John Foraker is the co-founder and CEO of Once Upon A Farm, a company he co-founded with Jennifer Garner, Ari Raz, and Cassandra Curtis, with the mission of providing yummy and nutritious “farm-to-family” foods to kids of all ages. A natural and organic food industry veteran (more than 30 years!), John has a history of running businesses with a sharp focus on sustainability and social responsibility. John was the longtime leader of Annie’s, Inc., a leading natural & organic food brand. Wanting to leave the world a better place than when he came into it – both for his four kids and the planet – for John, impact, people, relationships and fun are all more important than money.
What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
John Foraker: To me, entrepreneurship means hard work, taking risks, and being resilient when the inevitable setbacks and mistakes happen. Rebounding and learning from mistakes to drive forward with energy is what sets successful entrepreneurs apart from the rest.
How did your company come to be? What was the a-ha moment for you?
JF: After running Annie’s from 1999-2017, I was ready for a new challenge. I had another lightbulb moment walking through the grocery store when I came upon a cooler stocked with fresh pet food. Knowing that the trend to fresh is every bit as disruptive in grocery stores as the organic movement, I wondered to myself, “If fresh pet food is available in 18,000 stores in the United States, and I know what organic consumers want—especially moms and dads—–why hasn’t anyone done fresh organic baby food yet?” It was the genesis of another innovative idea.
I was an angel investor in Once Upon a Farm, which at that time was a small company started by entrepreneurs Cassandra Curtis and Ari Raz. Then actress and activist Jennifer Garner got involved and we went all in. Together, the four of us serve as Co-Founders and are committed to building the next generation kid nutrition brand. We want to be the first brand a mom or dad buys for their child, and we want to be the preferred snack as they grow.
How has your business changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
JF: Our business in the digital/online space has definitely accelerated in response to the pandemic. Before the pandemic hit, we already had a strong online/DTC business, but it wasn’t our core focus. Being able to pivot to meet consumers where they needed us most (online/digitally) was how our strategy changed and quickly became our priority. Retail is still a major part of our business, but we made sure that we were listening to our consumers and communicating with them to show our empathy during this challenging time. It was important for us to continue to be an ally for parents and making sure it showed through all of the different communication touch points we had.
What is your proudest and darkest moment so far? Share a key high and a key low from your journey if you can.
JF: My proudest moment is every time I see a mom or dad raving about our products knowing they are buying the absolute best for their kids, and that we are helping nourish the next generation in a really meaningful way. My darkest moment was a few years ago when we had a small and very nut-based product in the market, and a few little consumers had allergic reactions because their parents did not read the label so were unaware that nuts were present before giving the product to their kids. That was a scary moment that we overcame, thankfully no one was hurt, and we learned a great deal from that experience in terms of communication on packages and with our parents around the topic of allergens. We do not have any nuts in our products now and probably will not forever.
How is your company changing the landscape?
JF: When we launched Once Upon a Farm, we wanted to change the baby category, but we have seen consumer demand shift and it’s so much bigger. We are helping lead the way for an entirely new category – all around Fresh Snacking. We have been refreshing the category since our inception with the first line of cold-pressed fruit and veggie blends for babies. Today, our portfolio has expanded and now includes dairy-free smoothies and yogurts that are enjoyed by everyone in the family. It is our unique process that truly sets us apart. All of our items are refrigerated and cold-pressed which uses cold pressure (also known as HPP) to lock in the nutrients and flavors for each recipe making crave-worthy snacks that kids love and parents’ trust.
What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
JF: I wish someone had told me to worry less. Early in my career I worried about everything all the time, and one day many years later I realized that 95% of the things I worried about never came to pass. So, releasing that anxiety and worry has made it easier for me to manage my personal life with the stress that comes from the entrepreneurial journey.
What advice/credo do you live by as you grow the business / what is your professional and personal mission statement?
JF: When working with any business I always ask myself this question: What is the social and environmental impact I want this business to make? And what does it really stand for? A lot of small companies don’t give enough thought to these things when they’re in their formative stages. They’ll often figure it out over time or never do. I think these are such fundamental questions – what a business is going to be in the world and what kind of impact it will have. Once you really have a strong opinion about these things, it makes the decisions about how you’re going to grow, how you’re going to develop products and how you’re going to show up to consumers much easier.
