In Refinery29's Talking Shop series, we're chatting with owners of up-and-coming small businesses about their experiences launching, the big challenges and wins they've faced, and of course, their products and services.
For Mylk Labs founder and CEO Grace Cheng, oatmeal is a way of life. Launched in January 2018 and 100% self-funded, the food brand only sells five core flavors: Almond Pink Salt, Blueberry Maple, Coconut Cinnamon, Apple Cinnamon, and Strawberry Vanilla. In what feels like this current era of DTC malaise, it's wildly refreshing to hear Cheng say that Mylk Labs has never set out to "disrupt" the oatmeal scene or try to overpromise anything in the health food space. After five years, the humble brand remains true to its simple mission to provide quick, easy, healthy, affordable, and delicious oatmeal. "I know that oatmeal isn't the sexiest thing out there," says Cheng with a laugh. "However, amid my crazy life of modeling, business school, and traveling, oatmeal was the one constant that got me through my busiest years."
Mylk Labs keeps things simple, using rolled oats and simple ingredients like nuts, fruits, and organic coconut sugar. Every Mylk Labs container contains six ingredients or fewer, "really minimal, only the kind of ingredients you would find in your own pantry," says Cheng. Mylk Labs is also certified gluten-free, which might seem obvious since oatmeal logically shouldn't have wheat in it. Many larger brands, however, process oats in the same facilities that process wheat and therefore can't guarantee a truly gluten-free product.
Another thing you won't find in Mylk Lab's oatmeal? The vaguely labeled "natural flavors." "Have you noticed that there are 'natural flavors' in almost everything you buy nowadays? We make sure not to use that because while it's marked natural, it's still pretty much the same thing as artificial flavors," says Cheng. "[The term] gives people the wrong idea of what real food should taste like."
Ahead, we catch up with Cheng on what it takes to build a food brand, from getting creative with non-retail channels to how a genuine obsession is sometimes all it takes to get the entrepreneurial gears going.
So, why oatmeal?
"I discovered oatmeal when I was 18, and I kid you not, I've been eating it every day since. It's been almost a decade. If I don't start my day with oatmeal, I don't feel right. I've been modeling for over a decade now and modeled throughout going to business school at USC full-time. Through the craziness of it all, oatmeal was the one thing that literally got me through my hardest years.
"After I graduated from USC, I did the whole circuit of Fashion Week, went to New York, London, Milan, Paris, walked for Mark Jacobs, some really big shows that I'm so humbled to have been a part of. Eventually, I came home after a month and a half, and all I wanted was my daily routine and my oatmeal. And so I said, okay, I know exactly what I want to do. I want to start an oatmeal company. And that was kind of my aha moment."
It seems daunting to enter a space like oatmeal. How do you set Mylk Labs apart?
"Well, my approach is really not to 'disrupt' the scene. I completely understand that I'm going up against the big boys, the Quakers of the world. There are companies that try and do the whole shebang and get very innovative. The way I feel is, I personally don't add a ton of things when I make it at home, and I think that the market was lacking something that was just clean, healthy, and tasted good.
"Our brand values are flavor, nutrition, and convenience. All the big companies sacrifice one of the three for cost or convenience and for me, I didn't want to compromise anything knowing that there was a lot of competition. I'm not trying to be fancy. I'm not trying to do some crazy innovative oatmeal product. It's really just bringing it back to the basics because somehow all the products and companies in the oatmeal industry have gotten so far from it."
As a small business, getting your product into Whole Foods is a big deal. For readers who are interested in the entrepreneurial food space, how did you do it?
"It took me almost five years to get into Whole Foods. It is a long cycle. You have to be very patient. I think when you're too young, a lot of times they'll be like, 'You don't have enough market share. People don't know your product. What makes us believe that you're actually going to sell a lot and hit the minimums that we expect for each category?' That's kind of how it looks on the back end. It's really all on the brand to raise awareness, product trials, in-store sampling, the demos. We do a lot of that."
So in terms of brand awareness, how did you gain a following?
"Honestly, I always tell people there's no money in retail. We made most of our money through food service. So you're in New York where there are a lot of coffee shops — Blank Street carries us, Joe Coffee carries us. We built our business for the first three years off of coffee shops, hotels, co-working spaces, and universities. A lot of the alternative channels. There are a lot of avenues that don't include retail that we try and do because, again, there's no money in retail.
Wow, that is so interesting. Does it take a lot more time and effort to build these relationships with smaller owners of these shops?
"Yeah, we do direct business and ship to several hundred different coffee shops and hotels. Everyone knows me because I do a lot of the back-end work. I think the best part about running this business is the relationships you make. I feel like I've become very buddy-buddy with a lot of the customers. We send memes and people place orders in all sorts of hilarious ways, and it's literally the best part of the entire business."
And, finally, what is your personal favorite method for preparing oatmeal?
"I'll pour in hot water and then top it off with some steamed oat milk, soy milk, almond milk, whatever I'm feeling. It gets very creamy but not overloaded. And then I love a spoonful of crunchy peanut butter and a coined banana. I'm a texture person so it's perfect for me."
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