We’ve all heard the phrase, “You gotta be in it to win it,” which has long been associated with the New York Lottery and is often credited to Bob Brown, who hosted Lotto drawings for years.
Well, the phrase is just as true for RangeMe’s retailer summits and sourcing campaigns. There are dozens held throughout the year across various categories and themes (such as sustainability and supplier diversity) and RangeMe Premium members have the opportunity to participate by submitting their products via a special link.
This is just what startup brand Maazah did for Kroger’s 2021 Go Fresh & Local Supplier Accelerator. Following a several-stage selection process on RangeMe, virtual meetings on ECRM Connect, and an in-person pitch at Kroger HQ, Maazah became one of five brands selected to receive product placement, marketing assistance and education.
Like I said, you gotta be in it to win it.
It all started in the kitchen
Maazah’s story begins in the kitchen. CEO & Co-Founder Yasameen Sajady and her sisters come from a big Afghan family that immigrated to the U.S., and they often worked together preparing meals. One day her mom added fresh ginger to her already delicious cilantro, vinegar, and lemon chutney recipe, and from there, Maazah was born (Maazah means “flavor” in Farsi). “It was just natural that my sisters and I wanted to kind of get our feet wet in the food industry to share something from our family and our culture with the world,” says Sajady.
The venture began as a weekend activity, with the sisters and their mom making chutney in their kitchen and taking it to sell at farmers’ markets while on weekdays, Sajady worked and went to school for her MBA using the company as a case study for her degree. During her last semester in January 2020, Sajady decided to quit her full-time job and – armed with an 18-month plan and her newly acquired MBA – take Maazah to the next level.
Two months later, the pandemic hit, and Sajady used that time to rebrand Maazah, changing its manufacturing and packaging and relaunching it with a big retail push. Using money from a small business grant she received during the pandemic, Sajady invested in public relations, a move that paid off with a small piece written about Maazah in the New York Times that December.
Kroger’s Go Fresh & Local Supplier Incubator
With the new momentum, Sajady decided to submit her products via RangeMe to Kroger’s Go Fresh & Local Supplier Accelerator. The program was launched in 2020 to discover new U.S.-based small- and diverse-business enterprises to bring Fresh local and regional products to its shelves in the categories of produce, floral, deli, bakery, specialty cheese, dairy, meat and seafood.
The 2021 program drew more than 1,000 submissions on RangeMe. Kroger teams reviewed the applications on the platform, inviting select suppliers for follow up virtual meetings on the ECRM Connect platform. From these meetings, 15 brands were invited to visit Kroger’s Cincinnati HQ for a pitch competition, which was judged by Milen Mahadevan, president of 84.51°; Valerie Jabbar, Senior Vice President of retail divisions at Kroger; Nick Tranchina, President of Murray’s Cheese; Patrick Vihtelic, founder and CEO of HomeChef; Dan De La Rosa, Group Vice President of Fresh Merchandising at Kroger; and Brian Kelley, CEO of PearlRock Partners.
“It was a wonderful experience and I loved getting to know the other brands that were there,” says Sajady. “ And all of the Kroger support was amazing. I was 32 weeks pregnant, and of course brought my mom there, because we come in a package.”
For the pitch event, the finalists were grouped by region and each business presented a 10-minute pitch and provided samples to the judging panel. Afterwards, the judges were invited to ask questions and learn more about the brands and their founders. From there, the judges narrowed the list and announced the winning brands.
“We learned the following week that we were selected as one of five members of the 2021 Supplier Accelerator cohort they were going to take through the program,” says Sajady.
Joining the Kroger Supplier Accelerator cohort
Each of the five members of the Kroger Go Fresh & Local Supplier Accelerator cohort, in addition to getting their products on the shelves at select Kroger stores, receive business development coaching and collaboration opportunities to expand their business.
For Sajady, who won for the Minneapolis Division, this meant an initial launch in the retailer’s Detroit stores, followed by Mariano’s grocery stores in Chicago and some additional Kroger stores in Texas. “The program offers marketing support, and we are merchandised in the Murray’s Cheese section of Kroger, so I get demo support as well,” says Sajady. “I’ve done some tastings with the cheesemongers and was able to help educate them about our brand.”
The increased notoriety has helped Maazah outside of Kroger too, with additional opportunities and larger distribution. For example, prior to Kroger, they were distributed through one partner. Now they have three distribution partners and five distribution points across the country. Needless to say, having Kroger as a customer is a great feather in one’s cap when it comes to discussions with buyers.
Scaling up for success
Going from farmers’ markets to mass retail doesn’t come without its challenges. However, Sajady found that manufacturing and sourcing raw ingredients at scale can be challenging for a rapidly growing business. “Just getting the distribution set up is one of the hardest parts of this,” she says. “My biggest piece of advice here is don’t try and force partners. Make sure that the partners feel right and are authentic, that they believe in what you are doing as much as you do and you are building it together. If you don’t have that from the beginning, it will be a headache going forward for sure.”
For Maazah, their focus going forward will include the launch of a new line of dal dip. “It’s the solution for all of the bad hummus out there,” she says. “We didn’t grow up with hummus but we did grow up with dal and we’ve been playing around with this in our kitchen for a while.”
With all of this success, Sajady is not one to rest on her laurels and continues to seek new opportunities to get the word out about Maazah. In fact, just last month she won first place at the 2023 Expo West Pitch Slam. In the coming months, she’ll be participating in additional trade shows and likely some ECRM sessions as well.
Indeed, Sajady is in it to win it, for sure, and we expect to see much more of her and Maazah in the near future!
Below is the full video interview with RangeMe Founder Nicky Jackson and Maazah’s Yasameen Sajady: