By Katharine Carlon
Sara Gotch, the founder of Gnarly Pepper, has learned many lessons on her entrepreneurial journey, but one of the most important was also among the simplest: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“I was kind of prideful about being on this road alone, but I’ve learned it’s OK to ask for a hand,” said Ms. Gotch, who recently received a major one, courtesy of Canadian dairy giant Agropur.
As one of just four entrepreneurs selected to participate in Agropur’s second-annual Inno Accel accelerator this past fall, Ms. Gotch received expert assistance and support needed to take her already successful line of healthier condiment and dip blends to the next level.
Now the Cedar Rapids resident is asking for help again and reaching out to investors for the first time, in hopes of bringing a new product, Gnarly Pepper Like Mayo, to store shelves nationwide.
The ready-to-eat product tastes like mayonnaise, but saves 1,200 calories a cup over the real thing thanks to a bit of chemistry and a special sauce – Greek yogurt, to be exact.
“I definitely hope to be on shelves across America in five years,” said Ms. Gotch, who already markets spice blends intended to be mixed with Greek yogurt online and in more than 20 regional Hy-Vee stores. “I’d love to gain access to huge distribution outlets, like Whole Foods. I think there’s a lot of life to [Like Mayo], and I’m super excited to see what happens.”
“If I can attach my brand to the idea of the healthiest mayonnaise in the world, I think I’ve got a good shot,” she added.
Ms. Gotch, a former graphic designer for an advertising agency, launched Gnarly Pepper in 2017. She was inspired by her love of dips, condiments and chicken and tuna salads, but less so by their heavy calorie count.
“I wanted to find a way to indulge in dips and condiments without feeling so guilty, and I thought, what if I could make Greek yogurt mimic the flavor of mayonnaise?” she recalled.
Through trial and error, she “became a little chemist” in her home kitchen, experimenting with oils and seasonings. For several years, Ms. Gotch sold Like Mayo and dip blends in a powdered form, packaged in individual tear packets intended to be mixed with Greek yogurt. She opened a gourmet sandwich and salad shop in NewBo City Market in 2019 to showcase her products like the Yolk-O-Ono egg salad and the Yellow Submarine tuna salad.
In Phase 2 of her fledgling enterprise, Ms. Gotch will be launching pre-made Like Mayo in a shelf-stable squeezable pouch and closing her NewBo eatery to focus on the business full-time.
The international Inno Accel program, which selected Gnarly Pepper and three other startups from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. in a highly competitive process, was instrumental to Ms. Gotch refining and reimagining her product for a mass market. The 12-week program in Montreal matched participants with two mentors – a successful entrepreneur and a member of Agropur senior management – and about 20 coaches, who provided guidance on everything from marketing and sales to research and development.
“I was super fortunate because this was not initially a ready-to-consume dairy product, so they kind of took a gamble on me turning this idea into a reality through their program,” she said of the two-year-old accelerator. “We were given coaches that actually work at Agropur – a sourcing coach, an R&D coach – to go through the production process, like how many trials you have to do and how to track them, coaching on packaging for distribution, expiration dates … just huge amounts of insight on how to make a product go live.”
One of the biggest decisions Ms. Gotch had to make was determining whether Gnarly Pepper was a dip or a condiment maker and concentrating her focus on a single, marketable product.
“I had to go with the most innovative route and that would be the mayonnaise,” she said, adding that future plans call for offering Like Mayo in flavor varieties like garlic aioli and even activated charcoal, a trending ingredient in the foodie world. “This started because I wanted a healthier option for myself and it broke my brain that no one was finding savory, salty uses for Greek yogurt – Americans just add sugar. Once I finally got my formula on lockdown and realized it saved 1,200 calories per cup without sacrificing flavor, I knew I had a viable, tweakable product that kind of rolls into this huge wave of food innovation.”
Caroline Miron, Agropur’s director for innovation, architecture and strategy, agreed, saying the global accelerator selected only the most innovative and ambitious dairy entrepreneurs.
“We want to team up with the best in order to come up with new ideas and create the dairy products of the future,” Ms. Miron said, adding the program provides a springboard for startups with a sound business model, products with a competitive advantage and strong growth potential. “We believe Gnarly Pepper has the potential to be part of the next wave of innovative dairy products.”
Ms. Gotch said the support of the accelerator helped her locate a manufacturer, source ingredients and nail down costs. Marketing research suggests Like Mayo enjoys 61% purchase intent.
“That means there is a definite need and validation for our product – we just need that little extra oomph,” she said of her search for investors. “I’ve been self-funded and since day one, never asked for a dollar, but I’m now looking for seed investment. Through the program, I learned it’s OK to ask for help.”
Scott Swenson, regional director of America’s SBDC Iowa at the Kirkwood Regional Center in Hiawatha, who has worked with Ms. Gotch, said asking for money can be daunting for entrepreneurs, who often pride themselves on going it alone. But her early success with online and retail sales of dip and mayo spice packages is proof her ideas have traction in the market, while her participation in North America’s largest open innovation initiative is “a huge deal” that validates the soundness of the product.
“You’re always looking for two things when you’re working with entrepreneurs,” Mr. Swenson said. “Part one is the idea, but part two is the person behind the idea, and Sara is so passionate and always learning. Whether it’s participating in an accelerator or reading or bettering herself, it’s just a constant spate of stretching herself.”
“I would definitely also say, put yourself out there and say yes to every opportunity,” Ms. Gotch said of her advice to fellow entrepreneurs. “Apply to do stuff that scares you. If just one contact is interested enough in your business to put you on the path you need to go, that’s gold.” CBJ