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Isabelle Steichen: “It’s important to spend resources in a focused way”



Luxembourger Isabelle Steichen says the US is “very entrepreneur friendly” and it was fairly straightforward to set up her business there. Photo: Rachel Papo

Luxembourger Isabelle Steichen says the US is “very entrepreneur friendly” and it was fairly straightforward to set up her business there. Photo: Rachel Papo

New York City-based co-founder of Lupii, Isabelle Steichen talks about the steps leading to the company recently signing a deal with American multinational chain Whole Foods Market and diversifying into pasta.

“In New York, veganism is really like a no-brainer,” says Luxembourger Isabelle Steichen, who moved to the Big Apple in 2013. “It feels omnipresent, not just because there are tons of incredible vegan restaurants, but also there are a lot of options at non-vegan restaurants.” Steichen, who turned vegan after moving to the States--she was already vegetarian--says that there are even bakeries and ice-cream shops that are dedicated to using only plant-based ingredients. “And most of the customers that go to these places aren’t vegan, they just enjoy eating plant-based options, for whatever reason.”

Steichen’s startup, Lupii, has as its mission the creation of “simple, sustainable and delicious food” made from the “small but mighty” lupini bean. The germination of the idea for Lupii came from Steichen’s own research into ways of ensuring she had enough protein in her plant-only diet. She soon realised that most of the options on the market were all super processed. But delving deeper, she soon became obsessed with the lupini bean. “Lupini beans are, in my opinion, the number one protein out there,” she says. “Lupini is uniquely positioned as it has more plant protein and gut-healthy fibre than any other bean, and it’s naturally low in carbs.” It also has all nine essential amino acids.

Finding a co-founder

Soon (this was back in December 2018), Steichen had a plan to launch a range of protein bars and started pitching her business idea to potential investors. She already had prototypes for the bars, though the company had a different name in that early stage. She found plenty of excited potential investors, but their condition was for her to find a co-founder with complementary skills and background.

“It was really not that much of a conversation,” Steichen says. “Because I always knew that I wanted to do this with somebody. I believe in co-founding teams; I think collaboration is key and that it takes a village to build something. And I, by no means, felt capable of doing this all on my own.”

Her own background was in operations and sales, so Steichen wanted to find someone with marketing and branding experience. “I literally had an Excel spreadsheet going, and probably met with like 70 people for coffee and calls,” she explains. “Each introduction would lead to two or three other introductions, and I just started meeting people really understanding what the profile was that I was looking for.”

I believe in co-founding teams; I think collaboration is key and that it takes a village to build something
Isabelle Steichen

Isabelle Steichenco-founderLupii

Eventually she landed a meeting with Alexandra Dempster, then a senior global marketing manager at Pepsi, through a mutual contact who told Steichen they shared the same passion for plant-based eating and the better-for-you food space.

“We always say it was love at first sight. It was meant to be. Allie ended up quitting her job less than a month later and jumped into Lupii full-time.”

Initial funding came from two early-stage venture capitalists, as well as angel investors from the food and beverage industry or those who were looking to invest more into women-owned companies. “Because that's still a huge challenge here in the States, as it is everywhere else,” says Steichen.

“But we also raised a $200,000 on Republic last summer. That was a really incredible validation because Republic is an equity crowdfunding platform; it’s not traditional accredited investors. There's a really unique opportunity to bring your customers in as investors because Republic actually lets anyone invest as little as $100. So Republic really helps to democratise that, and that’s something also that we deeply believe in.”

Need for discipline

This became evident when Steichen and Dempster launched the business in January 2020, just months before the covid pandemic. “That was not only the worst time to launch a brand with a new ingredient, but also in the bar category, which went down by 40%,” Steichen says. “So Republic was a fantastic way for us to give them the opportunity to not only buy the product but also invest in the business and benefit from our growth.”

. “It’s easy to get distracted by opportunities, so you really need to be disciplined and start with your core consumers and build a sticky relationship with this early adopter before going too broad
Isabelle Steichen

Isabelle Steichenco-founderLupii

Global pandemic aside, Steichen says that setting up a business in the US is pretty straightforward. “The environment is very entrepreneur friendly, so it’s a low lift to get started,” she explains. On the other hand, the US is a huge market. “It's important to spend resources in a focused way,” Steichen says. “It’s easy to get distracted by opportunities, so you really need to be disciplined and start with your core consumers and build a sticky relationship with this early adopter before going too broad. I truly believe in going deep within a few regions and retailers first, before spreading ourselves too thin.” That said, the company recently landed a deal with Whole Foods Market. “This is exactly where our target consumers are shopping. So now the next step is to build traction there, by driving healthy velocities before trying to add too many other accounts.”

