Swiss Rosti: Connecting With Buyers When You Can't Meet in Person  5/12/2020

In this interview, ECRM's Joseph Tarnowski speaks with Stephen Caldwell, Founder of Swiss Rosti, which makes "Crispy Potato-Filled Pockets of Deliciousness." And Joe can tell you first-hand that it's an accurate description of the products because he tried a bunch of samples last week! 

Steve discusses all of the things that went into his very successful Efficient Supplier Introduction exprience, from his prep work with ECRM's Client Success Managers behind the scenes, to the detailed schedule and instructions they provided for his presentation, and even how he set up his meeting space so he can present to buyers across channels. He's been fielding sample requests and engaging the ESI buyer participants ever since!

But one additional aspect to his successful experience that will definitely come through in this interview -- is Steve's passion: for his product, for his company, and even for food in general, and it's the kind of passion that comes through clearly whether you are in-person or on a computer screen! 

Click here to see the full lineup of ECRM Food & Beverage Efficient Supplier Introductions.

Click here to see the full lineup of ECRM Global Efficient Supplier Introductions.

Click here to see ECRM's full lineup of Virtual Sessions.

Listen to the podcast (watch the YouTube video below)


ECRM: What's up, everybody? Joe with ECRM here, and I have with me today Steve Caldwell, the cofounder of Swiss Rosti. Steve, thank you so much for joining us. I love your setup.

Caldwell: Thanks, buddy. This is going to be fun. I so appreciate ECRM taking this time.

ECRM: Well, so for everybody a little background. Steve was a recent participant in our Foodservice: Frozen Efficient Supplier Introduction, so we're going to talk a little bit about his experience with that as well as just where virtual technologies are playing in the retail and foodservice sourcing these days. But before we get into that, Steve, can you take us through your company, tell us a little bit about your products?

Caldwell: Absolutely. And Joe, once again, I appreciate it very much. Well, we hit shelves nine months ago in August 2019, but this was a dream that started about five years ago. I was out of country with another company I had. I was at a private catered event, and two chefs came into this private home, and they took a bunch of shredded potatoes, they put them in the bottom of a pan, they started filling it with different meats and cheeses and vegetables, and then covering them with shredded potatoes, frying them on both sides, and then quartering these and plating them up with some sauces and some salads.

And I've been virtually in many different countries, and I'm a foodie and recreational chef, and so I always go to the most hole-in-the-wall areas to really dive into the culture of food in the region. When I tasted this, it gave me goosebumps. The simplicity, the flavor and everything in between, and then the explosion of the fillings coming out at the end. I was like, "What is this?" So I came back home, told Lory about it. I said, "We've got to go find this." She goes, "What is it?" I said, "I really don't know." It was actually in South America, and they called it a batata, a filled batata.

As it turns out, the two chefs, one was a chef, one was a mechanical engineer that had lived nine years in Switzerland, and his cousin had just graduated from culinary school, and he said, "What am I going to do?" And his cousin said, "I've been eating what they call a Rosti every single day for the nine years in Switzerland. Let's do that. I think it'll be a big hit." So about three months later when I couldn't find them anywhere here, I actually reached out to them, secured visas for them, and flew them up to this kitchen for a week, and we made these, what is now the Rosti and the evolution of it.

So fast forward about five years, it was about a year-and-a-half ago, it was almost two years ago, it was May 2018, the Oregon State University Food Innovation Center right here in Portland, that's headed up by Sarah Masoni, who the New York Times touted as having the million-dollar palette for bringing specialty foods to market, reached out to Lory and I, and said, "Hey, I hear you're trying to fill a potato. If there's anything we can do to help." And I said, "Absolutely. I've never created a product before," but we had several different private dinner parties over the years since I tasted it. We went from an entree down to a handheld. Everybody that tasted it just kept saying, "You've got to bring this to market." And I'm like, "I don't even know where to start."

Fast forward, we go into ideation October 2018 at the Food Incubator. Lory and I are there every single day. Eight weeks later, we launched these flavors at their winter tasting event where all the local supermarket chains and regional chains come, because they value Sarah's products that she develops in their kitchen with their food science and the nutritionals and everything else. And it was eight weeks from napkin to tasting at the winter tasting event, and the next day we signed 12 stores here in Portland. And I reached out to the VP of Sales that sent me the vendor agreement, and I said, "John, thank you so much. It was great meeting you last night at the event. I don't even know where I'm going to make these." And he's like, "You know what? I'm so excited about it, I know you'll figure it out."

