As a fifth generation Arkansas family farmer, Fran Free set off to the University of Arkansas to study agriculture so she could learn the latest innovation to keep the farm relevant and profitable.
Two degrees later, “I had a whole agri-tourism business plan worked out. I was going to turn my grandparents home into a bed and breakfast, maybe start a micro brewery, do all sorts of things,” said Free. “Then we found out we were pregnant, and decided to put those plans on hold.”
But Free didn’t exactly take to her bed idly during her pregnancy. Instead, she began researching baby food companies. “No one was using all U.S. products,” she said. “They didn’t have herbs that helped digestion. They weren’t organic. I thought, ‘I can do better than that!’”
So she did.
Oh Baby Foods, the first baby food company in the world to have all its products verified through the Non-GMO Project [Non-genetically modified organisms], celebrated its fourth anniversary in November. From offices on the Fayetteville Square, Free has put her healthy products in stores in 20 states, including the notoriously stringent Whole Foods.
“She’s fearless with venture capitalists and passionate about her product,” said Stephanie McCratic, a business associate and friend.
Free isn’t so sure about “fearless” but she says the best part of her job is meeting customers and talking to parents about their children and food.
“The end goal of the company is to put more healthy food in the mouths of more babies,” Free says.
She explains the decisions to use only U.S.-grown, non-GMO products are about supporting family farms, but also about food safety and sustainability. Between the USDA organic certifications and transportations costs of food from other countries, Free believes food grown locally is the most responsible way to be sure her products are fresh and the quality is unsurpassed.
It’s a commitment she made to herself in 2009 when she first started out. She tested a variety of recipes on her friends and their kids until she narrowed the selection to four products. She hired a food scientist as a consultant. She rented an industrial kitchen and started selling to stores out of an 18-foot refrigerated truck outfitted with a baby seat.
Oh Baby Foods has expanded to six products. Free’s company has grown to the point of working with a large manufacturer and distributor in California, and she’s hired food brokers who are selling to grocery stores to move her products from regional stores to a national presence.
“Originally, we were in cups in the frozen food section of the store,” Free said. “That’s slightly problematic when your customer life is roughly six months, and then they’re done with pureed food. So we were constantly educating a new customer. First, they had to want to buy us, and then they had to find us in the store. Most people aren’t willing to work that hard just to experiment with a different brand. By the time we got them to try it, they were over us.”
So 18 months ago, the company moved to a squeeze pouch technology, making it shelf stable and also increasing the customer life by as much as two years. Suddenly, the difficult-to-manage product that required spoons and cups became a convenience food to toss in a lunch or bag for a snack. It’s now also on the baby food aisle.
The company is in a new fundraising round. Free has been talking to capital investors and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission about tax credits designed to incentivize entrepreneurship in the state. She anticipates bringing on more staff in the new year.
She’s also keenly aware of how carefully she must thread the needle in the baby food industry. Multi-national companies gobbled three of her main competitors up this year.
“We constantly have to monitor and adjust to be sure we’re filling the right niche,” she says. “But every morning when I get to work, I am gung-ho about the day.”