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Q&A With a Retail Reporter Turned Natural Food Entrepreneur

Katherine Harvey on the challenges of breaking the Bare Bones brand
Katherine Harvey
Illustration by Olivier Balez

Former San Diego Union-Tribune retail reporter Katherine Harvey co-founded Bare Bones Broth with her husband, Ryan, who is a chef.

Jon Springer: Welcome to the Break Room, Katherine. Why bone broth? And what makes yours different?

Katherine Harvey: When Ryan and I started Bare Bones, we wanted to make clean, nutrient-dense versions of kitchen staples. Since Ryan is a chef, we thought why not start with stock, which is the base of all cooking. Bone broth is really just an upgraded version of stock. And for me personally, bone broth is my perfect snack: it’s savory, hydrating and makes me feel full.

What makes Bare Bones different is our commitment to starting with the highest-quality ingredients and packaging it for maximum convenience. We believe firmly that you are what you eat, eats. And we also believe that eating well doesn’t have to be a massive pain in the tush. That’s why our broths can be stored in the pantry, and they’re in a microwavable pouch with a screw-off cap.

On your blog, you describe how a change to a paleo diet helped to improve your arthritis. How did that happen?

KH: Many types of arthritis, mine included, are just inflammation in the joints, and paleo is largely about removing foods that are known to inflame the body and focusing on foods that provide maximum nourishment. So when I stopped eating grains, sugary foods and alcohol, the pain in my feet disappeared. Until then, I didn’t believe that what we ate really mattered. So obviously I didn’t expect or even hope for a result like that; it literally changed my whole life. And I’m happy to say that eight years later, I’m still pain-free.

What have you found the be the differences between the outlets where your product is selling well vs. those where business might not be so brisk? What should a grocer know about selling bone broth?

Geography seems to affect our sales more than anything. Bare Bones does well in every channel on the coasts and in certain big cities where we naturally assume people are more fitness- and nutrition-oriented. But even with the support of forward-thinking retailers, we still struggle to get consumers in the Midwest and Southeast to trade up to a premium product or brand.

Grocers need to understand that we still have a lot of educating to do before bone broth is a household “name.” And the majority of that education has to happen outside the four walls of the store, in the form of content and influencer marketing. Demos alone just don’t cut it for this category. It’s also important to note that not all bone broths are created equal, and that offering top-shelf-quality, tasty bone broths will only help to grow the category as a whole.

Your products are primarily available in natural food stores and online, but conventional grocers have seem more receptive than ever to cracking the natural channel and getting in front of trends, some via online “marketplaces.” What’s been your experience with the big guys?

We got interest from conventional retailers long before we could get any of the major natural chains to even look at our brand. When the big retailers get excited about something, they don’t like to take “no” for an answer, so we have said “yes” in a couple of cases where we probably shouldn’t have.

The challenge is that for new emerging brands like ours, the slotting fees and promotional requirements of conventional grocery can still be out of reach. Even when they’re not, conventional consumers aren’t always ready for the cutting-edge foods their stores are offering them, so the sell-through rate isn’t always as high as we all want. Most natural-food shoppers still go to Whole Foods and Sprouts to discover and try new products. There’s very little of that happening in conventional retail yet.

The online marketplaces may help, but adoption rates are still low and they’re certainly not the default path for testing and introducing new products yet. To make it even more challenging, these online marketplaces are competing with Amazon, which is more formidable than ever now that it has acquired Whole Foods.

You’re a former retail reporter. How if at all have your skills from that gig—and what you learned about the industry doing it—come in handy as a food entrepreneur?

I was fortunate to cover retail in San Diego, where we have a fantastic selection of both natural and conventional grocery stores, so I knew that side of the industry fairly well. We also have some amazing food brands, and I remember interviewing Jeff Church and Annie Lawless, co-founders of Suja, when it was just an upstart. The network, research and critical-thinking skills have been handy.

But nothing could have prepared me adequately for this business. The natural-food industry looks so innovative from the outside looking in, but there’s a lot about it that's not straightforward or transparent. And because it’s still so analogue, there’s only so much research you can do. You mostly learn by doing. For example: It took us hundreds of calls and countless wild goose chases to find a contract-manufacturer who could make our products without taking shortcuts.

Hundreds of independent grocers are descending upon San Diego this month as the National Grocers Association show comes to town. Where should they eat? 

My favorite ramen spot, Rakiraki. I take all of my out-of-town visitors there. For tacos, Galaxy Tacos. For a nicer dinner: Nine-Ten in La Jolla, where Ryan worked as a chef before we started Bare Bones.

Lightning Round

What’s in your go-to bone broth smoothie?

One cup carrot juice; 1 cup fresh orange juice; 1/4 cup pineapple juice; 2 cups beef bone broth; 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric; juice of 1 lemon and a 1/2 cup ice.

Who does the food shopping in your family and where do you do it? The whole family! We love Costco and do most of our shopping there. We go to Vons, Sprouts and Trader Joe’s for things we can’t get at Costco.

Fill in the blanks. I thought the hardest thing about this business would be: scaling production, but it’s turning out to be: structuring and building a team for sustainable growth.

Helpful hint for running a business with your spouse?

Have very defined boundaries! Leave work at work, and try to have activities outside the business that give you something else to talk about.

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