So we went to Fancy Food a year ago, January, and to San Francisco under the Oregon state banner in Incubator Village. We got Best Product in Incubator Village, and from there we signed Whole Foods and several other regional stores. And we still didn’t have a place to manufacture it. So Sarah told me, she said, Listen, it takes a specific machine to actually fill a potato en mass. You can't keep making them in your kitchen." And I said, "What's the name of the machine?" So she tells me, I start reaching out. Within two weeks, I find a manufacturer that was just relocating, had built a brand new 150,000 square foot facility, and they had a bunch of these machines. NDAs and confidentiality agreements later, in 30 days, I was in front of the CEO telling him my story. And he told me, "We're doing this with you. We're going to partner up on this."

And five months later, August 2019, we hit shelves, and we're close to 500+ stores now. Our velocity increased a little over a 1000% since hitting shelves, and now with Whole Foods on a regional basis and several other big chains, Albertsons, Safeway, Kroger, Fred Meyer, Gelson's, and Kings and Balducci's up in the Northeast region, and then several other stores that are rolling out in the next six months, we are just absolutely on fire. And what's happened during COVID, and we feel, first of all, for everybody in the food industry that has restaurants and the labor and everything else, and it touches our heart, it really does, and so the sourcing of food has now gone to supermarkets and online.

And our presence on the shelves has really brought comfort, because originating in Switzerland in the early 1800s as peasant food, their families would bring rööschti around the table or Rosti around the table just as Lory and I do with our own five children. And at least during these times, it's just something that everybody relates to. It's crispy potato, it's warming to the belly, it's comfort food, and if that's something that helps everybody, at least around the dinner table, we're so happy to be a part of it.

QVC then reached out to us at the Fancy Food Show in New York last year, and the online sales with them have obviously just been through the roof. And now we're one of their partners, one of their top selling products on QVC. And we're on again this Sunday, Mother's Day, featured on In The Kitchen with David again. So, and I'll be calling in onto that segment as well, talking with David in person, since they're currently not having on-air guests, which I love to be in studio as well. So fast forward, this is where we're at. Foodservice is now becoming a big part of it because it really goes everywhere. It comes out of the oven just like you made it homemade yourself, and I hope you can attest to that, what I sent you, the samples.

ECRM: Well, you know, I definitely can, and what's funny is, except in my case, it wasn't coming out of the oven. I'm a typical, as I told you, I'm a typical apartment dweller in New York. I have not opened my oven in three years since I moved in, and when I did it didn't work. So I didn't have an air fryer, I didn't have anything else, so I'm looking at my George Foreman grill, and I'm thinking, "Can I?" And I put it on the George Foreman grill, and you know what? It was amazing. It crisped them on the top and the bottom, and it was soft on the inside. And I had the chili cheese ones, and I was just blown away. It was delicious.

Like you described it before, you bite into it, and then all of those flavors kind of hit you right after when you start chewing. And you know what? You should look into the George Foreman grill cooking. I mean, it was just, you know, because the top and the bottom were very crispy, and then the inside was moist, so it just ended up cooking it so well that now I can just use that. But yeah, really, really great job. I look forward to trying the other ones, but yeah, so that's, that's how we do it over here in my place.

Caldwell: That's awesome, Joe.

ECRM: So now we have the Coronavirus hit, people can't travel, you can't go to these trade shows. So how did you find out about the ESIs, and what were your thoughts around it when you first heard of them?

Caldwell: I got to tell you, it was Expo, right? We literally shipped our whole booth down there. We had just the day before and the afternoon before they canceled it, the final announcement, shipped all of our frozen samples, close to 2,000 pieces that we actually quartered, so we had about 8,000 samples, and had just shipped those, they had just left, and then the very next morning it was canceled. So we were like, "Okay." So of course I started just posting on social media, even more than I do, did some videos in the kitchen, and really started reaching out that way because with the stores that we had, and then also reached out to the stores that we had set up appointments with through the Expo portal. So I'm like, "Gosh, other than that, we can continue to service our stores, but where do we go from here?"

Well, it was a lady named Heather, who reached out to me, and she said, "Hey, because of the cancellation of the show, we're hosting these Efficient Supplier Introductions (ESIs) through ECRM and RangeMe, and we're Premium on RangeMe." And I said, "Well, what does that look like?" And she said, And then she said, "Because you're a Premium on RangeMe, we offer a discount." And I said, "Well, okay." So we went through that, and we started weighing the cost of the show and how many buyers that we could actually get one-on-one with from a virtual standpoint. And I started thinking about it. I'm like, "Wow. This really could have some traction." So I met with my team at the office, and we all round-tabled it and said, "You know what? Let's do this. Let's try this one on a retail basis and see where we go from here."

