Meet a Maker: Ali Bonar, Kween & Co.
People might react to the concept of a “influencer-founded food business” in different ways. But Ali Bonar, the founder of granola butter company Kween & Co, isn’t anything you might expect out of that phrase. The SoCal-based 26-year-old built a following on Instagram for her body positivity journey, but her business savvy and genuine social mission are what landed her year-old business some big wins already. Ali and her small team are building a brand-new product – a nut-free spreadable granola – and spreading the gospel of self-love along the way.
Read on for the story of how Ali turned a broken relationship with food to a product that already has devoted fans and a partnership with Pressed Juicery.
Had you ever started a business before?
No, never. I studied nutrition at UC Berkeley and graduated in 2015. My whole college experience, I had struggled with an eating disorder. I was really social, but on the inside there was this crippling overwhelm of am I eating the right things? I was obsessed with eating perfectly clean all the time. When I graduated, I was really confused about where I wanted to go. I loved nutrition, but it was a twisted romance because I was obsessed with it and it was unhealthy. So I decided to veer away and went into health tech. I was living in San Francisco, working at a startup and learning a lot about product market fit, and finding a way to communicate your product to the consumer.
I worked there for 3 years, and always had this idea that I wanted to go back to nutrition. So I healed my relationship with food, documented my journey on Instagram, and worked with a professional in order to finally love myself again and remember that food is meant to nourish you instead of something to be afraid of. I realized that I did still have that burning passion for nutrition, but it was coming from a healthy place instead of a place of deprivation.
I decided to start Kween last year, while still working at the tech company, as a side hustle. There were no nut-free spreads out there that tasted really good and also made my body feel really good. I was inspired by the Trader Joe’s cookie butter, taste-wise, but after half a jar of that you don’t feel very good. There’s Sun Butter, and tahini, but those aren’t as palatable. I wrestled with it, and realized there’s cookie butter, there’s nut butter, why is there no granola butter? That’s where the idea was born. I side hustled it for 6 months and then realized it was getting to be a bit out of hand.
Were you nervous about making the leap?
I really was. I’m totally type-A and risk averse by nature, and the whole reason I had side hustled for so long was because I was so nervous to make the leap. There’s no right way to do it. Some people do need that kick in the pants, to jump ship and figure out how to build a new ship on the way down. I needed the security blanket, because my creativity goes out the window when I feel threatened or in a financial bind. It was really nice to have a salary coming in. It allowed me to not rush and do things right the first time around.
We used a lot of principles from the tech industry, like the Lean Startup ideology. We put out our MVP (minimum viable product), got a lot of good customer feedback, and iterated. I think we went through 80 variations of our recipe before landing on what we use today.
I was so scared. I’m still scared, to be honest. I’m not paying myself, a year in, because I’m too passionate about making this business work. It is scary, but it’s kind of a necessary evil. At one point, you have to take the leap.
Being new to CPG, a first-time entrepreneur, and a young woman, did you feel underestimated or talked down to?
Oh yeah. Many industries, not just ours, are run by a lot of older white men. It’s tough, because our consumer, and a lot of consumer demographics in CPG, are women, and it doesn’t align. I think it is changing for the better. But I do notice little things.
Whenever [co-founder] Eric and I are together talking to potential investors or industry people, they’ll ask Eric all the questions.
It’s an assumption that we haven’t really cracked yet in our society. I haven’t noticed anything so sexist, which is positive, but it could be because I’m really aware and I nip that in the bud. I don’t tolerate much – I may be blonde, but I’m pretty vicious.
Are you co-packing?
We actually make everything ourselves. We’re in a shared commercial kitchen space and we’re in the process of moving into a dedicated facility, which is really exciting, especially since it’s a nut-free product. We make everything ourselves because granola butter is a new product. No one’s ever done it before, so there’s no granola butter co-packers out there. Anyone who has the blending capabilities is a nut butter co-packer, so that won’t work for us, and then everyone who bakes granola doesn’t have the blending capabilities. We’ve been struggling to find a co-packer. That’s definitely been a work in progress.
Did you set out to be a nut-free product?
When we started, we actually didn’t market our product as a nut-free alternative. Kween & Co was just a novel spread. But when we launched, a lot of parents came out of the woodwork and let us know, ‘your product is perfect for my kids, they’re in nut-free schools.’ That was really cool to realize. Often, you launch a product and you have an idea of your target market, but this customer really came to us.
