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What happens to a consumer food product company when grocery stores report as much as an 89% increase in sales? As Hakuna Brands co-founder Hannah Hong discovered, demand for her company's line of plant-based "nice creams" quickly outstripped supply.
"We’ve been riding the same wave everyone has," Hong says. "During March, when people went crazy, we were completely sold out. At first, we of course acknowledged that yes, the situation is terrible — but the sales are good. But then there was this disruption in the supply chain."
Some of the problems emerged as suppliers shifted to meet emergency needs. Hong says her two distributors were overwhelmed with demand for staples like toilet paper and shifted their capacity away from her products. Then the truckers — who deliver the vast majority of whatever ends up in a grocery store — started running up against regulations that cap their daily working hours and set mandatory rest periods. Add the fact that ice cream must remain chilled en route to the freezer aisle, and it's a total logistical nightmare that only time could solve.
"There were a couple of weeks when we were not on shelves, but things are starting to normalize now," she says.
For all the disruption, this is still an exciting point for the company to reach. Hong started the company with her longtime best friend Mollie Cha after the duo became lactose intolerant in their early 20s. Today, the L.A.-based Hakuna Brands has products — including Hakuna Banana and Totes Oats lines of nice creams — available in 600 stores from California to Texas, with the goal of nationwide distribution set for the end of 2020.
Hong says the business is a long way from where it was even last year, when she was named the winner of the 2019 Stacy's Rise Project. In addition to the $100,000 grand prize, Hakuna Brands received invaluable mentorship from food and beverage experts. Their guidance helped Hong and her business focus on a broad demographic of women interested in ingredient-focused products — a shift from their initial strategy of targeting moms searching for a more healthful dessert for their children.
"My relationship with those mentors is ongoing," Hong says more than eight months after the program officially ended. "They’re updated, and that back-and-forth is going to have a longer-term impact than what I learned specifically during the program."
To pay it forward, Hong recently hosted an Ask Me Anything mentorship discussion in the WomanMade Community on Hello Alice. Other founders immediately seized upon her knowledge regarding mentorship, grants, and getting their product on store shelves.
What's Hong's best advice to food and beverage founders seeking mentorship? "For me, the best time is after you figure out how to make your product. Not 10 units at a time but hundreds so that you can ask your mentor about strategy and options for a path forward. Saying 'I don’t know how to make my product' is not a good use of their expertise."
Despite the current upheaval, Hong feels optimistic about the future of the food and beverage space: "Yes, right now we’re going through some ups and downs, but even if we're not back to completely normal, people's eating habits have changed. There is opportunity, but you have to get through these rough times."
In the meantime, she simply marvels at how far Hakuna Banana, Totes Oats, and the entire Hakuna Brands family has come.
"Inside, we’re still baby bananas," Hong says. "If you asked me in 2016, I would have never believed this could've happened."
Want to follow in the footsteps of Hong and Hakuna Brands? Submissions are now open for the Stacy's Rise Project 2020! If you're a female founder with a product company, click here to apply.