So I did just exactly like you see here and set up my kitchen, and I did this presentation. I did it for other virtual on LinkedIn and other platforms, but when I got onto the ECRM, all of a sudden the list started to grow. There was only a few, and it was literally a couple of weeks before, and she's like, "It's going to happen like the week after next." And I go, "How many buyers?" "Well, I don't have a lot right now." And I'm like, "Well, okay, I get it, but let's talk in a week." Then she started saying, "Listen, there's only five. We're only going to have five producers."

And there became, I think, it was either 10 or 12 buyers. And there was some box stores in there, there was some convenience stores in there, and then of course some retailers, and I'm like, "God. Club, C-store, retailer. I can go to NACS in Atlanta, I could pay that fee." I was going to do the NRA in Chicago for foodservice. We were doing the Expo for retail. And I'm like, "I can get all three of these segments in one presentation." I'm like, "Okay, I'm in." It turns out that we've got, we have some ongoing communication with some buyers from the first one, and then when the foodservice hit a couple of weeks ago, I'm like, "You know what? We didn't do NRA. We're all in. Let's do this."

And since, Joe, I've, again, just like the first one, now we're sending samples and we're engaging, and we'll see where it goes. But we're very confident that because of the ESIs and ECRM and RangeMe, with all the communications through all of these platforms that we're going to continue through this and continue to add customers and get what we feel is one of the most innovative potatoes that's ever been developed into the hands of their customers where they can taste them just like you did.

ECRM: That's awesome, that's awesome, and I'm glad. From our end what blew me away is just how fast our guys worked. Because I was literally in Amsterdam visiting with our Utrecht office because we have European sessions, and while I was there, I was there with our SVP of marketing, who the day after we landed, had to come back because we made the decision, "Hey, we're going to launch something virtual." Everybody got together, and within a week they had the plan in place, put it together, and just flipped the switch so that by April 1st, we started doing them. And we literally had a thousand buyers sign up across all of them in two weeks.

And since then we've also launched, which starts this month, virtual sessions, which are going to be more like our in-person session experience with one-on-one interactions, because the ESIs are so you'll have up to 20 buyers, and then up to 10 suppliers, each one presenting, but it's a one-to-many, but now we're going to do the one-on-ones, and it's a custom platform that we're using. So it's just been really interesting to see how fast we were able to develop it, but really there's no other place to go for this thing.

But what was cool about it is our process and our format, which I'm going to ask you to talk a little bit about it in a second, but our process and our format lends itself to being able to make this pivot, right? The close to very high touch nature of our staff and how they walk you through everything. So can you talk a little bit about how you worked with our team to kind of get ready for your presentation?

Caldwell: Sure. Absolutely. So after confirming and then finalizing the agreement with Heather online, we immediately got a communication from Corbin. Wow. What a sweetheart. I'm telling you from Heather to Corbin to Sarah, everybody through this whole chain of people on your team, man, are amazing. I get the whole script, right? I've been doing on-camera stuff all my life, and when I see how it was all storyboarded so beautifully, it just walks you through. Here are the buyers that are going to be on here. Here's the time to log in. You'll be invited in, check your Zoom connection, check your audio connection. Don't worry about anything. Get everything set up, and then when we go live, I'll give you a minute ahead of that. And then we go live, and it literally was just seamless. It was like, "Okay, I've got the roadmap. I know where I'm going. I know what I need to do. It's perfectly clear. Here we go."

And then the Q&A afterward, it's just awesome. The interaction, it's like being in a booth, which of course everybody, I feel, there's so much energy in the booth when you do that, but you know what? These are changing times, and to be able to have the virtual experience and have these people on the other side, and I know I'm talking one-on-one with every one of them, it was just seamless. And then the follow-up with everybody, and their feedback that I gave to ensure that everything is going seamless on both ends, is just remarkable. It's just so awesome. Of course, I could talk about it all day.

ECRM: Well and speaking of booths, your set up there makes me feel like I'm with you in your space, your booth.

Caldwell: Exactly.

ECRM: So talk about that a little bit, how you did your pitch.

Caldwell: Absolutely. So it all starts with I get up every morning, very early, I get my coffee, I have my time before all the kids get up and do their virtual school, right? And then Lory and the dogs are still snoozing. And I have this, and it's hanging on the back wall. I get it up here, I clamp it down. You can't see. I posted a picture of what it looks like, so you kind of see the big clamp up there. I bring in my air fryer, that we have at the show. When we go to NACS, the convenience store show for C stores, I get this set up.

