I met Roman Jewell at one of our Nurture Change Business Retreats about five years ago. He and his wife Andrea are the owners of Fix & Fogg, an incredible artisan nut butter business that has gone from selling 10 jars at a Wellington food market to being in supermarkets across NZ and in over 3000 supermarkets in the US.
Roman kindly agreed to share his business journey and what he’s learnt — and is learning — along the way. This is a summary of what he shared with our Business Changing clients recently…
It’s never too late to make pivotal changes in your life and learn new things
I started as a lawyer, working in Australia and then studying a masters in the UK, where I met my wife. I convinced her to come back to New Zealand with me and on our return, I realised I wanted to have ownership of what I was doing and the values of corporate law were a little bit of a personal misalignment for me so I started Fix & Fogg, knowing nothing about food. I tried a bunch of hobbies, to be honest. Pottery, sewing, cheese-making, home brew beer… The last thing I bought was a peanut butter grinder. Peanut butter sounded simple — it’s peanuts and salt, how hard can it be?! Actually, it’s very complex and much more than I’d appreciated!
The transition from law to food manufacturing was a big leap but it taught me that we can make pivotal changes in our life and learn new things.
Always focus on the gold standard when it comes to your product
When you only have crunchy peanut butter or smooth peanut butter and two ingredients — salt and peanuts — every little detail counts. I overthought and overthought and overthought this product. I look at it like a margarita pizza. There’s nowhere to hide. If the mozzarella is no good or your tomato sauce is not good, it stands out. So I was focused on how we made it, how we roasted, how we ground it… For the first two-and-a-half years I hand-sieved every crunchy piece that went in the jar because I wanted the texture to be to my liking.
It’s a very intimate experience, someone putting something in their mouth — if they don’t like it, they’re not going to come back. You have to win on your first jar every time, you have to be consistent, you have to give that gold standard of quality.
Amazon is a good testing ground
I’m a big believer in starting small. We’ll just test it, see how it works, refine it, keep going — which is how we used Amazon to test the US market. We put a pallet of product on a boat and sent it into an Amazon warehouse. Those jars landed on Amazon and the retail price was $14.99 — crazy, crazy high because Amazon takes $6.20 for every jar we sell. And if that jar breaks in transit, Amazon say you need to refund that customer so you wear that cost, too.
Amazon is not a big profit center unless you have a product that’s really designed for Amazon: high value, lightweight, can’t be broken, no shelf life. We’re almost the opposite of that. But using Amazon taught us loads.
I remember we were making a honey peanut butter at the time and we saw a little spike in sales on Amazon. We thought, “Oh, they’re loving it, let’s send some off!” We sent three pallets of honey peanut butter and by the time the boat got there and was unloaded, no one was buying it…
There’s literally thousands of peanut butters and nut butters on Amazon and we had to figure out how we could stand out. I remember walking back through duty-free one day and I saw those whiskey bottles in canisters and it occurred to me that we could put our peanut butter in one — not only did it fix our issue of our glass bottles being shippable but when you buy a Fix & Fogg jar through Amazon it comes in this nice canister and that got people talking.
We’ve sold 70-80,000 jars on Amazon from 2018 until today. It was a great testing environment for us to see if the US would work for us.
Sometimes you need to dive on in
In 2019, after two years on Amazon, we had enough confidence that people would buy us in a grocery store. We found a co-manufacturer and hired a GM, a Kiwi guy called Blake. We didn’t have any supermarkets at that point. It was like Wayne’s World — build it and they will come — but when it’s your own money, it’s way scarier.
By the end of 2020, we had 10 supermarkets — and only in Texas. But last year, 2021, we went from 10 to 3500 grocery stores.
All that growth happened without me — just trusting in people like Blake and the co-manufacturer and a sales team. We leveraged the success we’d had in Amazon: “Hey, we’ve had over 1,000 5-star reviews, are you interested?”
