Erika Welsh and Keeley Tillotson: Wild Squirrel Nut Butter

Wild at Heart

While the television show Portlandia has elicited more than a few laughs with its portrayal of Portland as “the place where young people go to retire,” this prospect is a feasible an outcome for Erika Welsh and Keeley Tillotson—though the thought of retiring is currently the furthest thing from their minds.

The entrepreneurs started their company Wild Friends Foods before either was 20 years old. In a short time, they have gone from being nutty college athletes, to pretty much dual-handedly developing a business making flavored nut butters that has become a national sensation.

When the two women started out less than three years ago, neither had a business background nor any idea that they would be where they are today. Both sophomores at the time, Keeley had been studying journalism while Erika was pursuing environmental studies and Spanish. Now they’re becoming skilled business professionals on the fast track. Regarding their particular roles in the company Keeley acknowledges that Erika is good at being “really interactive with the variety of people that we have to keep relationships up with. There’s a lot of social media outreach, and she does more of the store outreach, building relationships with the stores and with our distributors and customers.” To compliment her public relations tasks, Erika maintains, “Keeley is very technologically savvy, and has a great math brain. She tracks all of our production—our orders, our finances. She’s very good with design and aesthetics, and so she has a lot to do with our branding.”
The girls’ alma mater, University of Oregon has referred to them as “accidental entrepreneurs” in the “peanut butter revolution” with regard to their locally sourced, all natural and healthy creations. These women live in the moment, have terrific attitudes, and are amazingly self-motivated. They also are not shy when it comes to the media spotlight. They have appeared in publications such as Glamour and Oprah, and on the popular ABC TV show Shark Tank. However, despite their wildly fantastical story, Erika and Keeley are pleasantly down to earth, and lots of fun to chat with.

Business aside, what makes each of you, uniquely you?

Erika: First of all, I love food. We always have had an interest in food and reading cookbooks, food blogs, making food for friends and family—and that’s what we started doing when we made our first batch of peanut butter. I think food is a great way to connect with people and learn about other cultures. I’m really interested in traveling as well, and I love to stay active. I love to run, I do a lot of yoga, and I also like to garden.

Keeley: Probably the key thing that makes me who I am is also what makes this company work really well for me. I was homeschooled growing up. I did attend public high school, and then went to college, but after two years we started our company and it was a really easy decision for me to pursue the business. I had this background in sort of un-schooling—forging my own path, coming up with my own projects, pursuing my interests—the company is just an extension of that.

609374029It all started in an apartment near the University of Oregon in January of 2011… Fill in the blank!

Erika: Keeley and I were college roommates and we were both athletes. She was on the triathlon team and I rowed on crew, and peanut butter was just a staple in our pantry. It was a great, easy, quick snack. Well, one day we ran out, and instead of biking to the grocery store in the rain we decided we’d just make our own. We had a Cuisinart food processor and a bag of peanuts and we blended up our first batch of plain peanut butter. We decided we weren’t happy with just the plain, so we started throwing in all these ingredients that we had already been eating with peanut butter, like honey, pretzels, chocolate, and cinnamon. We came up with some flavors and started giving it out to friends and family, just as we had done with all of our other creations. We got a really great response! After we had made the first batch people kept asking for it, so we just kept making it.

How many different flavors have you come up with?

Keeley: We have four flavors of peanut butter: Cinnamon Raisin, Sesame Cranberry, Chocolate Coconut, and Honey Pretzel. We have two almond butters as well: Vanilla Espresso and Chocolate Sunflower Seed. Those are our unique flavors. Some of them we started with, and some of them we’ve developed since we’ve been launched. We started selling at farmers markets and street fairs. Then we began to realize that there wasn’t another product like ours out there, and we really wanted to take it further and put it on store shelves.

How were you able to convince retailers to carry your products?