I took a lot of these empty flats, and I taped them all together so you can easily show it and not have it all fall around. And then I took these, and I taped a whole pyramid to get the brand out there. I've done so much with different companies and marketing and everything and promotion, just every little thing that you can show that shows that I guess the perception is reality, right? People believe what they think they see, because it's all right here. They're already answering their own questions without having to ask like, "Wow. Nice box." On the back of them we did the love story, the Rosti, as you probably read on yours, right? It's really intimate. And so we can set all this up, then you can't really see it, but I have two of our dog kennels, stack them one on top of each other, and my Mac is on top of my toaster. And so I get it all set up, I get the right angle, because the higher I go, the less heavy I look, right? I tried to put it up on the ceiling.

ECRM: Yep. I hear you. In fact, I put together a video interview with someone that was, you may have seen it was available I think for people who were participating, and it was with someone named Emily Page, who's a packaging design expert, and she works with a lot of our customers on the brand side. But she's also been doing virtual presentations for years. So we went through how to do a great virtual presentation.

Caldwell: I saw it. That was the link that was sent to me. Yes, I saw that. She's amazing. It was basically in her, I think, part of her house, I believe it was her bedroom or something. Right, exactly. But that's, yeah, I watched the whole thing. That was awesome. Emily was great. Yeah, great interview.

ECRM: And you know what? She would be a big fan of what you just did with the colors on those boxes, because she did a column for us all about color blocking strategies, and you nailed it right there.

Caldwell: Oh, we had amazing theme. Honestly, for this to come together in, a year ago, none of this. Seriously. This has been on one of these trajectories, but it all starts with, "I know what I don't know." Okay? I don't know virtual, I don't know your company. Right? But I know that Rosti can benefit from what you put together. I didn't know anything about this, everything about how to create it, so that's why we went to Oregon State. I could have stayed in my kitchen and just huddled myself in, and said, "No, I'm going to figure this out." Absolutely not. This is what I do, and I have a whole team that does what they do, and it all gins. And that's a lot of things that a lot of times you just to kind of get that away and do what you do. Right? 

ECRM: Yep. You surrounded yourself with the right experts.

Caldwell: Amen. Absolutely.

ECRM: And I'm glad it seemed you made the most of this, and it looks like from our perspective this digital thing is this, these virtual meetings, are here to stay. Sure, as much as I love face-to-face, because I went to 48 of our sessions last year. I love mixing it up with everybody. I'm not married, and I have no kids or pets, so it's a little bit easier for me to do that. So it was just after seeing what happened, and now with the questions and uncertainty that's still out there, and not only that, on the buyer side, they're getting used to this, and they're starting to like the fact that you know what? If they don't have to travel as much, because I'm sure they're going to want to travel, but now that they know they could do these things virtually, they're going to pick their spots. So going forward, we're going to have a mix. After the pandemic, we're going to have a mix of virtual and face-to-face. But what do you see happening? What's your thoughts, personally, on how long this is going to go and what will happen afterwards?

Caldwell: We go, I think it starts with you listen to what's going on in Washington, but I'm an ordinary guy, right? And we were one of the states that really nipped it in the bud, if you can call it that. And Kate Brown, our governor, did such an amazing job, I feel, and so she's starting to say we're going to relax. Some of the parks are open for day. Of course, grocery stores are open, and we frequent Safeway with our masks and our gloves and our hand sanitizer and our distancing, to the different ones, the Albertsons, the Safeway, the Kroger, Fred Meyer, wherever we go. We don't see any, we see in spikes and grocery, because that's what people are doing, but what I see is the relaxing. At some point there's going to be shows. It's going to open up, but it's going to look a lot different, I feel, right?

The mass amounts of people in the hallways and in the aisles and everything, will we do that? We'll take a look at that. I don't think we're not going to do it. I think we will, and I think it will be structured in a way that makes sense for both producers, suppliers and buyers. And so we're open to that as long as everybody's on the same page. We're not in a rush because we're listening to everybody else. I think when I said, "I know what I don't know," I don't know that either, right? So that's all we can do.

But as we see numbers go down and reopening happening, I'm the constant optimist. I'm ready when everybody else is ready, but you know what? While we're doing that, what virtual has done has taken this and brought this anywhere we want to be in country, out of country, because these buyers are watching this, producers like us are doing this, and guess what happens? "Hey, can you send me some samples?" "Sure." I send them the samples. I explain how to produce them or how to prepare them. I send them our company information that explains how you do it in convenience stores, right? How we would supply the hotbox, how we promote it up here and show what we can do with it, right? How a grab-and-go would be wonderful, how air frying in your own home or in a demo session, whatever that's going to look like when we're back in retail doing demos, because that's where Lory and I absolutely blow people away.

