Nourishing Brain, Body, and Business in Niche Markets
BrainJuice’s Sam Elick and Better Bites Bakery’s Leah Lopez discovered a hungry market for their specialty products
BY JOLEEN JERNIGAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY WESTON CARLS
Both Elick and Lopez began marketing their health products because what they needed simply didn’t exist in stores. It’s marketing 101: Find a need and fill it. By problem-solving for themselves, Elick and Lopez tapped into unfulfilled niche markets, and once they were off and running, both their businesses grew quickly.
Lopez and Elick put in the research and the work. But while Elick actively pushed to market and distribute BrainJuice using the old heel-toe method, Lopez needed more nudging to move Better Bites out of her kitchen — literally — and into larger distribution, starting with Whole Foods. For both entrepreneurs, the hard work is paying off.
BrainJuice Brings Business and Life Into Focus
Sam Elick always struggled to concentrate in school. Even in grad school, he didn’t exactly exude laser focus, no matter how many cups of coffee or energy drinks he consumed.
One night, his brain had enough and went kaput — or that’s how it felt. That’s when Elick asked the fateful question: “What can I actually feed my brain … to generate mental focus and mental clarity and have [my] memory working well? To feel awesome and clear?”
He found that certain nutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants worked to improve actual brain function and increase focus. But of the available supplements, nothing on the market combined those elements to give the brain almost immediate clarity and focus. This is where BrainJuice succeeds and where energy drinks and mere caffeine fall short. BrainJuice is more than the sum of its parts, and it is an entirely different beast than an energy drink. It is brain food.
Elick began researching nutrition and the brain’s chemistry. He gathered a team, including a biochemist, and set to trial and error. BrainJuice was born. Elick — whose family had instilled in him the entrepreneur’s mindset of “be your own boss” — instinctively knew that BrainJuice was worth sticking with.
He pushed forward, visiting a long list of Austin stores with boxes of BrainJuice to get it on shelves. At times, it was slow going. Often it meant leaving a box of BrainJuice with the stores, asking them to try it and see if it sold. Most stores called soon enough with more orders.
Recently, Elick’s expanded the line to include a powdered version and a new formula for athletic performance that enhances brain function and protects the heart to enhance performance.
Better Bites Bakery Makes Life Tastier for People With Food Allergies
Leah Lopez and her husband received the news that their son had multiple, severe food allergies early on. Lopez worried as he grew older that her son might be left out of parties because he couldn’t eat typical party goodies, so she set out to create allergy-safe, delicious treats that she and her family could enjoy themselves or could take to parties for everyone to enjoy.
Lopez’s very first cake was a Thomas the Tank Engine cake that she admits was more of a mess than a triumph. That didn’t stop her, though. Soon, she started making a variety of yummy desserts free of the eight top allergens. Then, excited by her progress, she began inviting friends over, sharing the plant-based, gluten-free treats she’d been working on.
Friends with high-end hotels and restaurants raved about Lopez’s creations, commenting that even their award-winning chefs weren’t making allergen-free desserts. They planted a seed in her mind that yes, what she was doing could be a business. However, Lopez was in no rush to market her skills and perhaps felt unprepared to move on the idea so quickly.
But then a good friend — realizing Lopez needed a nudge — served one of her chocolate cakes to a group of Whole Foods executives, including with it a slip of paper with Lopez’s phone number on it. Things moved quickly for Lopez and Better Bites Bakery from that point on.
The Whole Foods team invited Lopez to come in, bring a bunch of goodies, and talk business. They loved the desserts and knew there was a big market for plant-based, gluten-free, delectable treats. They guaranteed her shelf space in Austin, provided she work out of a 100 percent certified, gluten-free kitchen — the first gluten-free certified commercial kitchen in Texas.
Many specialty shops begin with one item, but Lopez had no interest in limiting herself and rolled out her first commercial batch with 12 items. As she explains it: “I’m doing this to create a family of products for people who don’t have options. If you’re going to support me on making multiple items, then that’s what I want to do … My goals were to create options for people like my son who didn’t have any; I wanted to add a little more excitement in that category.”
Over time, the bakery’s product offerings have changed some as the team has focused in on their most popular items. But the flagship Big Mo and Lil’ Mo chocolate cakes with coconut-cream filling and chocolate ganache are still among their most popular items, as are the Dō Bites — raw cookie dough bites covered in chocolate.
About three years after launching in Whole Foods, Lopez was called in by the Whole Foods leadership team to look at numbers. She wondered if there was a problem. Turns out, her line of products was the number one seller in the Whole Foods bakery and the team wanted her to expand to all of its stores.
She found herself faced with the age-old dilemma many entrepreneurs face: How do you grow while maintaining quality standards? Luckily, she found a co-packing kitchen with an established process line and started to produce baked goods at a much more rapid rate, while still holding them and her team to the highest of standards. The products are now kosher, non-GMO, gluten-free, and vegan — all certified.
Today, Better Bites Bakery distributes its packaged desserts to stores across the country. In Austin, they can be found at Whole Foods, Central Market, H-E-B, Natural Grocers, and Royal Blue Grocery.
Advice From the Founders
BrainJuice, Sam Elick
On positive thinking: “Positive thinking is good, but it’s more so just having the eye on the goal, knowing you can make stuff happen and keep going … facing the negative and the challenges when they come up. If you focus only on the positive and ignore the problems, that’s when they can take you down.”
Better Bites Bakery, Leah Lopez
On scaling up: “One of the biggest things that entrepreneurs are truly faced with is ‘Do I have something that can really last, that people really want? Once they … know it’s market-validated, that people are excited about it, the next question is, ‘How do I produce this, sustain it?’ It has to be baby steps; we can’t run before we can walk.”