Ben McKean, Founder of Hungryroot, Hopes To Change the Way We Grocery Shop—For Good
When Hungryroot first launched in 2015, it was a small company that helped customers make six-minute dinners using its own in-house line of plant-based products. After ramping up their product offerings—and weathering some initial hiccups—the company decided to pivot its business model in October 2019 to become a digital grocery service and discovery zone featuring carefully curated products from brands like Kite Hill, Banza, and more.
It was a prophetic move, given that the pandemic was right around the corner. Nearly 80 percent of consumers shopped online for groceries during the first few weeks of the pandemic (up from 39 percent pre-pandemic); even after the pandemic subsides, most consumers plan to continue that habit. Amidst the big box stores and grocery chains, Hungryroot was one of the few brands around primed and ready to feed its customers foods and simple meals made with food from brands that care deeply about nutrition, sourcing, and sustainability. It's meeting a need so great that Hungryroot CEO Ben McKean was named one of Well+Good's 2021 Changemakers. Here, McKean shares more about the evolution of the company and the lasting impact he hopes to make with his company.
Well+Good: Hungryroot launched in 2015 with six plant-based products. Now you've not only expanded your own product line but have become an all-out grocery service featuring other health-focused brands. Tell me about that evolution.
Ben McKean: The early premise was to build a food company with really interesting, healthy products that we can sell directly to the consumer. But what we learned early on is that if you just offer a handful of products, people prefer to buy them at the grocery store or Fresh Direct—however they are doing the rest of their grocery shopping. So we realized we had to offer a significant amount of products to make the direct-to-consumer experience work.
We started to scale up, but even in 2019 with 65 food products, we realized that still wasn't enough. That's when we really started to pivot the business to become an online grocer. It was the first time we added other brands to [our] marketplace. Now, you can get fresh produce, premium proteins basics like meat, milk, eggs, and cheese—anything you'd want to get at a traditional grocery store. For 80 percent of our customers, Hungryroot is now their primary grocery store. This change happened toward the end of 2019 and when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, people really shifted how they were shopping for groceries.
Hungryroot was already prepared to be a place for people to buy their groceries online while many other food brands had to quickly change how they worked in response to the pandemic.
People's willingness to purchase groceries online changed significantly in early 2020 and because of that, our business has been growing tremendously; every month is better than the previous month. It's a very convenient experience: A box shows up at your house every week and then you have everything you need.
Hungryroot features so many amazing third-party brands. How do you decide what brands to work with? What makes something a fit?
There are a few factors we consider. A clean ingredients list is really important to us. So is being eco-friendly and sustainable, which includes everything from sourcing to packaging. Last, everything is carefully curated and vetted by us. We want everything we feature to be unique and appeal to the modern customer. One brand we have that I hope people will check out is Barnana, a snack line that makes everything from upcycled bananas. Sustainability is important to them and their plantain chips are just ridiculously good. That's one brand I'm really excited about, but the core Hungryroot products are also what I hope people discover and love, too.
The company has evolved so much since 2015. What are you most proud of?
One is just how we've really put the customer first. We really listen to the customer and when they told us that they wanted us to offer more than six products, we listened. We always start our team meetings by reading customer testimonials. What's so special about the food industry is that people literally take our products and put them into their bodies, which chemically impacts how they feel. We have an unbelievably deep connection to our customers because of that. If we do it right, we can positively impact someone's life on a day-to-day basis. I'm also proud of the amazing team we've built. There is so much trust and respect across the team, which has created a really positive, efficient environment.
It's so easy, with any job, to get bogged down with daily tasks that it's easy to forget that bigger impact.
Totally. And the emails aren't just "I love the cookie dough." We had one person tell us that she had been bedridden and given up on cooking. But then she garnered the energy to put a Hungryroot box together and a week later when she got her box, she put together one of the meals. She started nourishing herself and her daughter told her, "I'm so happy to have my mom back." It's really special stuff and it's unique to the business we're in. At the end of the day, this is why we're all doing it.
What impact do you hope Hungryroot can make going forward?
BM: Food fundamentally changes how you feel on a daily basis in so many ways, including energy and gut health, but also self-esteem and feeling proud of what you're putting into your body. There's no one "right" way to eat that works for everyone. It's extremely personal and also changes over time. Our entire service is built around that. Customers fill out a quiz telling us what's important to them: Do they have any dietary restrictions? Do they want to save money? Are they trying to lose weight? Then we personalize the recommendations. Everything on the site is also labeled very easily for different eating types and dietary restrictions too. Over the next year we're going to continue to build upon this idea of personalized shopping because at the end of the day, that's the impact we're having and that we want to have.
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