Erika: New Seasons and Market of Choice were our first accounts. Lisa Sedlar, the CEO of New Seasons, agreed to meet with us. We brought in our little 8-ounce Mason jars that were hand labeled, hand filled, and made in our kitchen the day before. She said, “I like what you guys are doing, I really believe in you. At the end of the summer, I’ll put you in all of my 12 stores.” We were going, “Oh my gosh! That’s amazing!”

Keeley: When we’re selling to grocery stores now, it’s pretty easy to go to a grocery store manager and say, “Look at all your shelves. Look at how many jars you have. How many of them are just creamy and crunchy? Why don’t you make space for our product?” You pick it up and look at the label, and there’s nothing artificial. There’s no white sugar, we don’t use corn syrup, additives, preservatives, or anything like that. We really try to keep, as we say, wild flavors and friendly ingredients.

Overall, how would you characterize this adventure you have embarked upon?

Keeley: Serendipitous.

Erika: Very serendipitous. I had just gotten the food processor for Christmas and that was how we made our first batch. As busy athletes, we were always making trail mix so we happened to have all of those ingredients that allowed us to make all of our flavors. And people have just been really welcoming of what we have created.

DSC_0706.JPGKeeley: Another serendipitous part of it was we started our company at a time when natural products in general are growing massively in popularity. So from a business standpoint, we came in at the perfect time.

Erika: And we always like to say the secret to our success is simply the relationship that we have. We’re very comfortable working with each other, we’re great friends, and so we make great business partners.

How are your ingredients sourced?

Erika: We get the majority of our ingredients from GloryBee, which is based in Eugene. They distribute natural, raw ingredients all over the country. Our peanuts come from Georgia, and our almonds come from Central California. Those are the main areas where those two nuts are grown.

Keeley: Those nuts comprise about 90 percent of what is in a jar. So they’re the most important.

Erika: Exactly. We also do all of our own ingredient sourcing. So even though we don’t make every single jar ourselves like we used to, we’re very involved with where our ingredients come from. I source all of the ingredients, which are then shipped to our co-packer in California.

What has been the most memorable moment in all of this for each of you?

Erika: Most people know us from our spot on Shark Tank. We applied to be on the show a month after we made our first jar. A few months later, we got a call from one of the producers saying that they wanted us to come on the show. At that time we were still committed to being full-time college students. We were both working part-time jobs, and our peanut butter project was still a side project. They flew us to LA where we were presenting in front of five “sharks,” AKA billionaire investors, and that was a really surreal moment for me. We got there because we started making peanut butter in our college apartment and now we were going to be on national television.

Keeley: The whole Shark Tank experience is obviously super memorable. I would say any time we’ve been in a piece of press, like in a national magazine, it’s always really exciting to see it on stands. It’s very motivating to see yourself and your story in print, and it really legitimizes what you’re doing, because much of what we do isn’t very glamorous. It’s very day-to-day, and can sometimes be really dull. I’ll be working away on Excel spreadsheets in the middle of the night, trying to get statements ready for our bank, or calling stores and asking them how the product is looking on the shelf. So it’s always fun to see yourself glammed up on the pages of Oprah.

Who does your taste testing and who comes up with the recipes?

Erika: It’s a joint effort. Ultimately, we’re the ones behind the R&D. We do blind taste tests, and we have a lot of fun with it. We also work with a great resource here in Portland called the Food Innovation Center.

Keeley: We invent all of our own recipes and do all of our own taste testing. But it’s also a blend between us and people who really know the science behind food, and then our friends and family who we just make eat spoonful after spoonful to tell us if it tastes good.

How far do your products reach now?

Keeley: We used to deliver every single jar ourselves in our car, but we use a national distributor now, so we’re able to grow really quickly. We’re in every single one of their warehouses nationwide, which means pretty much any store in the country, if they want our product, can just go to their catalogue and order it. We may never even hear about it. We’re in 1,300 stores now, and we’re in almost every single state.

Any international orders?

Erika: We deliver to the Philippines and Guam, but we’re currently focusing on the US. Our goal is for everyone to be able to go to their grocery store and buy a jar of our peanut butter or almond butter.

How have each of you been dealing with all the media attention you have received?

