Matthieu Kohlmeyer of La Tourangelle On 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Be patient- this is a long game, and it will take a few years to feel successful. Define clearly what success means to you when you start out so you can measure the milestones as they happen.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthieu Kohlmeyer, founder and CEO of La Tourangelle.
As the Founder and CEO of La Tourangelle, the hand-crafted artisan oil producer known for its distinctive metal cans, Matthieu Kohlmeyer is responsible for growing the company from one single walnut oil to where it is today, with over 80 million dollars in sales worldwide and award-winning products sold in over 30 countries. Twenty years ago, at the age of 23, Kohlmeyer left France for Northern California to build the company from scratch following in his father’s footsteps who owned and operated a small walnut mill in a village near Angers, France. La Tourangelle began as a start-up, doubling down on the time-honored traditions of making high-quality walnut oil and today, the walnut oil is sold at more than 25,000 stores nationwide and La Tourangelle has added over 40 other oils, nut butters and vinaigrettes to its offerings. Helmed by Kohlmeyer, a pioneer for sustainability, La Tourangelle continues to be an innovator, creating new products, including the first regenerative Sunflower oil in California.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in the suburbs of Paris, France in a multicultural family, my father being German and my mother French. I would spend weekends with my grandfather, helping him tend to his large garden. As well, I spent quite a bit of time with my father who was a broker of edible oils and went on to buy his own small walnut mill — the original La Tourangelle. My father being a self-made business owner and my mother coming from a very humble family, I always knew that to break barriers, you had to be bold and creative. I knew pretty early that entrepreneurship was going to be my way to personal achievement.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food or beverage brand you are leading?
While in business school, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur and given my love for travel and adventure, I was looking for an opportunity abroad. After an internship at Unilever, I started chatting more with my father about his business of specialty oils. While I was about to spend a few months in Canada for an exchange program at Laval University in Quebec, my father mentioned the idea of making French-style specialty oils in California and encouraged me to study the possibility, which ended up being the focus of my MBA. One thing lead to the next, and we raised money from Mitsubishi Corp to start La Tourangelle as a joint venture company in 2002. I was 23 at the time and starting a business 5,000 miles away from my hometown so it was intimidating but the passion for continuing the time-honored tradition pushed me forward.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I launched the brand, I was dead set on selling our oils in 250ml glass bottles at retail stores and large tin cans to restaurants. Our first batch was made in June 2003 and our first trade show a month later. We had this tiny table on someone’s else booth. Despite this small presence, tons of retail buyers were stopping by and complementing our packaging. None of them looking at the glass bottles, all for the tin cans. We ended up selling our larger cans in all retail stores and never sold a glass bottle. Despite your most thorough analysis and data-based decisions, nothing beats experience and market feedback. For every success we have had, we’ve sourced opinions from those interacting with and eating the product to make sure it fits the needs of our customers.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food or beverage line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake is to overestimate velocity and economies of scale. I was quite surprised at the fact that most items in a supermarket sell less than a case a week. To build meaningful sales, brands need to open a lot of doors in many markets. when you first start out, margins will be tight. Despite the savings that come with larger production runs, you have to fund lots of trade and promotions to see your investments return. A strong business plan is mandatory to avoid economic surprises.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
If it is a food product that you plan to sell at retail, visit a few stores and figure how units are sold per week for a specialty small brand in this category. Figure that your net selling price will be, for example, 40% of the retail price you look at. From there, do the math to ensure you can you make money of selling at MSRP. This includes evaluating how much labor goes into making your product. If you can make a small batch, go to a few farmers market, take a booth, and listen to consumers’ feedback. Eventually, you start to see if your product is able to succeed financially in relation to your business plan and, if not, you can make adjustments.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
Starting a business takes a huge amount of grit and perseverance. Ideation does not cost much but execution takes a lot of energy. To overcome this hurdle, you need to pick ideas that are strongly aligned with your values, so you won’t lose momentum. Entrepreneurship is a series of ups and downs. To stay afloat, you need strong purpose. By being in love with your project, you keep at it — that’s certainly been true for me!
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
Getting support and expertise is critical — I would recommend advisors that are incentivized by long term success. That said, these advisors or various consultants can only take you so far and then it comes down to you doing the work. In my experience, a project will be successful if the entrepreneur behind it is has unwavering perseverance and iteration for the mission of the brand. From there, advisors can help point your ideas in the right direction.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
You can make the argument for both, but they are two very different paths. Once you choose to get in with venture capital, you are giving up control over your company and choosing to exit within a few years. This can be hugely profitable but may not be aligned with your long-term goal. My definition of success is not defined by the value of “my exit” but by the success of my business. In short, I would encourage entrepreneurs to bootstrap it for as long as possible and then raise money carefully to ensure they keep their options open. For us, it’s important to remain a private company to ensure our product is being created with the highest quality standards.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
For anyone in the founding stages of a company, I recommend doing research, picking up the phone, emailing contacts in the field who you admire and who can give useful advice, asking for meetings and simply getting out there. Steps that may seem daunting to complete (such as a patent) can be made simple through asking experienced professionals in the field. Every interaction will make you more knowledgeable and ultimately help in your process of growth. The worst thing you can do is to stay with your idea alone in your office. Don’t be afraid to talk to as many people as possible as it all ultimately adds to your long-term success.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why?
- Your brand needs to be filled with purpose. You’ll need great alignment with your product to withstand the ups and downs of the entrepreneur experience.
- Build a strong business plan. Gather as much info as possible so that you know you are chasing something realistic. At the end of the day, a food brand’s success is based on repeat purchases (velocity).
- Listen to the market — iteration is key. Most innovations will fail and will need tweaking to work.
- Be patient- this is a long game, and it will take a few years to feel successful. Define clearly what success means to you when you start out so you can measure the milestones as they happen.
- A strong brand creates a strong emotional response. Make sure your brand is speaking to what customers value most through the packaging, because this is how they will first engage with your product on the shelves.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
When starting out, question what problem you’re solving. Business is like surfing — you rarely create the big wave — the great surfers see the big wave coming early, position themselves right and enjoy the ride.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We make good food — good for the table, the community and the planet. As the first brand to make organic regenerative oils in California, I believe our brand has brought better quality oils to consumers with better flavors, better nutrition, better packaging footprint and a better environmental footprint. Our tag line is “cook like you care.” I’m also particularly proud of the La Tourangelle Foundation, our one-acre community garden that welcomes school children from Yolo County. We also installed a 350-kwh solar panel farm to feed our plant. While financial success is important to ensure our company is profitable and provides great jobs for our team, it’s also important to us that we’re doing right by the people and places around us. To us, success is defined by providing accessible, healthy oils while also giving back and creating regenerative programs.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Turning agriculture from being a CO2 emitter to being a CO2 sequester. Regenerative farming is part of the solution and one we’ve delved into with our own growing of particular seeds. It is a mission that’s at the core of our company and an issue we’re passionate about fighting for. If just 1% of all the oilseeds (a mono crop with over 100 million acres planted in the US alone) grown in the US were regenerative, it would have the potential to make a huge impact on the climate.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Matthieu Kohlmeyer of La Tourangelle On 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.