Blast from the Past: Blazing a trail Teenage entrepreneur makes strides in food-retail business

Monday, December 12, 2005 Author: SARAH MCCLELLAN-BRANDT

Most college freshmen use their dorm kitchens for cooking popcorn or Ramen soup, if at all. But Justin Avery Anderson, 18, uses the kitchen at Texas Christian University’s Brachman Hall for conducting experiments with his granola recipes.

“I’m experimenting with expanding my product line,” he said.

And since the commercial kitchen he uses for his granola business is in Houston, the dorm kitchen is his only option for these experiments.

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Anderson came up with the idea for his product, Anderson Trail’s Original Premium Moist Granola , on a trip in the mountains of New Mexico when he was 16 years old. There, he visited a bed and breakfast that served granola that didn’t damage his braces, as crunchy food can. He offered to buy some from the owners, but they refused to sell. So when he returned home, he began to experiment with granola recipes to develop something similar.

After about 10 tries and “a lot of burnt granola ,” he came up with the perfect recipe and served it at a Boy Scout camping trip.

“Most granola is so hard and tasteless, like cattle feed,” he said. “I asked my friends at the campout to try it and it was gone before breakfast the next morning. They said they would buy it. So that’s where the idea to plan the business came from.”

His mother, Patricia Anderson, said it was no surprise to see him creating something in the kitchen.

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” Justin has always loved to cook,” she said. “I got him in the kitchen cooking stuff as early as five years old. He cooked his first Thanksgiving dinner at 10 years old. I just lifted the turkey in and out of the oven, and he did everything else. He’s in the kitchen all the time. He’s always been real creative and real imaginative.”

By December of 2003 he was making bags of the granola as Christmas gifts for family, friends and teachers.

“It got a huge response,” he said.

That winter, he went to visit his aunt in Denver, Colo. She urged him to start the business by taking him to area health food stores to scout out his competition. There wasn’t any.

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“We couldn’t find anything like my granola ,” he said.

He had already read How to be a Teenage Millionaire by the time he took the Colorado trip, and one business stuck out in his mind. The Chocolate Farm, run by teenage siblings Evan and Elise McMillan, was headquartered in Denver. He e-mailed them and got a meeting.

“Evan McMillan was the first person outside of my family to give me motivation,” he said. “He gave me lots of advice and I left really pumped – ready to start my business.”

He soon started making batches of granola at home and selling it to classmates at his school for $5 a bag, an endeavor he said netted him about $5,000 (which he put right back into the business).

At the time, he was still running another company with a friend, Anderson Simonsen Studios, an audio video production company. His main client was his school – he produced the morning announcements and made some of them “radio quality.” He said he had to put that company “on the back burner” since he got the granola company up and running.

He had bigger goals than selling granola to classmates, though. He wanted something most specialty food retailers desire – to be on the shelves at HEB’s Central Market. He knew his homemade labels wouldn’t do for the specialty super store’s shelves, and that he needed to build a brand. Through a church group, he met consultant Mark Robinson, whom he still works with. Robinson introduced him to Lynn Platow, a graphic designer with Tangerine Café, a New York and Germany-based firm.

“I printed my own labels. She saw them – they did the job, but they were crude,” he said.

With Platow’s help and 22 revisions, Anderson came up with an attractive label, business cards, stationary and a Web site, He said working on the brand was his favorite part of the business development process.

He had already been purchasing all of his ingredients at Central Market, which is how he ended up meeting the person he needed to impress to achieve his goal.

A clerk in the Houston Central Market location’s healthy living department asked Anderson why he was looking for agave nectar. When he told her it was for his granola recipe, which he hoped to sell there one day, she introduced him to the specialty foods director, FB Godinez. He tried the granola , liked it, and got Anderson a new vendor packet.

“This 17-year-old kid approached me about his product and it just coupled with the fact that granola is a growing category,” said Godinez. “And with the great quality product he had and the story behind it I couldn’t pass it up. Central Market is all about great products but also about the stories and events behind the products.”

Godinez said he was impressed with Anderson’s willingness to do whatever it took to get his product on the shelves.

“In my 10 years here I cannot remember a time when someone this young came in and pitched a product,” he said. “It’s a first, I can safely say. I deal with people a lot older who have been through college, and life and ups and downs and here comes this young, fresh-faced kid who didn’t know what was about to happen. All he knew was to believe in his product and that was enough for me.”

