Q&A: Ted Tieken - Founder & CEO of Keto and Co 10/30/2020
Ted Tieken founded Keto and Co in 2014 after personally experiencing the life-changing effects of the ketogenic diet.
He started his career as a management consultant, and in 2008 he started experiencing a chronic pain condition that prevented him from traveling for work. In fact, on some days he couldn't even leave the house.
This chronic pain impacted him for years, until June of 2014, when he started an ultra-low carb keto diet. He freely admits that when he started he was skeptical, but just four days in, his pain dropped by half and he felt that his mind was sharper. He could finally leave the house again. Over next several months, he also dropped 37lbs without being hungry, and most of the weight has stayed off ever since.
During this time, Ted also witnessed the impact keto was having on other people's lives, primarily for weight loss but also for overall health, diabetes management, epilepsy, and other conditions. But he saw how hard it is to stay within the net carb limit necessary to maintain ketosis, and he sought to develop an easier way. Keto and Co was born.
Keto and Co's mission exists in two parts. For the Keto and Co brand, the mission is to make keto easy and delicious. But there’s also a higher corporate mission, which is to measurably reduce the obesity rate in America. ECRM spoke with Ted Tieken, Founder & CEO of Keto and Co about the company, it’s products and how it’s working with retailers to serve consumers. Keto and Co will be participating in the upcoming Keto Food & Beverage Program.
ECRM: Describe some of your key products, and the consumer markets that you target.
We make ultra-low carb products for the keto segment that's a part of the larger, sugar-free mega-trend. Making truly keto products is difficult, but keto is hot, so a lot of brands are starting to throw "keto" on their packaging when it doesn’t really belong there, in a practice sometimes referred to as, “keto washing.”
Having keto in the brand name is a commitment to our customers that we’ve done the work to make the product truly keto and that we won’t change the formula in a way that compromises this later. We also transparently communicate by listing the exact net carbs to the decimal on the package. To someone on a strict keto diet, every tenth of a gram of net carbs matters, and listing the exact nutrition lets those consumers know that when we say keto, we really mean it. It also lets them know that we aren’t hiding sugar by rounding numbers.
But you don’t have to be keto to love peanut butter granola that doesn’t spike your blood sugar. Our products appeal broadly outside of the core keto demographic. Carb-conscious and sugar-conscious consumers, diabetics, and people who aren’t necessarily following a diet but want to eat healthier are all enthusiastic consumers of our products. And we get a lot of customers who just love the way our items taste. Our award-winning Keto Fudge Brownie Mix is the #1 selling brownie mix on Amazon -- not just in the keto category, but for all brownie mixes. It’s that delicious.
I always try out new products myself (if it kicks me out of ketosis, it is literally painful for me) and on the most discerning and brutally honest customers I can find -- my own kids. When I catch them sneaking seconds, I know we have a winner.
ECRM: What is your company/products' "wow" factor?
Eating well should be a delight. We make keto products that don’t taste like diet food. I think our flagship Keto Fudge Brownie Mix represents the best of what is possible in better-for-you foods. If you imagine a line with a standard brownie on one end and a piece of fudge on the other, and imagine putting a dot exactly in the middle of the line, that’s where you’ll find our Keto Fudge Brownie Mix -- a little chewy, smooth and fudgy, delightfully sweet, with a rich chocolate finish.
We aren’t trying to create the closest possible copy of conventional foods; that’s an exercise that more often than not ends up with something that looks like a cracker but tastes like cardboard. Rather, we strive to give our customers surprising, delightful new takes on items that fill the emotional space of classic comfort foods. This leads to brownies that are half brownie/half fudge, pancakes that evoke french toast, granola that tastes like a peanut butter cookie in a bowl, and various other re-imaginings of classic food items that are simply delightful even if you don’t follow keto.
I like to tell people that my job is to sell little bags of powder that help people fill emotional gaps. Describing it like that gets a reliable chuckle, but it's also 100% true.
ECRM: How do you support the success of those buyers/category managers with which you work?
We provide all of the standard promotional support to drive discovery, velocity, and loyalty: price-based promotions, digital coupons, off-shelf placements, etc. But we try to go beyond that and look at shelf placements as a partnership in serving a mutual customer. We want our products to be available wherever it is most convenient for our customers, and that’s usually on a grocery store shelf in their neighborhood.
We leverage our ecommerce, email lists, social media, and digital marketing capabilities to drive our customers to your shelf, including geo targeted emails and geo targeted advertising to promote placements. As a digital native brand, this is our bread and butter. In a tangible example, when we work with social media influencers we’ll often make part of the collaboration be, “take a picture of the product in front of the store where you bought it,” driving the local connection and social media awareness for both our brand and the grocer.
