Making Digital Edible: Hungryroot Pops Up For Real-Life Challenge

Much as I love the convenience of online shopping, I’m stubborn about keeping to brick and mortar when buying food.

And, yes, I am well aware America will eventually catch up with the rest of the world in online grocery shopping. Even in my rural neighborhood, buy-online, pick-up-in-store is a thing.

But buying food is something I’m good at: I sniff cantaloupes, mull my organic chicken options and make sure I get the freshest half-gallon of milk.

That’s why I’m always curious to see what tactics D2C brands are trying to win over foodies like me.

When I heard that Hungryroot, a digital brand that sells healthful, plant-based packaged foods, just opened a store in New York City, I called Mollie Chen, vice president of brand and customer experience, to learn more.

She says the company hopes its Flatiron pop-up store will give it a different kind of intel into more-than-digital customers, finding new ways to stand out in the increasingly saturated D2C food world.

“The whole point of direct-to-consumer is to be direct, and we’re hoping the store will put us in touch with more customers and real-time feedback,” she says. “We want to know how customers behave differently in stores, and what we can learn in real life.”

That’s true of the many D2C brands currently operating some form of physical retail store, of course, from Allbirds to Casper to Warby Parker.

But the challenges are more daunting for food, with so many companies competing for a share of stomach. While the company claims it has a niche all its own -- Chen believes Hungryroot is the only digital D2C selling branded packaged food that is as convenient as it is healthy -- plenty of marketers are emphasizing their own spin on either boosting health or saving time.

Chen, a co-founder of Birchbox, says there are lots of lessons food brands can learn from beauty companies, especially in the power of sampling. “People start out skeptical,” she says. “Nobody thinks they are going to like black-bean brownie batter or almond chickpea cookies, for example, and they are best-sellers. And even I had never heard of yuba noodles, which are hand-cut strips of tofu, before I started here.”

She says it made sense to launch the store, scheduled to stay open through the end of June, now, because the company has spent the last year adding more new products to its mix. “We think it’s the right time to show people what this kind of healthy eating can look like.” The store also includes an oat bar for its oatmeal products, with milk and fixings, as well as coffee and dairy products.

So far, so good. Hungryroot says that in its first week, associates handed out more than 2,100 samples to customers, and that more than 3,500 came in to shop. “They are coming in for cookie dough samples and leaving with vegetables and sauce,” Chen says.

Best-case scenario? The popup will do “well enough for us to open more stores, introducing more customers to Hungryroot, and having them become digital customers, as well.”

The company says sales rose last year 800%, to $30 million, and that it now has customers in 48 states. On its site, it recently launched a digital experience that increases personalization, letting users specify how often they want Brussels sprouts or Thai peanut sauce, for instance. Engagement is high, with 35% of customers submitting product-level preferences.

Insights about its food are essential. While Hungryroot knows when it has a winner, pronouncing a food a loser is tougher, since even more peculiar choices have followings. “About 30% of our staff was crazy about barbecue jackfruit,” Chen notes. But do other shoppers not like the taste? The texture?

Some problems stem from preparation. “We found out that people had a hard time with our cubed sweet potatoes. They didn’t cook evenly. So now they are cut into ribbons, and that’s more convenient.”

Chen hopes it all adds up to a meaningful competitive difference.  “There are meal kits, there are grocers, there are meal deliveries and there are online grocers. But we don’t think any of them are solving for health and convenience the way we are.”

Is the D2C universe too crowded? Yep, she says. “But our target audience is busy men and women, and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.”

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