What pairs well with coffee? Julia Paino, the founder of Swoffle, would tell you it’s the stroopwafel. A stroopwafel, for those who may not be familiar with traditional Dutch snacks, is a cookie made up of two ultra-thin "waffles" sandwiched around a layer of oozy caramel. The cookie softens when placed over (or dunked into) a warm beverage. Julia, who launched Swoffle in 2015, recalls that her dad’s close friend, a soccer player, was always complaining about how the stroopwafels in the US reminded him of hockey pucks. She was struck by the opportunity to create a product to meet this market demand. But she wanted to make it gluten free, organic, and high quality—in other words, not only a snack for kids, but something that could be served to executives at a board meeting.
From an early stage, Paino, who started Swoffle in Concord, MA, had specific ideas about how she wanted to finance Swoffle, stemming from her time working at an early stage venture capital fund. She was responsible for evaluating business models and making the decision about whether to invest in them. Despite her fondness for the investment world, something did not feel genuine to her about having to give a business a yes or no, since she had not had the experience of being an entrepreneur herself. So she took a leap. “I challenged myself to start a company from the ground up, completely bootstrapped”. In other words, she would start her own business without any external investors or capital.
Paino applied her knowledge of financial models in launching Swoffle. “I was leaving the comfort of [the financial] industry to specifically challenge myself.” She also wanted to stay true to the way her father started his companies, keeping overhead to a bare minimum. John Paino, a pioneer in the organic food movement, founded Nasoya, which sold tofu before it went mainstream, and Number 9 Organics, his line of tortilla chips and salsa (which Julia also advises on). Paino says that she would not have gravitated toward food without the knowledge platform that her father established. She took to heart his belief in good quality food and his passion for identifying foreign food products, putting a spin on them to make them more special (and accessible) to the consumer. He has been a powerful resource to her when it comes to understanding the food business.
Early on, Paino said to herself: “If I can’t turn a profit in one year, it’s over”. But she had learned from what her father experienced, including working with manufacturing facilities. She knew that finding ways to negotiate purchasing ingredients in smaller quantities was key: smaller batches let her test the market while also selling the product. One of the early keys to her success with Swoffle was deciding on a label early on, so that she could test the market with a professional looking product and focus the rest of her attention on perfecting the product.
The multiple iterations of the Swoffle (2 years worth, in fact) presented the real challenge. Paino wanted the Swoffle to meet a variety of nutritional standards: organic, kosher, non GMO, gluten free, nut free, soy free—and anticipated that in doing so, the Swoffle would land above other products of its type. Paino was motivated by the lack of gluten-free products in the marketplace: seeing checkout counters and snack areas with no gluten-free options spurred her to continue working to improve the product.
When discussing challenges she’s faced since starting her business, Paino first points to distribution. She knew the odds were not in her favor when it came to starting a small food business from scratch, and that there were already many barriers to entry. “The infrastructure is built for extremely deep-pocketed companies, we’re talking Nabisco”. Figuring out how to get her product into the hands of the greatest number of people who want it means working with distributors, which means dealing with various fees (stocking, warehousing, advertising).
Another challenge Paino continues to face is a more surprising one: identifying where the product will be found in the stores that sell it. After all, what is it? A snack? A cookie? A specialty item? Should it be found in the checkout line? In the foreign foods aisle? Near the coffee? “The organic section works in a conventional store, but what about an all-organic store?” The Swoffle is designed to be accessible to a wide range of people, and Paino wants this to be reflected in its store placement.
Despite these challenges, Paino is rewarded in seeing people of all ages interact with the product. She says she enjoys hearing from employers who want to stock the product for their Swoffle-loving employees, or from coffee bars who want to offer Swoffles with their lattes. And it’s a product that has become surprisingly popular among athletes, who seem to be enjoying it as a post-workout snack. (As proof, Paino pulled up an Instagram photo of a bodybuilder displaying the Swoffle amongst his go-to workout favorites.)
In terms of future plans and expansion, Paino wants to continue to improve what the company is already doing: supporting local communities by providing food for people in need and keeping customers intrigued and happy.