We got every Whole Foods store — 500 of them. Normally you get to trial to one or two regions but we went into every Whole Foods store. But it came at huge cost, right? We invested significantly in that market. It’s a massive cost but we did it because I believe our product can work there. The grocery buyers believed in it, too — they could taste a difference. We’ve taken what we had done in New Zealand — all our learnings around the craft of the product, around the brand, around values — and we’ve put that in a bigger market.
Sell well, rather than sell lots
I give us a 7 out of 10 with where we’re at — there’s work to do. Our biggest weakness in the US is brand awareness. You know, there’s 350 million people in America — how do we get them talking about Fix & Fogg? That’s where we have our work cut out for us, making sure that people fall in love with the brand. We can do that through a number of ways, starting with how we work with the stores and giving them whatever they need from us, whether it’s price, promotions, display or a collaboration. We’re actually not looking for any more distribution — we’d rather just sell well, rather than sell lots. I think that’s a big lesson in business that people sometimes forget.
Believe in your product — even against the big boys
The first time I saw a product on shelf was at a Chicago Whole Foods store. I felt a bit sick, to be honest, because the day before I’d walked around Chicago and seen the high rises and all these people and it just got me really scared. How could we play in this big market when we’re so small? How do we win against massive billion-dollar companies like Kellogg’s, Nutella, General Mills?! I’d taken a hobby from the Hataitai Bowling Club, mixing bowls by hand and gluing on labels, to the shelves of mainstream natural specialty in America. It reminded me that anything is possible. You just have to have the big vision and plug away it. You don’t have to knock it out of the park — just take one step at a time. It can be done and you can do it without knowing anything at the start.
Don’t be too proud
Just learn as you go and be nice to people. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t have an ego. If you make a mistake, apologize. If you don’t know something, try and find someone who does and ask the question.
Everything looks shiny from the outside
Yes it sounds good that in one year we went from 10 to 3500 grocery stores — but remember, there was three years before that where there was nothing happening. We just had to work it away at it to get everything right. And it’s still not where I want it to be. There’s still mistakes we make — it still costs us too much money to play in that market, it’s got challenges around supply and freight and sunflower seeds and all those sorts of things, but that will never be finished. It’s just this constant evolution. It’s very easy for things to look good from the outside.
Choose your team wisely
I believe in investing not just in the brand or ingredients or the values, but in the people that work here. I think one of the greatest things about being a founder running a business is I get to choose who I work with. It sounds a bit selfish, but I came from an environment where I didn’t get to choose who I worked with. Now I’m a bit of a gatekeeper culturally about who comes in here. I am — to a fault — probably attracted by enthusiasm because I had enthusiasm at the start. If you are really enthusiastic it carries so much weight with me because I think if someone applies themselves, like I did, they can go anywhere.
Sometimes you need to make hard decisions in order to grow
We were in a building in central Wellington that was really, really small for a food production facility. A nice way to put it was that we were sweating the asset — just stretching the rubber band and hoping it didn’t snap. But we needed to unclip ourselves to see how we could continue to grow. About 18 months ago we started working with a manufacturer in Auckland that gave us way more capacity. As part of that, we went through a redundancy process with some of the production stuff — that was personally probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I felt like I’d let a lot of people down. I felt like I’d let myself down. The overriding thing was that I wanted to treat people really, really well. I wrote everyone the nicest reference I could. We paid for additional training — forklift training, health and safety, first aid — whatever we could, just to help people on their next step. I think treating people really well on the way in, and during, and on the way out is really important.
OKRs are more than okay
We use something internally here called OKRs: objectives and key results. I love them. I find they suit me because they’re stretch targets and I work better with a stretch target rather than just hitting something that’s kind of achievable. I have my own OKRs and so do the senior leadership team. We have our big five things that we’re working on — they’re limited to five, not six. So things around communication and direction which I think do help culture because when you have a business like ours, where someone’s putting a jar in a carton or someone’s working on supply of raw ingredients, or someone’s looking after an export market, how do you bring all those people together? For us, OKRs do that.