Wild-Friends-Nut-Butter-1Keeley: I had to fight off the paparazzi outside of our house this morning. [They both laugh.] It’s not like we’re walking down the street and people stop us, but when we’re standing at a grocery store sampling peanut butter there’s definitely at least one person, if not many people per sampling, who’ll come up and say, “Saw you on Shark Tank!”


Erika:
It’s just fun to be recognized for what we have done. It’s funny. People will come up and say, “I recognize your face,” or “I recognize that squirrel on your shirt.” So for me, I just enjoy it because I know that it has been a huge key to our success. Getting recognition, building brand awareness—media is a huge part of that.

What are the biggest challenges you’re currently facing?


Keeley:
I used to think that if a company went out of business it meant that they were failing. What I’ve realized is that there is always the possibility that you can go out of business for being too successful. Definitely if we said yes to every single opportunity we were given, we’d go out of business really quickly. We’ve learned that you have to be careful about what you accept and how many stores you’re in at once because you have to balance that with how much money you have coming into the company and how much you’re able to finance. Working on that balance is always a challenge. So it’s great to be so successful, but we’re also really trying to maintain a sustainable business model, and make sure we have enough people on our team to fill every gap. Like most entrepreneurs, we wear a lot of hats. We hope to do some hiring in the future, but we’re just not at that point yet. We’re working towards a future in which everything gets done.

Excuse the pun, but where do you turn in a jam?

Erika: Portland is such a hotspot for startup companies, food companies especially. Over the past couple of years we’ve found that people are very willing to give advice, swap stories, and swap contacts. It’s a great networking city, and we’re happy to be a part of it.

Which nut butter is your current favorite, and what is one perfect food pairing that goes along with that?

Keeley: We just launched our Sesame Cranberry Peanut Butter, so that’s my current favorite. It’s sweet and savory and I like that balance. I also just love the classic peanut butter flavor. And since it’s getting colder, I would put it on pancakes or waffles, or even just toast. Anytime it’s warm I think it tastes the best.

Erika: My favorite is our Vanilla Espresso Almond Butter. It kind of reminds me of coffee-flavored ice cream, like mocha almond fudge. A lot of people that don’t like coffee still like that flavor. And leading into that, I think it’s really great drizzled on any kind of ice cream.

What is your most and least favorite part of running the business?

Keeley: I think my most favorite part is making my own schedule. Nobody’s making you do anything. But along with that, you really have to wake up every day with your own motivation, making sure your passion for what you’re doing stays strong, and that’s always hard. Everyone has lulls in their enthusiasm, so you have to rally sometimes. But it’s worth it because you get to do what you want, the days you want to do it.

Erika: I think the hardest thing is filtering the information we are given and taking everything with a grain of salt. People are constantly giving us advice. It’s a good thing, but it is challenging. There’s no right way to do it. There’s no rulebook. There’s no, “These are the top ten things you have to do to have a successful business.” We just try to focus on our business model, and then do what’s best for us.

imageAnd the best thing about running this business, Keeley said it too, is we do get to make our own schedule, choose how quickly we want to grow, choose where we want to take our products—and also just getting to work with my best friend. It’s a lot of fun. We’re on a unique path. It’s exciting to be doing something different than most people we know, and to be in a world where most people are older than us. We kind of have that advantage where people not only recognize us because of our products, but also because of our age.

Where do you think each of you will be in twenty years?

Erika: 20 years! Whoa! [Laughs.]

Keeley: We’re anticipating this product is just going to lead us to so many cool and fun things. I think if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that you don’t even know where you’re going to be a year from now.

Erika: Or a day!

Keeley: Or a day. So twenty years just seems crazy, but I’m sure we’ll still both be friends, and maybe we’ll still be living together.

Erika: I just hope to be healthy and happy and in the business world, maybe in the natural foods world. Who knows? Twenty years is a little far off for me to think about right now. I’m having trouble thinking about next week!
www.wildfriendsfoods.com

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About The Author: Jenn Dawson