LOS ANGELES — For months Gail Becker told no one she planned to abandon her career as a marketing executive and launch a food business. Even she understood it was a crazy idea.
“I had zero food experience other than I cooked it, bought it and ate it,” she said. “Nobody knew what I was doing except a couple close family members because I didn’t want to hear from a lot of people, ‘You’re doing what? What do you know about food?’”
Her secret project would become Caulipower, the fastest-growing frozen pizza brand in the United States with distribution in more than 25,000 retailers. Over the past three years, Caulipower’s rise has ignited a national obsession with cauliflower, which masquerades as a grain in pizza crusts, tortillas and other products introduced by the company and its emerging competitors.
Ms. Becker did not invent the cauliflower-based pizza crust; rather, she discovered more than 500,000 recipes online several years ago when searching for gluten-free alternatives to prepare for her two sons, who were both diagnosed with celiac disease. That evening, she landed on a key insight: The internet was ravenous for pizza crust formulated with cauliflower, particularly amid rising interest in low-carbohydrate diets, but the process of making one was inconvenient and time-consuming.
“My sons asked for it again, and frankly I said, ‘No freaking way am I going to make that again,’” Ms. Becker recalled. “It took 90 minutes to make a pizza crust after a full day of work. Who has time for that?”
Disenchanted with corporate life and seeking a meaningful change, Ms. Becker bet big on cauliflower and catalyzed a white-hot food craze. In a recent interview, she discussed her brand’s success, innovation plans and strategies for coping in a market paralyzed by the pandemic.
Food Entrepreneur: You had no food industry experience when you started Caulipower. How did you know what to do?
Gail Becker: Everybody has a different path. There are very successful entrepreneurs today who made something in their kitchen and then sold it in the farmers market and passed it around to friends and built the business that way. That is a great way to build a business; that just wasn’t my way.
I had left the corporate world because I wanted to do something more meaningful and impactful, and I knew I couldn’t do that if I started in a smaller way, so I went pretty big. I hired consultants to teach me the business because, of course, I knew nothing about it. I was like a sponge.
I hired people to help me find a co-man (contract manufacturer), and there were several who thought I was crazy. “You want to make a cauliflower crust pizza?” It all sounds well and good now … but at the time people looked at me like I had three eyes. Especially for some crazy woman who never worked in food a day in her life.
What was your go-to-market strategy in the early days?
Ms. Becker: The great thing about Whole Foods is you can pitch your local region with your product. My local region was the Southern Pacific region. And I convinced this independent broker to take me on and help get me an appointment. I couldn’t even get an appointment … I dropped off a Styrofoam container full of pizzas at the front desk.
About a week and a half later, I got an email from the buyer at Whole Foods that said, “We’d like to bring in your pizzas to 30 stores.” It’s like one of those moments you never forget.
Within a year, you expanded to 8,000 retail outlets. What were the initial challenges of scaling so quickly?
Ms. Becker: The challenges were many. One of the challenges for me was I didn’t speak the language … I’d literally be in meetings and have no idea what people were saying.
It was hard to keep up with demand with such a small staff. It was hard initially to hire people, the right people, because we were just starting out. It was such a fairly untested concept, so getting people to join at the time was harder than it is today. And, by the way, who even had time to recruit? It was working 24/7 … as it really still is today, just trying to fill orders.
You have since launched in a number of categories with vegetable-centric meal hacks. Was that always the plan?
Ms. Becker: The strategy evolved, to be perfectly honest, as I think it should for any good business. The one thing Caulipower has done well, and I’m super proud of this, is that we listen to consumers. I didn’t know what our consumers would give us permission to do. I didn’t know if they would let us go into other categories. I didn’t know that they would want us to go into other categories. I didn’t know how they’d feel about us going into other vegetables. I had no idea.
And it was only after a bit of time and hearing from a lot of consumers and hearing how much easier we made their lives that I started to put together, “We’re the meal hack company.” That’s what we do. We make people’s meals easier, better and tastier. In today’s world, you should not have to sacrifice taste for nutrition or convenience. I don’t think it’s hard to ask for all three, and I think consumers should demand it. That’s what we’ve always tried to deliver upon.
This past March, prior to the cancellation of Expo West, you were set to launch your next brand new innovation, cauliflower rice. Tell me about that.
Ms. Becker: Cauliflower rice is interesting because it’s probably the product I’ve had the most people ask me to do, and I’ve said no 100 times. Why did I say no 100 times? Because I didn’t think I could do it better. It had already been done, and I just didn’t think I could do it better. So I kept saying no.
Then, after doing a bit of research, I realized, you know what? We can do it better, and we can do it better in three ways.
One, we can improve the flavor profile. Most of the cauliflower rices you see in stores either are plain or have a couple of added vegetables but no real flavors. These are three never-done-before flavors. You don’t have to add your own sauces or spices.
Two, boy, are those clean label... And if you compare to others out there, you’ll see a difference.
Finally, the packaging. We put these in a recyclable, microwavable and dishwasher-safe package so you can add meat if you want, add additional vegetables if you want, or you can eat it just as it is. You can bring it to work, when we all return to work one day, put in the microwave for three minutes, and you have a hot, delicious healthy meal.
How has the onset of the coronavirus pandemic affected your business and your launch of the new products?
Ms. Becker: Every day there’s a new challenge. Trying to get product to shelves, trying to keep product on shelves, trying to figure out how to get product from point A to B in the middle of a pandemic is quite challenging. Things are starting to calm down and normalize now, but in the beginning … the stores have six months to prepare for Thanksgiving. With COVID, they had about six minutes.
We’ve pivoted and innovated at such a rate because we’ve had to. We haven’t skipped a beat. Our fill rate matches anyone if not surpasses. It’s pretty incredible. The other thing we’ve done is we had about 10 employees that worked in areas that aren’t busy right now. We have people in foodservice. We have people whose job it was to build brand experiences at food shows or in different events and food trucks. We have taken those people and redeployed them. We are teaching them new skills. They’re doing a great job, and we haven’t lost any jobs. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. Our ability to turn on a dime, to learn new things, innovate and adjust.
Why do you think Caulipower has been such a success so quickly?
Ms. Becker: I would attribute the success to four different factors. One was timing, for sure. We hit the timing just right. I saw people were using cauliflower rice to make different products. I saw there were 569,000 recipes on the web, and I realized I can’t be only one who doesn’t have time for this.
Two, I think marketing. The marketing has been very different. We engage with our consumers in a different way. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re a bit irreverent. We’re fun.
Three, I would say our team. I’ve had many jobs in my career … and I have never fought for or worked so hard for anything work-related in my entire life. And for some reason I’ve been blessed enough to have a team around me that is as committed and as passionate about Caulipower as I am.
Fourth and finally ... our products taste phenomenal, and that’s everything. I could have those other three things, but if I didn’t have products that tasted great, we wouldn’t have a business. I feel incredibly blessed and privileged to have all of those elements.