We launched to a millennial crowd on Instagram, thinking we were going to be like, the Outdoor Voices of food. But all these parents started messaging us.
It was kind of a no-brainer to go that route. We switched our coconut oil from a regular unrefined coconut oil to an allergen-free coconut oil. And we’re top 8 free, which means all of the top 8 allergens.
The difficulty though, is that on my Instagram, my voice is a lot more targeted toward a millennial crowd. I’m pretty transparent, and the mommy voice is a little more gentle. I’m a bit more straightforward. So I’ve had to ask myself, do I want to change my voice? I don’t want to because it’s not authentic, but at the same time, you have to understand who your customer is and what’s going to resonate best with them. It’s easier to talk to a group that is similar to yourself.
Given that you haven’t done this before, where do you go when you have questions?
One of my strengths is that I’m not afraid to ask questions. Our naiveté in the industry can be an advantage because if I had known half the things that we learned along the way, I probably wouldn’t have started this company. Starting a food business is so hard. But at the same time, it’s so rewarding.
I’m always the first to ask what someone was talking about. Like, “what’s an off-invoice discount?” In business there’s a macho attitude I’ve been noticing, where people don’t want to admit they don’t know things. But no one is going to think you’re dumb because you don’t know an industry term.
I have so many mentors, especially female mentors. Everyone is a mentor. Darby from Apres started her company a year before we did. So she has learnings and insights, but she’s not 10 years ahead and uber successful, so she’s in the thick of it and understands what we’re going through.
What are your biggest wins so far?
When we launched into Pressed Juicery as a topping on their freeze. A couple months after we launched, we got the news that they wanted to bring us in. It was really validating.
When you’re first starting a business, you’re questioning everything that you’re doing, like, I left my cushy tech job and now I move boxes around the city?
But having that validation from Pressed was awesome because it showed that an established company believed in us and our mission. And getting into Whole Foods! We haven’t launched into there yet, but once we do it will be really exciting. It’s the legitimacy aspect.
What is your typical day like?
I cover the sales and marketing and social media side of things. Eric and Ari are more production and financials. We’re in a growth phase, so sales is top of mind every single day for me. It’s tough because as a small company, getting into these huge retail accounts sounds fun and glamorous, but you also have to support that with volume. So we’ve been cautious about our growth plan and what it looks like. Growing into the natural channel first is what makes the most sense: starting with Whole Foods, Sprouts, Lazy Acres, and focusing on owning our backyard as well.
And then our social media piece is huge as well, it’s how we interact with customers. We use that to figure out which markets our customers want to see us next, and it really gives the customer skin in the game. They’re a part of our growth journey, helping us figure out where to go.
No two days are the same, but those are the themes that my day centers around. Today, I’m headed to the kitchen because we have this big Whole Foods order to fulfill. It’s not my specialty, but it’s all hands on deck.
What’s the end goal for Kween & Co?
Because we’re the first to create this granola butter product, we have the first mover’s advantage so we want to grow as quickly as we can. But food is not the tech industry, so things take time. And I’m not very money driven myself. For me it’s about community. I want to build a brand that represents me and what I stand for. I don’t ever want to compromise my values just to get ahead in the business. The ultimate goal is to be successful, but we want to create a movement of women feeling better about their bodies and redefining their relationship with food.
The diet industry is a $68B industry, and it preys on women’s insecurities and negative feelings. We’re here to emphasize that you’re perfect the way that you are. As women, if we spent the energy we spend thinking about our bodies thinking about other things, we’d be so powerful. We’d have so much freed up headspace that we could take over the world. Overall, that’s our biggest goal. Body positive, self love, community.
What are the tools that you use to run Kween & Co?
We’re on Slack, but we don’t use it as much as we should – there’s only 3 of us. Everything is urgent, so we mostly call and text. HubSpot has been really cool! Their CRM has been awesome for keeping track of which retail stores I’ve reached out to. A lot of sales is just follow-up, so reminding myself to reach back out to the Sprouts buyer in 2 weeks, that’s been really helpful. Google Calendar – if it’s not on my calendar, it’s not happening. We use Mailchimp for our newsletter. We try not to do too many emails, but we do a monthly newsletter with links. Our whole business platform is on Shopify and we take payments with Stripe.