It takes a lot of courage to leave a steady career and start your own business. It takes even more courage to stop production of your product one year later to do a complete redesign of your business model.
In 2018, Upstart NY introduced readers to lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Sharon Cryan and her business, Food Nerd. In early 2019, Cryan and her team of seven, including her niece, Alyssa Cryan and Jamie Young, decided to listen to their consumers and change their focus from being a meal prep service to offering shelf-sustainable superfood products.
“We got into the market and listened to our customers; we realized we were married to our mission, but not the model,” Cryan says. “It helped us see there was so much growth and evolution the company needed. If we didn’t accept that change, we wouldn’t be where we are now with unique and rare products.”
Food Nerd now offers vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, soy-free, and 100% natural products on their website; the company’s menu and product line is continually evolving.
Their first business model included fresh food prep meals that were shipped overnight. Issues arose, including the expense of shipping, as well as the lack of environmentally friendly shipping options. The environment is a priority for Food Nerd.
The team decided to shut down the meal prep side of the business, then proceeded to spend 14 months problem-solving, testing new recipes, and holding focus groups. They shifted into creating healthy and easy on-the-go options.
“Businesses can waste a lot of money in research and development. We think it’s important to involve our customers; get their feedback in every phase,” says Cryan, who loves eating and tasting samples of their products through the development stages.
Customers are so important to Food Nerd’s mission, during the R and D phase, Cryan and her team sent a “Taste Tester Box” out to customers each week, asking for honest feedback. “We weren’t trying to sell to them,” she says. “We wanted to listen to what they wanted and needed. Our customers evolved from buying products to being part of helping us grow. They’ve become ambassadors—and our biggest cheerleaders.”
Customers also helped Food Nerd find investors during their pivot period. Though she did meet investors through meetings, networking events, and hours of researching opportunities available to entrepreneurs in Western New York, it was her loyal customers who introduced Cryan to Food Nerd’s first investors.
“People were eating our plant-based, raw meals and really believed in us and wanted to invest,” she shares. “When I announced we were looking for funding, I had two customers right away come in as investors. On a daily basis, these people had shared and experienced our product. I was blown away when they approached me about it.”
She encourages more businesses and entrepreneurs to look at their customers for assistance with funding.
“They already invest their hard-earned money in your business and are by your side. They’re your best advocates,” she notes.
Though not every customer has the means to invest themselves, they may be able to open doors to opportunity. “We had customers raving about the product and introduced me to people they thought would be interested in investing,” says Cryan. “People who want to see you succeed will introduce you to people they think will help you.”
“Sharon is unconditionally committed,” says investor and mentor Jack Greco. “The focus of her company impacts a very important [mission] and I think Food Nerd is a nice opportunity to be part of.”
Besides growing their product line, Cryan hopes to continue growing their reach … but to always keep their roots in Buffalo. “I’m from Buffalo, and so is my entire family,” she says. “It’s really important to me to create jobs and inspire people here locally about health.”
The health message has resonated with Greco, who agrees that Buffalo might have its challenges when it comes to healthy eating.
“We’re Buffalonians. We’re not going to stop eating beef on weck and chicken wings, but can eat those in moderation,” Greco says. “We have to get a little more thoughtful with how we take care of the planet. Sharon’s product—snackable, portable, and easy while on the go—is being delivered in a way we as humans, especially in the U.S., consume these days.”
Keeping it even more localized, Food Nerd tries their best to use resources in the area. “Our goal is to keep everything as local and fresh as possible,” says Cryan. “We are not committed to one particular vendor; there are great resources and farmers in Upstate New York who we connect with.”
Food Nerd’s launch of their new product line will come later this year. Cryan is eager to see how her hometown reacts to the new menu. “Food is very powerful and it’s one of the only decisions you truly get to make each day and control,” she says. “I’m so excited to offer the healthiest snacks you can eat and I’m really excited they’re coming out of Buffalo. We can be known for both our chicken wings AND our superfoods!”