And we love to partner with buyers. We have a robust R&D department. If there’s something you’re looking for but not finding, let us know and we’d love to find a way to make it for you.
ECRM: What trends are you seeing in the particular categories you cover?
We have a number of top-selling baking mixes, and the baking category is having a moment right now. With more time at home, consumers are getting creative with their baking mixes and including their families in the fun. In the baking and snacks category, consumers are looking for low sugar options whether the consumer is keto or just health conscious. In the broader keto market, the biggest trend we are seeing right now is “mainstreaming” -- nearly everybody knows what keto is at this point. When I first started this company in 2014, I had to explain keto well over 90 percent of the time. I’ve had to explain it once in 2020.
A lot of people are asking if keto is a fad. We see compelling evidence that keto is not a fad, but rather a new paradigm like vegan or gluten-free. In our last high-volume keto panel, which had over 4,000 respondents, 73 percent of keto followers said they planned to stay on the diet for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t fully communicate the stickiness of the diet and the enthusiasm of its followers. Beyond the 73 percent who said “for the foreseeable future,” another 6 percent of respondents took it upon themselves to use the write-in space to say affirmatively “forever” or “for life.”
For about the first two weeks of the pandemic, we saw a significant drop off in keto interest as people stocked up on high carb staples like rice and pasta. But starting in week three of the pandemic, things normalized. Every year we see a spike in keto interest around the New Year. This year, due to stress eating and decreased mobility from quarantine, we are seeing signs that 2021 could be a “super January.” Our most recent survey suggests that at least 10 million people are planning to start keto in January 2021.
ECRM: How has COVID impacted your business, and how have you adapted to the challenges?
Thankfully, we’ve weathered the pandemic as well as could be hoped so far. The biggest impact we’ve had from COVID has been that it has added an additional 2-3 months to get new manufacturers onboarded as we launch new items and scale up production. I count us as very fortunate that this is the worst that we’ve experienced.
With regard to company culture and our employees, it was a smooth transition. Prior to COVID, we had a flexible work policy where most employees worked from home two days per week. Transitioning from two-days remote to full remote was seamless since we had the communication norms and collaboration tools already in place. But, with home as the primary work location, we've added a yearly home-office allowance so people can build out their home work space as they see fit -- a new chair, better lighting, a plant for decor, whatever they needed to be comfortable and productive.
Given the role work plays in most peoples’ social lives, and how incredibly stressful this year has been overall, we’ve taken conscious steps to make space for the kind of water-cooler bonding moments and camaraderie that is missing when everyone is remote. We’ve done virtual happy hours about monthly, weekly lunch roulette, a Zoom game night, and our #random slack channel is more active than ever.
In terms of general operations, we have also fared well. I’ve long made a habit of building redundancy at key points in my supply chains so when, not if, disruptions occur, we have backup options. I never imagined we’d deal with a pandemic, but the nice thing about backups is that they’re there for any reason you might need them, not just the reasons we’ve thought through.
ECRM: Where are your products currently distributed?
Keto and Co products are available at more than 1,800 locations of grocers nationwide including Whole Foods, Kroger, Hy-Vee, Sprouts, and Wegmans. We also sell directly through our own website and at online retailers like Amazon and Walmart.com.
ECRM: How do you see your category evolving over the next few years?
Consumers are increasingly health-conscious, but unwilling to sacrifice taste for nutrition. As a result, I think we’ll start to see a move away from what we once thought of as “diet food” toward delicious food that also happens to be equally good for you. Our fudge brownies are an example of this. They beat ordinary brownies in taste competitions because, first and foremost, they’re just really good brownies. Full stop. And, oh by the way, they happen to be ultra-low carb as well.
I also think keto is with us for the long haul and we’ll continue to see many new products in this space. Unlike other diet paradigms, there is a lot of scientific evidence and real-life results to show that keto works. In our proprietary research, we saw that the average keto dieter who sticks with it for 6 months lost an average of 43 lbs. It’s hard to overstate the improvement in quality of life people have when they lose the equivalent weight of a small child. As a result, people who have success on keto tend to stay for a very long time, often for life, or come back for a few months every year.
ECRM: What's the best way for buyers to contact you?
View our products at www.ketoand.co and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This Q&A is a sponsored post
Sarah Davidson is ECRM's SVP of Grocery, and can be reached at 440-542-3033