo. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about Kevin and his motivations. We’ve kind of covered
some of yours. Obviously, it’s not it’s not very cool to have you talk about Kevin’s motivations without Kevin being here. No. But you know, I don’t want the Batman and Robin of you know, milk in the universe in the university sector and more broadly than that and not being both covered.
Jacob Conway 29:25
Yes. No, Kevin is Kevin is the he get like he said he gave birth to uproot? He grew up with a milk allergy. His whole he and his brother both did. So they were raised on rice milk. And to this day Kevin’s mom still drinks rice milk. It’s pretty funny, but they sort of grew out of that allergy but continued to drink plant based milk because they liked it and because I don’t know you could have a bad day and it doesn’t agree with your stomach. But um, that was Kevin’s that was how Kevin found the inspiration for uproot. He had had plant based meals his entire life. And then in college, he saw that there just weren’t good options. I think a lot this resonates with a lot of kids our age who went to college when did and you would have to run up to the counter and beg the chef to like bring out a carton of almond milk that they were stashing away in the back in the cafeteria plan offering plant based milk was not a normal thing, you just decided that you weren’t going to eat cereal ever, because there wasn’t an option for you to put it on milk. I had phased out liquid milk in my diet in college as well. So I experienced that. So Kevin was working and he’s an engineer. And he was working at shark Ninja, they make vacuums and blenders and stuff. And Kevin was seeing products like juice era, which was short lived, but these counter top dispenser ideas. And he thought that could work for plant based milk because like I said, he had seen his mom bring home carton after carton his whole life and knew that it was wasteful, there had to be a more efficient way to do this. And that’s when he started tinkering with this idea of providing plant based milk through some dispensed option. And he was camped outside Whole Foods asking parents as they walked out if they drink plant based milk, would they be interested in a countertop dispenser doing these questionnaires and found that the market wasn’t quite there for the countertop dispenser at home for a variety of reasons. But he pivoted your food service and started talking to he went to Brown University. And while he was there started talking to the food service director. And they were very receptive to the idea of having plant based milk available to students because the future directors were seeing kids ask for it more and more. So Kevin came up with the idea. And that’s how he got to the idea of uproot. Um, Kevin also is just very smart and understands the complexities of providing this many people with food as well. And he’s a problem solver. So he really enjoys being given something like this and saying, solve it, make it make it work. And he’s very good at that. And then having an I came together because I was living in San Francisco with roommates, we’ve gone to Brown University as well. So I have this network of students who have gone to brown. And I had just finished working at my brother’s cookie company, and was trying to figure out what was next for me. And one of my friends who was having friend as well said, hey, my buddy just started a plant milk company out in Providence, Rhode Island, you should really think about he’s looking for a co founder, you should really think about reaching out to him. And I kind of laughed the first time and I was like I don’t I couldn’t tell you where Providence is on a map, let alone move there and start working on a plan, please your company. But Kevin I had a couple phone calls. And I realized, yeah, he had, he was making milk, he had something legit. And he was doing it making it happen. So I flew out on March 2019. And spent two weeks and Kevin lived on an air mattress in his apartment and I got to make milk in the kitchen with him. I mean, he was already serving Brown University and Johnson and Wales University, though we were hitting, I had a beard net on a hairnet, we were making milk by hand. And then I was sold and I went back to San Francisco packed up everything I owned into a car, drove across the country, and moved to Providence lived in Kevin’s apartment for two months before I got my own and have not looked back since. And we were in Providence for a while, obviously got accepted to be IV, which was a huge launch pad for us began large scale production of our product. And we both moved to New York. And now we’re based here and get Nick going.
Andrew D Ive 33:45
based in New York based in Brooklyn.
Yeah, Kevin’s in Brooklyn, I’m in Manhattan. But yes,
Andrew D Ive 33:51
those bricks, they didn’t look like Manhattan bricks. Maybe they do look at that.
Jacob Conway 33:55
I think it’s a bit of a newer building. But yeah, they’re, they’ve got a nice read john Gill.
Andrew D Ive 34:00
So obviously, it can’t all have been just sort of plain sailing and just, you know, making it from home. And suddenly you’ve got a business, obviously, and I don’t really want to dwell on COVID too much. Because, you know, people will be listening to this, I hope in in two years time, three years time, four years time. So you know, some of the kind of business challenges you’ve had and how you guys put your heads together to solve them?
