When the comment you hear most about your business is, “Why didn’t I think of that?,” you may feel pretty sure that you have a winner. But a great idea isn’t everything, says Amy Paniagua, founder of Jamy’s Fine Foods with her husband, Jaime.
The product? Veggie Pod, a three-ounce concentrate of pulpy fruits, veggies, and herbs flash frozen at peak freshness. All you have to do is throw a pod into the blender with nine ounces of liquid (Paniagua uses coconut water), blend for 15 seconds, and imbibe. Basically, it’s everything you want to pick up from a juice bar, but stored in your freezer at a small percentage of the price.
The way Paniagua sees it, it’s not just a healthy option (it retains the fiber lost in cold-pressing), but one that cuts the food waste of juicing yourself, which usually ends in some veggies wasting away in the fridge. Most importantly, at about $3 to $5 per juice, it’s a realistic option for a meal even for people who can’t usually afford to eat healthfully. “Lower income people where we live don’t have access to produce, and it’s healthy, fresh California produce,” she explains of her home in Paso Robles. This could be a game changer for them.
It’s a winning idea. But unless you live in northern California, you probably haven’t seen Veggie Pod in stores. Why? Paniagua is purposely taking things slowly and gaining fans in person. Since launching Veggie Pod last March, the Paniaguas have won fans the old-fashioned way: with tastings in local markets. “We get out and talk to people every week by doing demos,” Paniagua says. “We’re growing organically instead of jumping into say, Costco.”
Costco is no pipe dream for the food business veteran. She had one of the first gluten-free products in 12 Costco locations, a celiac-friendly adaptation of chef Roy Yamaguchi’s iconic chocolate soufflé. That business closed in 2013 when Paniagua underwent treatment for melanoma. At the time, the soufflés were also in Whole Foods stores, other major grocery chains, and had been featured on QVC twice. But now, with the opportunity to start again, Paniagua has chosen a slower burn.
Why? In retrospect, she thinks that she pushed her last product into the big stores too quickly. “It can be up and down. You need to be so careful. You have to tread very smartly and very consciously,” she says. One sudden cancellation can mean disaster for a company. Paniagua wants to make sure that her business is stable enough to handle the storms of the mercurial grocery business.
And in order to expand, Paniagua realizes that she will need money. “You can’t build Rome or the pyramids with two people,” she reasons. “You need a really strong team.” She’s currently talking to investors who might be able to help her take the next leap in her business, but says finding funding has been a challenge. That's because everything Veggie Pod earns goes right back into the company, which makes it hard to present worthwhile financials to potential investors. She realizes that finding the right investor will mean losing part of her and Jaime’s equity in the company, but it’s necessary to reach her goals.
And those goals are no smaller than cutting food waste, and making customers healthy. The idea originally came about when Jaime Paniagua, who has type 2 diabetes, was wheelchair-bound after a hip replacement. When he came out of the hospital, his insulin had skyrocketed and Amy Paniagua knew she had to do something to get him back on track. Initially, that meant $10 smoothies from a local juice bar. But the couple figured out their own recipes that were both healthier and cheaper. Jaime's blend, one of three currently available in stores and on the website, relies on okra to help lower blood sugar, but is flavored with a slew of ingredients at the peak of their freshness, including mango, ginger, and cucumber.
Their own success with lowering Jaime's numbers makes Amy Paniagua think that Veggie Pod belongs in hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical facilities. But she's been told that it's not easy to cross the red tape of such institutions.
For now, reaching Paniagua's goals means taking baby steps. At the moment, she's working on becoming fully biocompostable, for example. Her ultimate objective is to become a national retail product, and she knows that will take the right people who share her vision and are ready to commit to a hard road of fighting for freezer space in the grocery aisles.
But she says that it can be a challenge to think of Veggie Pod in numerical terms because the company is a true passion project. "We don't want to just be a product. We could really change people's lives," she says. Why can't she do both? With her years of know-how, it's likely she can. And people who need a better way to get their veggies will be healthier for it.