CAMDEN, N.J. — Less than two years ago, four employees of the Campbell Soup Co. quietly began planning what would become the Soulfull Project, a public benefit corporation launched to fight hunger in the local community through sales of hot cereal cups.
The idea initially came from a consumer research trip in Texas, where the team met a mother who struggled to feed her three children. That incident was followed by a similar encounter in Camden, when a mother and her children knocked on the door of a Campbell Soup warehouse asking for food.
|Megan Shea, co-founder and head of business and operations for the Soulfull Project|
“As a team and as individuals, we realized we weren’t having an impact on our neighbors and our communities the way that we wanted to and the way we wanted to live our lives,” said Megan Shea, co-founder and head of business and operations for the Soulfull Project. “So we created the Soulfull Project and built this company around this idea that you can bring purpose and meaning to your purchases and that they make you feel good about what you’re buying for yourself and that with every purchase it lives on behind you and helps a neighbor.”
The Soulfull Project debuted with four varieties of multigrain hot cereal, which are currently sold on-line and in 14 Wegmans stores. For every cup purchased, the company donates a serving to a regional food bank.
“We started with breakfast because when we looked at the two people that we’re trying to reach — very busy, working people who are struggling to get high quality nutrient-dense ingredients in their lives, breakfast is still a real pain point for so many of us, and when we look at people who are struggling with making sure there is food on the table for their families, breakfast, especially healthy breakfast that that is low in sugar and full of whole grains, is a real struggle,” Ms. Shea told Food Business News. “We thought that breakfast would be a great place to start because for so many people we talk to, if they don’t make a good choice in the morning, it really affects their whole day.”
With less than 12 grams of sugar per serving, varieties include cinnamon spice, blueberry almond, brown sugar pecan, and tart cherry, made with steel cut oats, rye, quinoa, flax and chia.
“The standard we held for the ingredient statement was that our 6-year-old kids — there are a couple of parents of young kids on the team — had to be able to read the ingredient statements,” Ms. Shea said. “Secondly, there are so many ingredients that people are talking about and reading about like quinoa, flax, chia. When you go to the store and want to try to get those into your diet, they typically wind up sitting on our shelves. They’re very hard to integrate into our everyday lives. That’s why we decided to blend them into a breakfast, but then making sure that it tastes really good and it feels familiar. That’s why it’s flavors like blueberry almond and brown sugar pecan, which has become our most popular.”
Ms. Shea and co-founders Chip Heim, head of marketing; Maria Gamble, head of innovation; and Lisa Schipsi, head of research and development, have since left their jobs at Campbell Soup to run the Soulfull Project full time. Campbell Soup is the company’s sole investor.
“When we built it and started designing it, we didn’t tell people at Campbell’s,” Ms. Shea said. “We were working on the side as a very small team. We’d work on it at night. We had other day jobs at Campbell’s.
“When we started designing it, we thought, ‘This will be great. We can leverage so many of the Campbell’s resources,’ but as we’ve gotten closer to market, we’ve realized for Soulfull Project to live as public benefit corporation and deliver on the mission and the types of products, we have to work independently a lot.”
As an example, when the Soulfull Project first launched, the team spent weeks writing 5,000 handwritten notes to be included in the product packaging.
“We know it’s not something we can scale, but if we were looking at this as a larger corporation, we never would have entertained an idea like that,” Ms. Shea said. “But for us, it was really about saying this company and these products are made by a small group of people who have a real desire and passion to help our neighbors. That’s why we wrote those notes.”
As part of the Soulfull Project’s launch, the four founders initiated the Soulfull 100, committing to 100 days of community service.
“In between creating and running a new company, doing our own demos, the team is also volunteering every day of the week with our three giving partners,” Ms. Shea said. “That has us out with our giving partners at mobile food pantries, handing out food, warehousing, boxing food, doing cooking education classes for low-income kids that might be at risk. And it’s just been incredible in terms of really making sure we’re living our mission, which is about getting people to connect back to their own communities, and making sure as we build and as we grow, we’re always staying in touch with the people we’re trying to serve.”
For Ms. Shea and the team, running a mission-based startup is quite different from working at a global packaged food company.
“I think it’s really been amazing how close we’ve been able to get to our consumers, to both the people that we’re selling to as well as the people we’re helping,” Ms. Shea said. “On Saturdays and Sundays, you’ll find myself and the rest of the team at Wegmans sampling our own products. We are the ones who are actually sampling them. And it’s important because it’s all about the story and talking about why we’re doing this.
“And to have those conversations on the weekends as you’re handing out samples and really introducing the brand to new people, it’s been amazing experience and one you’d never get in a traditional large C.P.G. type of operation, though I believe more and more should do that.”
In the future, the company plans to expand beyond hot cereal into other product categories, Ms. Shea said.“We have a pipeline of products we’re working through both in breakfast and out of breakfast, but right now we’re really focused on making sure that we’re delivering on the mission and making sure we’re able to get the products that people love and are eating and getting these wholesome nutritious ingredients into their lives and making sure it’s going into food banks,” she said. “And once we can make sure we’re delivering on that and doing that in a real meaningful way, then we’ll be looking at expansion opportunities.”