Jacob Conway 34:26
Yes, good question. And one thing I would say this is kind of advice to it’s a problem we face in and can be transformed into advice to other entrepreneurs. When people tell you things are going to take longer than you expect. That is very real advice. No matter how confident you are, about someone saying they’re going to deliver something to you on time saying that something’s gonna go out when it should be produced when it should, even in the best case scenario
Andrew D Ive 35:03
Jacob Conway 35:05
Miami, baby. Yeah, baby. If you’re a small company, you’re small price you are going to get pushed, things are going to take longer than you expect them to always no matter what other people tell you. So take that advice. Um, other business challenges we face is just being flexible. I mean, even when we had a product that was going to work, trying to get it, trying to coordinate getting it in a dispenser, getting it to schools, making sure everything’s certified, um, it just, there’s so many layers to these things that you can’t anticipate. You always need to build and build, build in the unknown. And I think that’s a fairly common piece of advice. But yeah, what I mean by that is, even when you think you’ve done your due diligence, there’s more for you to learn, there’s more for you to find out. It’s never the full story until you are on the ground doing it. It’s in your hands. You’ve got a customer, it’s been sold to them. Nothing’s final till it’s final really. Um,
Andrew D Ive 36:09
so you got went? So you guys went from handmade? Rhode Island? Kevin’s kitchen? By the sounds of it. Maybe it was his bathtub, I don’t know. And then you moved. And then you moved to a commercial manufacturer, I co man, a contract manufacturer. And that. So just to credit for people listening, that contract manufacturer is a third party, who is basically making the product to your exact specifications. Correct?
Jacob Conway 36:39
Correct. We had, we had another company finalize these formulations for us. They have a countertop simulator, that that simulates this large scale production process of creating shelf stable liquid. And we have them sending us little bottles of the product to sample. And we tweaked that formula to get it just right, and then brought it to the CO manufacturer gave them all the specifications, and they made 1000s of gallons of it for us.
Andrew D Ive 37:09
So no more no more cranking it out in the in the kitchen.
Jacob Conway 37:12
Thankfully not those were long, hot days in the kitchen in Rhode Island.
Andrew D Ive 37:16
So what are you guys doing all day all the time? is you just like hanging out living the life or now that somebody else is manufacturing the product for you? How are you finding your time focused?
Jacob Conway 37:26
Yeah, good question. I’m outsourcing that to cauvin has allowed us to focus on sales, it’s allowed us to focus on our brand. So we just went through a bit of a brand refresh, which sounds funny to do it only two years old. But it was important, especially as we brought a new product to market, it really significantly changed who we were speaking to, and how we were speaking to them. So we’ve been doing a lot of a lot of marketing, a lot of sales. I think while we were hand making product, we thought we had sales under control. But now that someone else has handled it, you really realize how much goes into that. The constant upkeep of checking in on people, because even if people want your product, you’re never going to be the number one priority on their list. So you got to keep bugging them, you got to keep building on those relationships, distribution, focusing heavily on that making sure that once we do have these customers that we’re able to serve them and accommodate the growth that we anticipate seeing in the next year. I ating on future for uproot. But are we selling people when we say, bring uproot on board? Or is it really just a carton of milk? And the answer to that is obviously no, we have a much larger vision for ourselves, we want to be the go to provider of non dairy options for food services. So I’ve covered it all but creamer, softserve, milk shakes all of these things we want, we want them to have good access to those options. And we want to be the ones to provide that. One piece of advice they also did remember in a struggle we have faced is realizing that even though you are a new company, and you’re a startup and it’s 2021, and everything’s exciting, and everyone’s going plant based, the industry is not caught up with that. So you’re you’re taking this new product and this new world of plant based and trying to make it fit into an old model of food production and ingredient sourcing and manufacturing. All of those things are suited for the boom of canned foods and in little package like crackers for kids lunches. I mean, they haven’t really caught up to new forms of packaging and trying to be more sustainable and accommodating non allergen products. I mean, everyone is still learning. And like I said, you need to you need to really understand that you can’t just show up and Hope it all works.
Andrew D Ive 40:01
So question. If there are universities where uproot is not present today, is that basically? Are you? Are you going to need to get in there and speak to the purchasing folks? Or can university students who listen to this who are proactively kind of wanting these things in their own universities? Can they reach out to their own university to their own purchasing departments? How would you?
Jacob Conway 40:33
Yeah, you know, how
Andrew D Ive 40:33
should they? How should they do that? If they’re looking for this on their college?
Jacob Conway 40:37
Yeah, the answer is yes, you can reach up and tell your food service director, tell your chef, Chef, I really enjoy talking to chef just because I like food and making it but um, any of those people really have the power to raise their hand and say, we want to bring on a new plant based milk so you can go to them, you can also go to upwards website and just submit your information to us, we have a form on there a contact form, tell us what school you’re at, tell us your name. And we will get in touch with your food sewer service director or chef if you don’t want to, and let them know what we have. And that would be great. Because oftentimes, they want that proof. They want proof that their students are asking for these things. And it falls on us to show up and get the students to rally around us. But we know that the demand is there. So when students speak up, it’s it’s a huge benefit for us. Eventually, hopefully, we’ll get to a place where we are available through distributors and schools will see us as a unique option because we are the only plant based milk to be in this multi variety dispenser. And they’ll see the appeal of that. But we want these relationships to be open and direct and and intimate. So we want people to reach out we want them to know who Kevin I are, we want them to know who it is and where it comes from.