From there, the high school senior had to purchase business insurance and a bar code and get a nutritionist to come up with the fact box with the calories and fat content. He said his total start-up cost was $10,000. Half was from what he made selling the granola at school and the other half consisted of a loan from his grandmother and a business credit card.

Godinez sped his packet through the Central Market system and placed the first order of 10 cases in April. This was when Anderson hit a hitch finding a commercial kitchen to work with. He had a deal with a caterer to use her kitchen, but it fell through at the last minute so he did what a seasoned entrepreneur – not your typical 17-year-old – would do. He picked up a Houston Business Journal Book of Lists and called every caterer on it until finding one – Mélange Catering – that was willing to work with him. The owner let him use her kitchen for free on nights and weekends until his production was up and running, then only charged him $15 per hour after. He said that, thought the ordeal was stressful, having an order placed with no kitchen was a better problem to have than to have a kitchen and no order.

He said calling the list of caterers was no easy task, but probably helped him tune his people skills.

Two days before the order was supposed to be on the shelves at Central Market, Anderson got his mom and some friends together to produce the batches. Just as everything was finally ready to go, Central Market officials said they needed to complete one last bit of paperwork, assigning an account number. The process took a few days, and would push back the date his granola would hit the shelves. Again he pulled a move of a much more experienced businessman and called someone he knew at the local ABC affiliate station. They decided to do a story on the entrepreneurial prodigy the next day, which prompted Central Market to have the final paperwork ready an hour later, knowing the television spot would bring people in.

So many people came in to try his product the day after the story was broadcast that he sold nine of the 10 cases he had brought.

“I had to stop because I needed to leave some in the store,” he said. “It’s amazing how such big things come from such small ideas.”

Though Anderson declined to say how much he has made by selling at Central Market, his success is obvious to Godinez, who said the response to the granola has been overwhelming, partly because of the fact that its different from other types.

“It’s about $7, and the average price of granola is usually half that,” he said. “Once people try it, they don’t bat an eye at the price. I wouldn’t have brought it in if it was average or below average; it’s good stuff.”

The product was deemed successful by July of this year and was placed in all of the Texas locations, but Anderson’s goal is for the product to eventually be the nation’s best-selling granola .

“I want to be able to offer it in other markets by this summer,” he said.

He said he’ll start by having a co-packer in Arizona produce the non-Texas bound product, then he’ll try to get it sold at Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s Specialty Grocery Stores. He intends to offer different varieties by this time, possibly wheat-free or sugar-free.

“Whatever the next variety is, it will be created from the feedback I get from my customers,” he said.

Anderson’s granola is so successful that he was one of ten vendors chosen to demonstrate how their products can be used to make a holiday-themed food at the Austin location’s Taste of the Holidays in November. He prides himself on the fact that there are no ingredients that aren’t easy to pronounce, meaning there are no artificial flavorings, chemicals, or preservatives, and that there are four kinds of fruit in it: dates, currants, cherries and coconut.

Anderson, who said he is at TCU because he was a winner of last year’s Texas Youth Entrepreneur of the Year Award scholarship contest, is an entrepreneurial management major.

“It’s fun to teach people like this,” said David Minor, director of the Neeley Entrepreneurship program. “It makes our jobs that much more meaningful to be able to teach students that are already living what we’re talking about and can put a frame of reference to the things we talk about [in class].”

Minor also said having students like Anderson helps the program with exposure nationwide, and helps the other students in the program to see an example of what they’re working towards.

Anderson said he spends 20 to 25 hours per week on business activities, like coordinating packaging, production and shipping via phone, as well as working with his designer to come up with a pre-printed bag design. He spends a lot of time on the phone with his mom, but it’s not to ask for money – she coordinates the production and shipping with a team of five people.

“I help him whenever he needs anything,” Patricia said. “Everything has just come so fast – I can’t keep up with him. Especially with school, I just don’t see how he has time for it all. He’s really special, and so mature and responsible.”

He says he doesn’t need much money since there’s so much to do on campus, but when he does need something he just “pays himself” out of his business funds. He doesn’t have a car, but says he will be getting one soon. In what little spare time he has, he says he hangs out with the friends he’s made at school and, of course, goes to the Hulen Street Central Market to pass out samples.