FOSTER CITY, CALIF. — The vision for Love With Food emanated from founder and chief executive officer Aihui Ong’s impulsive words of solace to a dear friend diagnosed with breast cancer. After her 32-year-old friend informed her of the diagnosis, Ms. Ong replied, “I’ll cook for you because I only know how to show love with food.”
|Aihui Ong, founder and c.e.o. of Love With Food|
“It reminded me of my mom, because when I’m sick, she’ll make me food,” Ms. Ong told Food Business News. “And that’s how I came up with the company — because it represents how I am as a person and that’s how I wanted to build the brand.”
The sentiment Ms. Ong shared with a friend has been parlayed into a business with the creation four years ago of Love With Food, Foster City, Calif. The subscription service delivers boxes of thoughtfully curated, healthy snacks to subscribers’ doors each month. Options range from tasting boxes, which contain 8 to 10 products for $7.99, to deluxe boxes containing 16 to 20 snacks for $16.99, to $99 office boxes that contain gluten-free, vegan and paleo options. With each shipment, Love With Food donates between one and 30 meals to a food bank in the United States, depending on the size of the order.
Ms. Ong set out to launch a snack food subscription company that is both healthy and affordable. In the process, Love With Food became a leader in the subscription food box market. She calls the monthly boxes an “edible magazine.” Love With Food does not manufacture foods, but rather it purchases from reliable, health-conscious brands. Some of its partners include Nature’s Bakery (products include fig bars and brownies), Honey Stinger (with products such as chews and snack bars), Tahana Confections (a maker of caramels), Wild Hibiscus Flower Co. (teas and syrups) and more. Each month, subscribers find a box of organic, all-natural snacks at their doorstep.
“When people buy a subscription, they want to learn and try something new,” Ms. Ong said. “We put in a lot of effort to make sure that we continuously surprise and delight our customers, even after four years in the business. So we have a team that spends a lot of effort finding new products in the market — interesting products that we know our customers will be thrilled about. That’s why our customers call our box ‘Christmas every month,’ because it’s a mystery, you don’t know what you’re getting, but yet everybody looks forward to it and is excited.”
Love With Food acquired gluten-free subscription box services G-Free Foodie in 2014 and Taste Guru in 2015. Then, Love With Food moved further into the gluten-free category by acquiring Send Me Gluten Free, a monthly gluten-free subscription box service.
“The gluten-free market in the U.S. is at least $10 billion, and while a lot of people choose to be gluten-free, there is, of course, a category of people who are diagnosed with celiac disease,” Ms. Ong said. “This lifestyle is not going away and the gluten-free market is booming. That’s the reason why we have a big focus on gluten-free right now.
“Breaking into the market and building trust and credibility among the gluten-free community takes time and effort. That’s the reason why we acquired Send Me Gluten Free. They definitely have the gluten-free audience, which would add a lot more intangible trust to our brand, and they are very good at marketing, whereas we are very good at curating products and building a loyal subscriber base. I would say this is a win-win situation.”
On Aug. 2, the company announced that its global expansion plans will begin shipping internationally to over 25 countries. Love With Food's international customers will have the option to order The Deluxe Box, a sampling of 16 to 20 new surprise snacks starting at $16.50 per month, or The Gluten-Free Box, a sampling of 10 to 12 celiac-safe and mostly dairy-free snacks starting at $19.99 per month. In addition, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to international food banks to help fight world hunger.
Love With Food is offering an introductory shipping cost of $3.99 for the first 5,000 international customers to sign up. International shipping will begin with over 25 select countries, but the company plans to expand around the rest of the world shortly after.
“All around the globe, consumers are shifting away from long, large meals, and toward quick small bites, resulting in the snacking boom,” Ms. Ong said. “Snacking is not only big business, but a fast growing one. Based on a Nielsen report, global snacks sales grossed almost $4 billion annually. Hence, the decision for us to go global was more of a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if.’ We’ve received tens of thousands of requests asking for Love With Food from all over the world, so meeting this demand from our international fans has been a major priority for us. We’re very excited to finally offer Love With Food to people around the world who want to discover new all-natural snacks.”
Food Business News: What does it take to curate a Love with Food box? How do you select your products?
Aihui Ong: We pretty much uphold the same guidelines as Whole Foods, so nothing artificial, no MSGs, no preservatives. Those are the products that we select, to make sure that they are healthier options than Cheetos or Doritos.
But for gluten-free, we make sure that it is not only gluten-free, but also celiac safe. I’m not gluten-free — I eat anything — but I feel empathetic for people who have food allergies, whether they’re allergic to nuts or to gluten. That’s why we go through a very stringent process of selecting products that are celiac safe. If the product is already certified gluten-free, we know that the product has passed the national industry standard of being celiac safe. For companies that have not gained certification, we ask for test results so that we know that the amount of gluten in the product is way below the industry threshold to be considered gluten-free.
How do you reach out to your customers and find out what they want?
Ms. Ong: We send a survey with every product that we put in the box, so we encourage our customers to give us thoughts and insights about what they did/didn’t like about the product. Not only is this information useful for us to understand what we should select in the future, but it is also useful for the food manufacturers so that they can understand what improvements need to be made, or what the key thing consumers like about the product are. That’s a reason food manufacturers love to work with us, because they get to hear instantaneous feedback.
What is your advice for entrepreneurs in the food industry?
Ms. Ong: We help connect food companies with consumers. We work with a lot of food brands, and we’ve noticed that in order to stand out in the sea of new products that come out every year and compete with existing products, the best way to build awareness and to convert a new customer is by trial, which is sampling. Investing in trial is the best way to get the word out.
Food is experiential — you have to test it before you buy something. That’s just a fact of human nature. When it comes to advertising, the best way to get your brand out there is to get people to taste the product. That’s why a lot of larger food companies are diverting a lot of their advertising budget to sampling.
What is the single greatest challenge Love With Food has faced or currently faces as it tries to achieve its objectives?
Ms. Ong: There’s a lot of noise in the industry. Explaining to people how we’re different was challenging because there’s a box for everything.
We make it affordable and are one of the few that do. Our box is $9.99, and I feel personally that healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle should be affordable and accessible to anyone, not just people who live near or can afford Whole Foods. If you can afford a Starbucks latte, you can afford a box. And with foods that are organic and all natural, they tend to be a little bit more expensive.
Also, we have a social mission. For every box bought, we donate one to a hungry child in the U.S. To date, we have donated more than a million meals to the hungry across the country. Our customers love that they get to snack better and also do good. That’s why our tagline is: “Snack smart, do good.” Because you’re snacking on healthier products, and at the same time you’re giving back to the community and helping someone in need.
Is it difficult to keep the box at $9.99 while also giving boxes away?
Ms. Ong: Yes — our boxes also include free shipping, and shipping in the U.S. is not exactly cheap. So with the costs of the box, the products in the box and shipping, it is challenging, but we make a good gross profit margin.The good thing is that before starting Love With Food, I worked in finance, so I am very good at numbers. After putting in a lot of checks and balances to make sure that we could keep the box at $9.99, I found that we can also make a good gross profit margin and donate to those in need.