Tell them how it really is…
Every two weeks I run a one-hour stand-up meeting and I tell my team everything. I’ll say, “Hey guys, we’re really struggling with cash flow” or, “Hey, we’re working on this thing” or “We’ve dropped the ball over here”. I’m an open book. I give our team the good and the bad and I think people really like that. I don’t hide anything from staff. I tell them where I’m struggling in my job or where the business is going or why we’re changing a decision and I think people have a buy-in to that and they can contribute and they can have ideas. It helps me share my emotional burden and it galvanizes people in the right direction.
You need to distance yourself
Small business is hard. (I still see our business is a small business.) I designed the label, I glued it on, I sieved, I was doing production and sales and marketing — and I was just being pulled every which way. And it’s actually trying to restrict yourself as you get bigger to realise you can’t do it all anymore. Instead, I can get enjoyment from when the team put out a new label and a new product and I get to taste it along the way, but I’m not the guy to run that anymore. I think one of the failings that I’ve had is probably being a bit cheap and not investing in putting more people around me earlier.
We make promises to grocery stores that 365 days a year they will have Fix and Fogg product on shelf. And if that means working till 1am stirring and putting the lids on, then that has to happen. I think in business, relationships and consistency are important.
I like collabs because they’re fun. They’re people connecting, brands connecting. Someone said to me early on ‘the company you keep ends up defining you’ and that that’s where collabs come in. For example, Coffee Supreme is a long-time friend of ours in Wellington and we did a coffee and maple peanut butter with them. I really like that. To Duck Island Ice Cream in Hamilton we said, “Hey, do you wanna take over our window space and bring ice cream to Wellingtonians for a weekend?”. And then all the people from the Tron that lived in Wellington just piled in and Duck Island got the confidence to open a store on Cuba Street. I get a lot of enjoyment out of collabs but our biggest form of marketing is word of mouth. I think where we win is when people talk about the product and the story and the flavours, when we’re a part of the conversation.
Focus on where it counts — your point of purchase
I think it’s easy to forget where people engage with your brand. People think, I need to do a really cool Instagram post, I need to do a Facebook reel or TikTok or whatever, but for us, most of our customers are just looking at that jar on a shelf, in a grocery store. And 60% of them may have never looked at our Instagram feed. Make sure your product and your branding is really strong in the place where people are going to engage with it most.
We got really lucky with our label. It was just a bold color to start but when you see that on a grocery store shelf, I like to think it creates a really lovely brand block that works for the shopper. It looks nice and it works for the grocery buyer because it’s enhancing the nut butter category and aligns with what they’re trying to do in their store. And it’s engaging, so Fix & Fogg can kind of stand out from the crowd on those busy shelves. Don’t forget to focus on your point of purchase where people are looking at your product.
Make your customer feel important
We do something which is very near and dear to my heart called surprise and delight. It’s part of our DNA here. If someone buys something from our online shop, every now and again we’ll put in something extra: a key ring, another jar, a note, a code, whatever. I just like that idea that we’ve kind of made someone’s day. It makes them feel semi important and recognized. It doesn’t really matter what the thing is — it doesn’t have to be a diamond ring but it can still can make someone’s day, it can make their week. Don’t underestimate small and random acts of kindness for marketing.
Keep it all in perspective
Read The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying HERE. It’s by a nurse working in palliative care. So she’s just nursing people in their last days and weeks of their life and she kept hearing the same regrets. It’s easy to read and go, “oh, there’s time for that later, I’m not gonna die for another 40 years” but, actually, start now.
I think in terms of the business, recognise that your position as a CEO, managing director or founder is the loneliest in the business and that’s okay. But you can make it better by giving yourself a really good support network. Don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone if you’re struggling or if you want help or ask a question.