Where do you find inspiration when faced with challenges?
JF: We view any challenge or misstep as a “key learning” and a chance to improve upon our business strategy while maintaining a focus on our core mission and values. Even with our team’s experience and resources there have been bumps in the road over the past three years and there will continue to be more in the future, but we learn from them and use them to help us grow.
What does “success” look like for you? What do you think will help you achieve it?
JF: As our company grows and expands, it has been imperative for us to not lose sight of our brand mission and organic story. Once Upon a Farm was built on three guiding principles: products are as close to homemade as possible – organic, less processed, and fresh. Farming is at the heart of the company and telling that story is important – consumers want to know where their food comes from. For us, success comes from creating a brand that drives better nutrition for everyone. We have continued to innovate and create new products that serve all children, and we are unveiling an exciting new brand fresh later this spring that reflects the brand’s evolution from baby food to leading childhood nutrition brand, appealing to both new and loyal consumers.
Has personal or professional “success” changed for you since the COVID-19 pandemic?
JF: Not really, the same things I valued before are the things I value now, but I have seen and learned a lot about the systemic challenges in our society driven by gaps in wealth, education, and race that permeate widely and that drive disproportionate outcomes for some groups versus others. I have become much more vocal and committed to make sure that my business and anything I am involved with in my future is not just acknowledging these issues but, more importantly, are actively working to drive improvement and solutions to help make the world a better, fairer, and more equitable place for all peoples.
What’s it like to work alone or with your partners? What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs about building and leading teams?
JF: Our team has fostered an entrepreneurial culture that values humility, honesty, passion, positive social impact and fun. Working alongside Jen, Cassandra and Ari as Co-Founders has been wonderful as we all have our own strengths and unique attributes that we bring to the brand. Jen leads out strategy and vision, Cassandra creates high-quality, fresh recipes for our products, Ari handles all aspects of our business operations and I focus on the brand’s overall growth.
Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day? How has it changed in recent months?
JF: I always block personal thinking time in my schedule. That unstructured block allows me to take care of things that are most important, think about issues strategically, and to be the most productive I can be. I have time like this set aside every day and make it a priority.
What keeps you motivated during this time?
JF: Building a business that can help drive positive social change.
What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as, as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
JF: As an entrepreneur, it has been really crucial to me to create mission driven brands. At Once Upon a Farm, we advocate and support efforts that drive positive social change and food justice for the benefit of parents, kids and families.
This past June, in the wake of the George Floyd protests and the social upheaval, we were asking if we were doing enough. Companies saying the right things on social media are certainly not harmful, but is that enough to drive systemic change? We had a lot of conversations as a team, and we thought we could have the most benefit in the space where we had a lot of experiences. We came to the conclusion that the best way we could help was to get involved with some really great entrepreneurs and Black-owned companies in the food and beverage space who were beyond the incubation stage and provide mentorship – thus our Entrepreneur Ally Program was born.
If you’re a purpose-driven company, it goes without saying that what you’re doing today is never enough because you always have to push forward boldly and bravely to do more, and that is the core DNA and fabric of a purpose-driven business and something I have strived to create.
What is a quote or some words of wisdom that help get you through the tough days?
JF: The best advice I ever received was “the truth will set you free”. Only when you are really honest about where you are, will you have the courage and strength to do what is actually required.
Have you experienced mentorship in your career? Do you feel it was easily available to you?
JF: Early in my career, I had few mentors, and it was a very lonely journey. Over time I found mentors who I could run problems by and get opinions from and that has been a true gift to me during some of the more challenging periods in my career.
Who are the people who have mentored or influenced you in your life or career? How has their influence changed the trajectory of your entrepreneurial journey?
JF: One of my early business mentors was Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm. I have learned so much from him over the years and to this day we remain close friends. He’s always encouraged me to think big and to be a driver of positive change through business. That has had a very significant positive impact on my career.
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