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Friday, Feb 3, 2023
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Piece of The Pie

The odds are stacked against small businesses jostling for space on crowded grocery shelves. Obstacles – from distribution challenges to supermarket slotting fees – pile up higher than towering cereal-box displays. But there is a way to change those odds: Invent something new. Just ask Jennifer Constantine, chief executive of JC’s Pie Pops, a three-year-old Chatsworth company. Her frozen desserts – think hot-dog-on-a-stick, but with pie – are carried in 3,000 retail outlets, including Whole Foods Markets, Bristol Farms and Sprouts Farmers Markets. And she’s about to triple production, with a huge order from grocery conglomerate Ahold USA that will put her confections in 775 Stop & Shop stores on the East Coast. And here’s what makes it all the more astonishing: Her company grew out of a dinner party disaster. Five years ago, Constantine was a songwriter, traveling between her home in Porter Ranch and Nashville’s Music Row, when a batch of panna cotta she had whipped up for guests accidentally froze in an overactive garage fridge. She was ready to trash the Italian custard dessert when her then-fiance (and now husband) Mason Gordon came home from work and grabbed the tray. “He tasted it and said it was awesome– better than the original,” Constantine recalled. “Had he come home five minutes later, I wouldn’t be here as the founder of a company today.” Constantine started experimenting with different pie filling flavors and when she added crunchy toppings, friends began requesting them for parties and encouraging her to sell them. Constantine knew something about the food business, having grown up working in her father’s restaurants in Chicago. But she’d rejected his offer to step in when he retired in favor of pursuing music. By the time she stumbled onto the frozen pie idea years later, however, she was ready for a change. “I started doing some research and found out that pie was the No. 1 food trend in 2011. That kind of clinched it. My dad thinks it’s hilarious that I wound up in the food business. He says I ended up where I was supposed to be,” she said. Lacking experience Constantine kept experimenting, adding a wooden stick to make the treats more marketable. She positioned them to be fun and whimsical – reminiscent of childhood – but with the premium, all-natural ingredients that appeal to today’s moms. “The Drumsticks and Popsicles are fun but don’t have premium ingredients. And the premium brands are all trying to be sexy and take themselves way too seriously,” she said. After a year of research and prototyping, Constantine had three flavors: Vanilla Cream, Chocolate Silk and Strawberry Cream. But she knew she lacked expertise in the wholesale food industry. So she asked a mutual friend to help arrange a meeting with Boulder, Co. food executive Thomas Spier, who helped grow Bear Naked Granola from a $1 million business in 2004 to more than $35 million by 2007, the year the company was sold to Kellogg’s As a co-founder of frozen burrito brand Evol Foods, Spier was familiar with the frozen aisle. Spier came away from their meeting impressed with both the confection and its potential for broad consumer appeal. “First, the product tasted fantastic. Second, JC impressed me from the first moment with her drive, passion and intelligence,” Spier wrote in an email. “They’re not just for a small niche, but for a national audience.” Constantine and Gordon put up $100,000 of their own funds and Spier matched their investment and signed on as a co-founder. Constantine rented 500 square feet in a Chatsworth co-op kitchen, bought a food cart and applied for a seller’s permit. By the summer of 2012 she was taking her pie pops on the road, testing price points at San Fernando Valley farmers’ markets, the L.A. County Fair, and on the Venice boardwalk. “We would sell out at every venue. We couldn’t keep up with the lines,” she said. By early 2013, she had her first grocery order, from a Sprouts buyer in Phoenix who labeled the pie pops a “home run.” Whole Foods and several independent grocery chains followed, including Bristol Farms, an upscale grocery chain based in Carson. Roger Arechiga, frozen foods buyer at Bristol Farms, said “JC’s Pie Pops have quickly become a popular item” at his stores. Constantine now has 10,000 square feet in Chatsworth and 35 employees – including half a dozen workers who were laid off by Nestle USA Inc. in Glendale that she tracked down through the unemployment office. She plans to hire 15 additional employees this year. Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing: Some buyers don’t get her concept and others don’t like it. And with $5 million in projected sales this year, JC’s Pie Pops barely rates a blip in the frozen novelty category, which racked up sales of $4.2 billion in 2014, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. The sector is dominated by brands like Dreyers and Good Humor. Robert Wemischner, a culinary instructor at LA Trade Tech and author of four food books, including “The Dessert Architect,” said that while Constantine had considerable success getting established, it will take a lot of work to hold on to her place in grocery freezers. “She’s done a good job getting into the stores like Gelson’s and Bristol Farms that look out for trendy products,” he said. “But they’re like flavor-of-the-month companies. When something new comes along it could knock her out.” Expansion strategy There’s also a trend away from frozen products and toward the fresh foods that dominate the supermarket perimeter, said Joe Pawlak, senior vice president at Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm in Chicago. “The center of the store is shrinking. And in frozen novelties, you’re competing not only against national brands but a lot of regional and local dairies as well,” he said. Smaller brands must prove they can continue to drive sales volume even in the face of copy-cat products that will inevitably crop up. “Retailers expect you to promote via discounting and couponing, because if it doesn’t sell, they’ll let someone else in,” he said. One thing Constantine has going for her, especially with young moms, Pawlak said, is her appealing story and the way she’s gotten it out through a robust social media campaign. “Millennials are turned off by big corporations. Being a small company, developed by one person, is a positive,” he noted. Constantine admits to thinking big, but her dreams are not unfounded. She recently received an $850,000 capital infusion from Colorado private investor Boulder Food Group in exchange for an undisclosed equity stake in her company. “I want to be in 10,000 stores by 2016 and I want to keep innovating,” she said. She and her friend Lisa Lillien, co-founder of Woodland Hills-based diet empire Hungry Girl Inc., have created a low-cal pie pop – called a Nudie – that’s nearly ready to debut. And she has a candy line – JC’s Pie Bites – coming out at Easter time. For now, though, maintaining quality and ensuring her supply chain while chasing growth are her biggest challenges. She recently won a $150,000 grant from the Mission Main Street project to support small business sponsored by Chase Bank and Google Inc. The grant, which she’s putting toward a new apartment-size freezer in her Chatsworth plant, will help. Ultimately, she sees JC’s as a brand that reaches across multiple categories. “I want to do way more fun stuff. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet.”

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