Little Bellies is a multimillion-dollar brand stocked in thousands of retail stores across 10 countries, but co-founder and managing director Clive Sher says staying true to the company’s original mission to offer a better alternative for children’s snacks is what continues to drive the founders forward.
In fact, Sher says figuring out what your purpose is, and what you’re passionate about, is key to the success of any business.
Sher founded Little Bellies with his brother Steven Sher in 2011, after Steven’s son’s experience with severe food allergies and sensitivities opened their eyes to a need in the market for healthy, organic snacks for babies and toddlers.
The company produces a range of vegetable and fruit-based snacks for babies and toddlers, including purees, rusks and corn puffs, which are available in individual serves.
Steven also operates LaCorium Health, which specialises in therapeutic skincare products, and the two Sydney-based businesses share about 25 employees in their Sydney offices.
Each business has its own independent sales and marketing teams, and Little Bellies also has a small office in the US, where the brand launched this time last year.
As well as being stocked in about 2,500 Coles and Woolworths supermarkets in Australia, and about another 400 retailers in New Zealand, Little Bellies products can be found in a growing number of stores in North America, including Walmart in the US and Loblaws in Canada.
By the end of 2020, Sher says this number of US stockists will reach 6,000, boosting the brand’s international presence, which also includes stockists in Asia and Europe, where the Little Bellies products are manufactured.
Little Bellies’ annual Australian and New Zealand retail sales are now nearing $40 million, as it embarks on the launch of its latest product range, Baby Bellies organic baby bowls, in Woolworths stores nationwide.
But, Sher says, the company hasn’t been “immune” to the challenges of operating during a pandemic, with sales initially dropping when the country went into lockdown and families were preparing more of their food at home than previously.
“From our perspective, the major challenge has been that, at the end of the day, baby food has a strong convenience element to it,” the co-founder explains.
However, Sher says it didn’t take long for sales to “normalise”, and the team has since seen an increase in like-for-like sales.
“We always knew it was going to be short term,” he says.
Organic growth for organic products
Over the past nine years, Sher says Little Bellies has grown organically, with the founders choosing to concentrate on building trust with consumers, who are purchasing products for the little people in their lives.
“In this category, trust is incredibly important,” says Sher.
The baby food and snack category has traditionally been dominated by products that are high in sugar, salts and added colours and preservatives, says Sher, and Little Bellies has sought to offer a real alternative to the products he says really belong in the “confectionary aisle”.
“Our brand has really been based on organic food, that’s better for you, with no added sugars or salt, or colours,” he explains.
“Children’s palettes are extremely sensitive and any flavour is quite strong, so if you introduce them to sugar and salt, you set themselves up to expect that in life, and it actually sets themselves up for failure.”
Little Bellies prioritises vegetables in its products, rather than predominantly using fruit, and made a concerted effort two-and-a-half years ago when rebranding its packaging to make it clear to buyers exactly what is in each of its products.
“That had a significant impact on our brand,” says Sher.
“The loyalty we have to Little Bellies is very strong. Parents don’t have to scrutinise the label to check that what we are going is what we’re saying we’re doing.”
A different approach
With a family background in the healthcare space, Clive and Steven are passionate about the health mission that is core to the Little Bellies brand.
Sher says each move they make as a company is driven by their mission to create “a more authentic brand” for children and their families, and that includes spending over four years developing the latest product in their range: Little Bellies organic baby bowls.
The bowls, which are now available in Woolworths stores, feature age-appropriate purees for babies and toddlers, in reusable and recyclable bowls.
For the most part, purres made by other brands are available in jars or soft pouches, which have grown in popularity in recent years.
However, Sher says the pouch format “didn’t resonate well” with the Little Bellies team because they encourage children to suck the food out of the container, while at the same time not allowing children to see what they are eating.
Plus, pouches cannot be recycled or reused, which means there are important sustainability concerns.
“While we recognise the huge volume and growth in pouches, the format just didn’t resonate with us, and we think it is counter-intuitive to the development of children,” says Sher.
It took time to understand what would be the best alternative format, says Sher, and to find the right partner that could produce formulas that weren’t too sweet or reliant on high percentages of fruits in their formulas.
“The majority of pouches in Australia have a fruit base and high percentage of apple and pear, even ‘vegetable’ ones,” Sher says.
“Some include up to 80% apple, and we felt that was wrong; it was misleading and parents would genuinely think they would be veggie-blend or primarily veggie.
“There’s nothing wrong with fruit, but it needs to be transparent, it needs to be honest.
“It took a long time to find a partner to support our veggie-based products.”
But with the first range of bowls now on supermarket shelves, the team are now preparing to launch an extended range in the format in 2021, while also branching into food products and snacks for older children too.
‘Stay true to who you are’
When asked what he might do differently if he has his time again, Sher says his advice to fellow business owners is to “understand both your purpose and passion” and use those to make a “genuine contribution”.
“Obviously, we have a strong purpose around supporting our kids, and we have a passion to deliver quality products that really impact the wider population,” he says.
“It really helps maintain our enthusiasm for what we do, and I think that is reflected in the loyalty to the brand.”
It’s important to take “measured risks”, says Sher, knowing that not every product will be successful. But if you “stay true” to who you are, this will help guide which risks are the ones worth taking.
“One of the key things we talk about in our category is that, of all the categories in a supermarket, most have to choose between integrity and opportunity,” Sher says.
“We have forgone short-term sales [by not taking on certain opportunities], but it has really benefitted us in the long-term to build by that integrity with our engaged consumers.”
Sher says his advice to entrepreneurs is to ask yourself two key questions.
Firstly, “what are you delivering that’s different?” And secondly, “where are you adding value?”
“It’s not just top-line revenue,” he says, “it’s delivering something that is of real value.”