Indeed, Lupii was first sold in a couple of local stores down the street from her home in Brooklyn. A quick glance at the current distribution map shows a plethora of stockists now spread across the United States, with a high concentration still in New York and the east coast but also in the Midwest around Chicago and in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Cultivation opportunities

The Midwest may also have the potential to take advantage of any growth in demand for lupini bean products. Lupii is currently importing its raw beans from one of the largest farming cooperatives in Europe. “We do have ambitions to source the ingredients locally,” Steichen explains. “But today, there is no industrial supply chain for lupini beans in the US.” However, the beans are a hardy crop that can be grown in hot, dry summers and have short growing periods. They also don’t require a lot of water, which makes them very sustainable.

“Lupini [beans] also are nitrogen-fixers, so they’re really good for soil health, crop rotation,” says Steichen. “In the US, I would say the focus on the health of the soil hasn't been as strong as it is in Europe, and regulations are not as strict. But now there’s kind of a reckoning, especially among younger farmers, who are realising they have to think about what they are going to do in the next 20 to 30 years, to make sure they still have a business, so there’s a lot of interest for these rotational crops that are helping to revitalise the soil.”

This presents a real opportunity, especially in the Midwest where there is an established culture of growing legumes. Lupii has ambitions to start contracting lupini-growing in the US and has linked up with farming partners in western Montana, where some trial plots of lupini beans--with farmers that have a lot of experience growing chickpeas, lentils and black beans--have already been planted.

“Obviously, first, we have created demand on the consumer side and then, progressively, the vision would be to start growing beans locally in the States.” But Steichen is confident that interest in plant-based protein is growing. “I think it’s kind of the perfect time to introduce some of these old ingredients that are so well established in other parts of the world, and have a long culinary history, and bring them back to the table. It’s very exciting.”

Packaging challenges

Another big challenge Lupii faced was with its packaging, especially for the company’s range of bars. “We have strict requirements in making sure the product is at least 12 months shelf-stable, because otherwise we can’t sell in retail,” Steichen explains. The co-founders looked everywhere and conducted research on sustainable and compostable packaging. One challenge is that not many options on the market were guaranteeing 12 months’ shelf stability. In addition, they found there were hardly any industrial or backyard composting systems in the United States. “I mean, it’s starting to happen in places like New York, where there’s some local composting programmes and some drop-off locations,” says Steichen. “But it’s not a well-established infrastructure. So, if we went with a compostable packaging, it felt almost like we were greenwashing because we knew it would not actually be disposed of correctly. And oftentimes, compostable options require even more resources to be produced. It felt like we couldn’t do that ethically either.”

In the end, Lupii ended up going with plastic packaging that can be recycled in some areas of the country. But with every city in the States having its unique regulations, that too proved to be challenging. “So we partnered with a European company that is helping us to offset our plastic footprint.” That means every year, Lupii tells them how much plastic and what type it is using for the wrappers on its bars, and they commit to collecting the equivalent plastic in the most polluted areas of the world--a lot of it is in Southeast Asia and India. The company will collect plastic to prevent it from going into the ocean and then track what’s happening with it and upcycle it with local community organisations. “It’s a Band-Aid. It’s not a perfect solution. But at least as a business, we’re taking responsibility for the waste that we’re creating, until we have more sustainable options on the table.”

We are really building the brand with the customers that care about not just tastes and functionality, but also the environment
Isabelle Steichen

Isabelle Steichenco-founderLupii

And for customers, this transparency is also important. “Let’s not kid ourselves, you know, taste is always going to be the first motivation when consumers make food choices,” says Steichen. “Functional benefits are really important here in the States, maybe more than they are in Europe. But younger generations--and we have a lot of young customers--also care about the environment. And it becomes a no-brainer if, as a company, you can say, ‘We care. We’re not perfect; we’re trying to be transparent. Here’s what we’re doing.’”  Steichen says that Lupii is constantly taking on board feedback from customers. “So we are really building the brand with the customers that care about not just tastes and functionality, but also the environment.”

New products

On the other hand, at the end of August, Lupii launched a range of three sorts of pasta--elbows, penne and rotini, which are traditionally the top-selling short shapes in the US--all packaged in cardboard boxes without the traditional plastic window.

The pasta was launched so that the company could start going outside the bar category pretty quickly. “Just to establish kind of more visibility across different aisles of the grocery store. It’s a really unique product because lupini are so high in protein and fibre and so low in carbs. We’re able to offer a really functional pasta that looks and tastes almost like a traditional pasta but offers so much more nutritional functionality.”

Steichen is discreet when it comes to talking about immediate plans to further expand the Lupii product range. “For now, we have our hands full with bars and pasta. We’re really focused on that and building the foundation for the business and driving really healthy velocities. But I would say there is a lot of opportunity to innovate from here. Lupini is incredibly versatile, and when you think about snacks, centre-of-the-plate applications or meat replacements, those are all options. So we haven’t made decisions yet where we want to go next, but we definitely have ideas, and we have done some early prototyping for some other categories.”

This article first appeared in the October 2022 International supplement of Delano magazine.