Food maker hits big after thinking outside the jar

NEW YORK (AP) — For her line of organic baby food, Shazi Visram wanted to think outside of the jar.

That initially brought her to the freezer. She launched Happy Baby frozen organic baby meals in 2006, made with ingredients such as sweet potato, French lentils and wild salmon. The food was cooked, pureed and then frozen into ice cube trays and sold in boxes that could be found in the freezer section of the grocery store.

Moms who stumbled upon it told Visram that they loved the product. But many weren't used to looking for baby food in the same aisle where ice cream and frozen pizzas are sold.

"We couldn't change consumer behavior," says Visram, whose company is based in New York. "It was really hard to get moms who were used to buying jars to the frozen food aisle."

Visram had two goals when she started the company. She wanted to hit $50 million in revenue in five years. She also wanted to offer mothers a healthier and fresher option, instead of the food she characterizes as overly processed found in some jars. "We've been training babies to eat foods that have been around longer than they have," says Visram.

Despite some good feedback, both of Visram's goals were eluding her. The company's total revenue reached $160,000 when the product was launched in 2006. It rose to $400,000 the next year, but wasn't growing as fast as Visram had hoped.

Getting the product right is a challenge that many entrepreneurs face. If they don't find a way to make customers want their product and help them find it, even the best idea may not get off the ground. Or, as in Visram's case, into babies' tummies.

Visram knew she had to go where moms were shopping. In 2008, Visram launched an organic cereal for newborns, called Happy Bellies. Retailers sold the cereal next to other major brands in the baby food aisle. The company had a hit. Total sales jumped to more than $2 million that year. It also launched Happy Puffs, a melt-in-your mouth baby snack sprinkled with kale and spinach, another hit with customers.

A trip to a food trade show in Australia was the company's biggest turning point. Visram saw apple sauce at the trade show that was packaged in a sealed pouch. When she came back to the United States, she and her partner started researching the pouches.

The process of jarring requires heat, which can kill nutrients in the food, says Visram. The pouches don't require that heat. She says the Happy Baby food is preserved with Vitamin C instead of artificial preservatives, allowing it to sit on the shelf next to the jarred baby foods.

In late 2009, the Happy Baby line of food packaged in pouches landed at Target Inc. stores. Total company sales surpassed $13 million in 2010. "It took four years and a lot of heartache," says Visram.

The pouches are now the centerpiece of the company and its products are carried in 17,000 locations. Revenue is on track to reach $60 million this year. With new products and distribution, the company is on track to hit $100 million in revenue next year.

For Visram, getting the product right inspired a more grown-up product that has expanded the company's focus.

"Moms told us they kept a pouch of the baby food at their desk for snacking," says Visram. "Dads were telling us the pouches made a perfect pre-workout snack."

So the company, now called Happy Family, recently launched squeezable fruit and vegetable snacks in pouches for adults. The adult pouches have more sophisticated flavors such as acai, grape and apple or strawberry, kiwi and beet. The company still sells the frozen baby meals, but sales are a small part of the company's total revenue.

"We're always looking to innovate," says Visram.

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Follow Joseph Pisani at https://twitter.com/josephpisani

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