Every single time we do a demo, the whole store sells out, they're calling the distributor, and then all of our samples sell out. It's just that kind of a product, it's so exciting, you probably can't tell, but I'm excited about it. So I can be into any region about talking about, I can be talking to you about what's our foodservice packs look like, and what does that look like? And what's the minimum order, and what does that look like on side of plate or in a ballpark for grab-and-go? What are some side sauces that you would prepare or you would pair with that, right? What does that look like? Food carts, all the way through. Airlines or raclette on first class, and we're working with a major airline that could possibly be doing that.

It's just the virtual is not going away, and I'm not going to say if I had my druthers either way. I think there's room now for both, and because of what you've done and your company has done so brilliantly, and trust me, I follow everything that's going on with RangeMe and ECRM. I love these platforms, and you guys do it absolutely the best. So we will continue to do this and then see what happens throughout. But I absolutely believe that this is not going away. This is absolutely, we're not out of business, we're in business. I'm in my shorts and flip flops. But you know what? It's not about me. It's about this crispy filled potato, right, that just has never been done before until we did it. That's what's exciting about this.

ECRM: Yeah. That’s great, that's great, and you know what? I think you have the exact right mindset and view, and this has opened up other opportunities. For example, even forget about the pandemic, what this virtual has done is enabled US-based suppliers to pitch to buyers and distributors in Europe because we're having them over there. I just talked to somebody on the general merchandise side, who has a pet product, a tick removal product for pets, and she did our pet ESI here, and she's doing our pet virtual session in July, but tomorrow she's doing our pet ESI in Europe because they go international, and she said she would never have the time to travel to a show in Europe, but because we have the virtual offering, she can. And so it made me realize that in these ways, it's going to have those benefits beyond the same thing for European suppliers that maybe want to get in over here. Well, now they could do it and not have to travel, because going to Europe, that's a big time investment compared to traveling here.

Caldwell: Absolutely. Oh, done it. Absolutely.

ECRM: It opens all kinds of doors, and so we're going to have a mix of both, the ESIs, the virtual sessions, and the in-person sessions throughout. And like you mentioned before, we're category based, so we have all channels that are looking for products in that. You'll see the C stores, you'll see the foodservice, you'll see the big-box retail all together because your product is relevant for all of them, so you can knock them all out in one shot.

Caldwell: Absolutely. And that lends itself when you talk about international, right? The last one, or the first one that we did for retail, we're engaging with Canada. This would be an absolutely perfect product up in Canada as well, and so we're already engaging with some distributors and some large stores up there because of what they saw here in all the social media and everything else. You can target it, you can find opportunities that may have been on our radar or may be on our radar, but maybe not for a year down the road, and all of a sudden we can be in C stores.

And if NACS isn't happening in October, I hope it does, I hope everybody, because that's workers and that's, we all want to get back to work, right? If it doesn't, or if it does it on a different scale, or if we can get in front of C stores for the grab-and-go opportunity, you guys can put it together, and we're onboard. You can target stuff that we can do in a week, but we couldn't get all done in a year. That's where I'm going with it, and it's so exciting.

ECRM: That's a great point, actually. It's the speed that you could get it done. You don't have to ship things, you don't have to set up. It's just do it from your setup right there, and then you follow up with the samples and all of that.

Caldwell: Absolutely.

ECRM: That's really great. Well really, thank you so much. I knew this was going to be a fun interview, and congratulations on your success already and the innovations that you've come up with. They're delicious. And now the only thing I need is one of those shirts afterwards.

Caldwell: I'll get you a shirt. And make sure that you go for the baked potato. If you haven't done it yet, I'm telling you it's the crowd and family pleaser, man. The baked potato has the sour cream, the cream cheese, the chives, and that cracked pepper finish. It's absolutely delicious. I suggest that next. And then maybe Sunday, as you're sitting around that, go with it because that raclette cheese, we actually import it from Switzerland. It's actually, we refer to it as the classic, because a classic rööschti in Switzerland has raclette cheese melted all over it. We just happened two-in-one where we insert it and put it in the middle.

ECRM: Ah, okay. So you know what? I have a steak taken out already for today, so I'll do the baked potato with that.

Caldwell: Oh, my gosh. You've got to do a baked potato.

ECRM: Yes, I will do that. And then I will try the other ones, so it's a weekend.

Caldwell: Sounds great.

ECRM: Thank you again. Take care and stay safe.

Caldwell: You too, buddy.


Sarah Davidson

SVP of Grocery

Sarah Davidson is ECRM's SVP of Grocery, and can be reached at 440-542-3033

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