Andrew D Ive 42:01
And in terms of people backing the company who’s who kind of got behind you guys from a from a you know, investor perspective, who sort of in the in the fight with you who’s who’s trying to build this business.
Jacob Conway 42:15
So Kevin, I, we were scrappy, we have been scrappy, for a long time, a lot of our initial money was what is called free money, meaning we didn’t have to give up any equity. We entered a ton of competitions in Rhode Island, and we won quite a few thankfully, we sold them. And that was all of our initial funding. And then obviously, the funding through B IV we’re working on are closing our pre seed round right now, which is a mix of angels and some friends and family. But we have good contacts in the vegan world, and we’re hoping to bring them on board as we really skyrocket right now now that we have a product out there. Um, we want people who our mission resonates with who believe in changing the food system and who believe in creating better access to plant based products for people. There’s a lot of incredible individual vegan investors out there people who have started their own funds, and they’re small, but they really get it and there begins themselves and they have an understanding of what we’re doing and this passion where this really comes from.
Andrew D Ive 43:22
So here’s a tough one for you. And I’m not sure if the answer to this question, but would you accept investment from a non vegan?
Jacob Conway 43:32
That’s a really good question. Um, Veronica feel who was in our program, I’ve talked to her about this as well. And I mean, being, not everyone who puts only plant based and I had to grapple with that personally for a little while. But I think ultimately, it’s a combination of two things. One, it’s this sort of cheeky response of, yes, I’m glad to take money from non vegans so that I can put it towards vegan initiatives because that means dollar, if the money is going to me, it means it’s dollars that aren’t going to non vegan companies, which is a win in my book. But the other the other component of it is just the reality that we are we work in a in a broken food system as it is right now. And in order to get to where we need to be you do have to make compromises and you do have to be willing to to be flexible, not necessarily in your values or in your morals, but about how you get there. And sometimes that means taking money. When it’s not how do I when it’s not your first choice, I guess I’m in a perfect world, everyone would be vegan and I’d be fully financed by vegan and vegan people who who share this mission and this fashion but that’s not the world we live in. And it creates really cool opportunities where you can also have that deeper conversation like I’ve had with Many times about why veganism is the future and why it’s so important and why we need these products out there. And hopefully, that will have a ripple effect. And we can get people to start shifting where their money goes to more begin companies.
Andrew D Ive 45:15
Perfect. So if someone’s interested in getting uproot for their college, for their office, for their retail store, you know, for their restaurant, etc. Or if they’re interested in talking to you about your your investment round, and I’m guessing whenever they listened to this, you’ll probably be at one stage or another have an investment round. Where should they
reach out to Jacob and Kevin,
Jacob Conway 45:43
you can reach me directly at Jacob@uprootmilk.com. And Kevin’s is Kevin@uprrotmilk.com. Or they can go on our website and the contact form there is the best place to reach us, it goes directly to our inboxes. So it’s, it’s just like you’re directly emailing Kevin or myself. Our website just got a nice refresh recently. So all the product information, you can see it in real life on there. And we’ll send people samples, we will, we will get it to you one way or another we will make sure of it. And then the cartons will also be available on Amazon within the coming week. So if people really, if you want it at home, if you want it for your kids, lunchboxes, whatever it is, you can get the single serve on there as well.
Andrew D Ive 46:30
And you’re selling those single cells in packs of 12. And so
- 18 Yep, a box of 18.
Andrew D Ive 46:37
boxes are biting. Okay. And this is all uprootmilk.com. Correct.
Andrew D Ive 46:44
All right. So Jacob, and Kevin @uprootmilk.com website approved milk.com I’m guessing you. I don’t know, maybe you’re too cool to be on Instagram or any of those places. But
Jacob Conway 46:56
we’re Instagram, our handles are at uproot milk. Everywhere. We’re on Twitter, we’re on. We’re on Instagram. We’re excited. We’re in the process of revamping all of that right now to reflect our new branding and our new product launch. But in the next week, it’ll all be up to speed. So take a look, please engage, follow. I mean, like I said, part of our mission is education. So if you find us on those places, hopefully you’re gonna learn something about plant based milk that you didn’t know before.
Andrew D Ive 47:25
Check goodbye. Appreciate your time. Thank you. Thank you for spending some time with me today. And I look forward to getting feedback from people who listen to this, but also I look forward to people reaching out to you directly and helping your business. You guys are doing great things. I appreciate you.
Jacob Conway 47:40
Thank you very much, Andrew, thank you for the time. Hope to see you again soon. All right,
Andrew D Ive 47:45
I’m going to stop recording. Thanks for listening to the big idea food podcast. I really appreciate you. Please do subscribe, then you’ll get notifications of the next podcast. If you have any questions or comments, please do reach out. We can also be found via big idea ventures.com and through Instagram, LinkedIn, all of those wonderful places. So enjoyed the conversation today. I hope you did too. I look forward to hearing from you. Bye.
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